Whether you’re running a 5K or a marathon, the food you eat and the fluids you drink on race day can make or break your performance. Runners know this, of course. But maybe because of the hectic mornings, the rush of endorphins, or the confusing maths, mistakes happen.
Race-day fuelling is a tricky subject, says Kerryn Boogaard, sports dietitian at Nutrition Studio in Adelaide. On one hand, anything new or different is bad; on the other, you can’t just eat like usual. “What’s healthiest on a normal day probably won’t earn you your best race,” says Boogaard. “You have to suspend some of your normal health rules, which can be hard to do.”
Since every race scenario is different, having experience doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune to questionable food-and-drink decisions. The best way to foolproof your day-of strategy? Watch out for these six diet mistakes that afflict even the most well-intentioned runners.
Not scheduling the time for breakfast
“Eating too close to the race can cause cramping, heartburn and bathroom pit stops,” says Boogaard, “and will cause your body to use its energy digesting rather than racing.” Skipping breakfast is not an option either: this will leave you with low energy levels and lead to a quick depletion of muscle carbohydrate stores.
Fix it: As a general rule, eat a meal at least two hours before your race starts, says Boogaard. Carbohydrate is the most important nutrient during this time, no matter the distance you will be running. The amount you need depends on a few factors including your weight. Most people need about 1-2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of weight. “Work out how much you will need before race-day so you don’t have to do the maths on the day.” Says Boogaard.
Overdosing on protein, fat or fibre
An egg-and-cheese omelette isn’t the smartest pre-run choice: The protein and fat takes too long to empty from the stomach and convert to usable energy, and can delay the absorption of the carbs you eat. “Even if you can normally tolerate it before a morning jog, you’re likely to be going harder and faster on race day,” says Boogaard. Also watch out for high-fibre breakfasts, like whole-grain cereals, which can cause cramping and GI distress.
Fix it: Eat an easy-to-digest, carb-based morning meal, like crumpets with a little peanut butter and a banana, or toast with jam. Oats are a little higher in fibre, but if it has worked for you in training, stick with it. Or try a lower-fibre option like corn flakes.
Drinking all morning
Dehydration can wreck your race, but so can having to break for the Port-a-Loo at kilometre three (and kilometre 10 and kilometre 20) with a sloshing stomach and full bladder. Drinking too much water without also taking in electrolytes can put endurance runners at risk for hyponatremia, a dangerous loss of sodium.
Fix it: “Include most of your fluids (approximately 500-600mL) in your pre-race meal giving it time to absorb and you time to empty your bladder before the start of the race,” says Boogaard and “just sip on water as needed before the race starts.” Using sports drink or juice for your meal time fluid can help to meet carb requirements at the same time. Use the colour of your urine as a guide to how much fluid to include on the pre-race meal. Light yellow means that you are hydrated, if it is dark yellow, you will likely need more drink more to catch up.
Skipping aid stations
You’re several kilometres in and feeling great – why waste time walking through a water station or wrestling with a gel? Because by the time you no longer feel great, it may be too late. “During races, we don’t get normal hunger signals,” says Boogaard. “We often find out by slowing, or getting dizzy that we didn’t fuel or drink properly.”
Fix it: You don’t need to chug a full cup at every aid station. But make sure you steal at least a couple of sips every three to five kilometres, and take in at least 30 to 60 grams of carbs every hour for events lasting more than 60 minutes. Practicing your fuelling during long training runs will help you perfect your race-day plan.
Trying a new gel
It’s hard to predict how your stomach (and your gag reflex) will react to something new in a strenuous environment like a race. No matter how enticing that apple pie gel sounds at kilometre 32, today is not the day to sample it for the first time. Best-case scenario, it powers you through until the end; worst case, it powers you straight to the bathroom.
Fix it: Find out ahead of time what will be served on the course (if the race’s website doesn’t specifically say it, the list of race sponsors may give you a clue). Sample those brands and flavours ahead of time. Or travel with your own trusted nutrition in a pocket or waist belt.
Beelining for the beer tent
Congrats, you’re done! By all means, you deserve a cold one – but not without refuelling with some real food (and plenty of water) first. “Alcohol has a diuretic effect, so the more you drink, the more fluids you actually lose,” says Boogaard. Although beer is full of carbs, they’re not the best carbs for replenishing glycogen stores and aiding muscle repair.
Fix it: “You’ll recover faster and have a better day, week, and season if you get in some solid nutrition first,” says Boogaard. Those post-race bananas will work in a pinch, she says, but a sandwich, yoghurt or protein bar (with a big bottle of water) 30 to 60 minutes post-run is even better.