What to eat? When to eat? How much to eat? These are all questions that keep runners guessing as they try to lock in their pre-race nutrition plans. We’ve all been there; training, sleep, and your taper have all gone according to plan, when all of a sudden you’re a few miles into a race and something turns your perfect day into an experience you’d much rather forget. Sometimes the root of that issue can be traced back to what you ate or failed to eat prior to the run. In this article, the three questions posed above will be examined and pre-race nutrition guidance will be given that you can use to plan for your next race; road, trail, ultra, or other endurance discipline. Please note that I am not a registered dietician and have no degree in this field. All of my recommendations come from personal trial and error.
What To Eat?
The main purpose of your pre-race meal is to top off energy stores and stave away hunger for the beginning of your run. The idea isn’t to get all of the fuel into your system that you’re going to need to complete an entire 50K, 50 Mile, 100K or 100 Mile race. On top of this, you should always be on the search for food items that aren’t going to cause you any discomfort or pose any unwanted side effects. In this sense, a light meal that is low in fat and fiber is the key. Make sure to give any meal that you plan to use on the morning of your next race a try for a couple of days and on the morning before one of your long training runs to make sure that it sits well with your stomach. Every individual is different and figuring out that perfect meal may take a few experiments and tests to lock-in.
Recommendation: Oatmeal mixed with a banana or other piece of fruit.
How Much To Eat?
According to accomplished ultra marathoner and The North Face sponsored runner, Stephanie Howe, “A pre-race meal should be enough to fill you up and keep you from becoming hungry before the start of the race.” There are a lot of factors that go into figuring out how much to eat. These include body size, how much time you have until the race starts and the distance you’ll be racing. If you’re an early riser, a heavier meal 3 hours before your race should suffice compared to someone who prefers to sleep in, where a light meal is a better option.
Recommendation: If you’re giving yourself a few hours to digest then have two servings of oatmeal along with a whole banana and a few raisins (500 Calories). If you’re eating only an hour prior to the race then you’re better of with an easy to consume bar (White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Clif Bar: 260 Calories or Amrita Pineapple Chia Bar: 235 Calories).
When To Eat?
This question is just as individualist as asking what weekly mileage or training philosophy is the best for overall performance. Everyone is different and has preferences for what works best. Some people run better eating 3 hours before the gun goes off, while others insist that the best timing is 1 hour or even 15 minutes until the start. Think back to what you have done in your previous races and the ones that your stomach felt the most relaxed and comfortable during. Now try to remember what you had before that race and the timing before your run. Use that timing throughout your morning runs to mimic what you plan to do at your next race. If you feel that the timing isn’t right, back up 30 minutes or eat closer to your run to find what works best.
Recommendation: Wake up 3 hours before your race start time to get your body awake. Eat your primary meal 2 hours before and if you’re still feeling hungry then eat a banana, bar or gel with 1 hour to 30 Minutes left.
To dig a little bit deeper, take a look at the pre-race meals and when they are consumed from some of the top ultra marathon runners in the world. Trail Runner Magazine published this information, to view the full article please visit this link.
Sage Canaday, 28, Boulder, Colorado
Final meal before race time: I like to have two slices of sourdough bread (or a bagel) with peanut/almond butter. I also enjoy a cup or two of black coffee along with lots of water.
Time between eating and racing: About three hours. “A meal with mostly carbs and a little fat and protein seems to give me plenty of energy while being easy on my stomach. I give myself three hours to digest my food thoroughly and do some last minute hydration.”
Anna Frost, 32, Dunedin, New Zealand
Final meal before race time: A banana with peanut butter and black coffee.
Time between eating and racing: Two hours. This is usually early enough to wake up properly and give the body time to move, warm up and digest.
Rob Krar, 34, Flagstaff, Arizona
Final meal before race time: Coffee and steel-cut oats with raisins, walnuts and brown sugar.
Time between eating and racing: About 90 minutes before the gun.
“Why? Simple, it’s my routine. Never change your routine heading into a race!”
Stephanie Howe, 31, Bend, Oregon
Final meal before race time: An ocean roll (similar to a croissant with cardamom), peanut butter and a banana. If it’s a longer race (more than 50 miles) I will also try to eat some white rice. I aim for 500-800 calories, but it varies depending on the race. I also always have coffee, 1-2 cups max though. I’m usually too nervous to have more.
Time between eating and racing: I eat as close to the race as possible. There is no difference in performance if you eat one to three hours before the race- it’s just personal preference. I don’t like to get hungry before the start so I eat within an hour of race time. If I have a long drive to the race start I’ll eat my breakfast and bring a Clif Bar or banana and peanut butter along for a snack.
Ian Sharman, 34, Walnut Creek, California
Final meal before race time: Just something simple and small like a Clif bar and Clif Shot gel.
Time between eating and racing: Most races start so early it’s usually about an hour before the race then a Clif Shot gel about 15 minutes before.
“I don’t want much sitting in my stomach at that late point and aim to eat constantly through the run instead … I’m not a morning person so a 4 or 5 a.m. start is already difficult to get up for!”
Sally McRae, 35, Aliso Viejo, California
Final meal before race time: It’s been the same thing for years! Half of an almond-butter sandwich and half a banana.
Time between eating and racing: 60 to 90 minutes.
What do you normally eat before your ultra races?
How far in advance of the start time do you typically take in your nutrition?
Do you have any other tips on what to eat, when or how much?