Race Day Nutrition: Practice Makes PRs!

With fall racing season around the corner — and many of you prepping for marathons — and my longest run of the season planned for this weekend, I thought what better time to revisit what to practice from a nutrition standpoint for race day. Just as you practice for the race with long runs, you should also be practicing what you’ll eat come the big day. Whether it’s your first marathon or tenth, you are likely striving to achieve a new personal record (PR as it’s commonly called in the runner community) and in order to do that, you need to practice.

breakfastPre-Race: at least two hours before your event, consume a meal rich in easy-to-tolerate carbohydrates – about 0.5-1g carbohydrate/pound body weight. For someone 120-150 lbs, this equates to about 90-115 grams of carbohydrate or about 360-460 calories from carbohydrates and around 400-600 calories overall. You want easy to tolerate carbs so that you won’t experience stomach upset around miles 2-3 (this is not the day to go high fiber in your breakfast cereal) and these carbs are meant to top off your glycogen stores (or the primary fuel we rely on for exercise) for the race – which can only happen with carbohydrates.   The goal of your pre-competition mean is something that prevents hunger during the race, stabilizes your blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels and adequately hydrates you. A little bit of protein and fat are good to help you maintain blood sugar levels and to prevent hunger pangs mid-race—but these shouldn’t be the sole focus of your meal. Below are a couple of good options, all of which you can obtain at your local Mariano’s. Make sure to include about 1½ -2 cups fluid with this meal as well to ensure adequate hydration pre-race. Water is fine – but a sports drink would also be a good option.

1 medium bagel + 2 Tbsp peanut butter + 1 medium sliced banana
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Medium, wheat bagel (Natural Ovens, 85g) 230 40 3 10
Roundy’s Organic Peanut Butter (2 Tbsp) 210 7 17 7
Banana (1 medium/126g) 112 29 0 1
Roundy’s Organic Honey  (1 tsp) 20 6 0 0
TOTAL 572 82 20 18
1 cup cereal + ½ cup milk + ½ cup blueberries + 6-8 oz orange juice
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Frosted Mini Wheats Cereal ( 1 1/2 cup) 315 68 2 8
Roundy’s Organic Skim milk (1/2 cup) 45 7 0 5
Blueberries (1/2 cup) 42 11 0 1
Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice (8 fl oz, available in the produce section) 110 27 0 2
TOTAL 512 113 2 16
½ cup oatmeal + 1 Tbsp sliced almonds + ¼ cup dried fruit (like raisins) + 1-2 tsp honey + 1 cup apple juice
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Quick Oats (2/3 cup instant, plain, prepared with water) 205 37 4 7
Roundy’s Sliced Almonds (2 Tbsp) 67 2 6 2
Raisins (2 Tbsp, unpacked) 54 14 0 1
Roundy’s Organic Honey ( 2 tsp) 40 12 0 0
Roundy’s Apple Juice (8 fl oz) 120 30 0 0
TOTAL 486 95 10 10
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

gelsDuring the Race: Hydrate smart – you don’t want to overdo it but you also don’t want to get dehydrated. I like to alternate between water and whatever sports drink the race offers every 2-3 miles. I don’t gulp it but rather take small sips and usually don’t end up drinking the entire cup. You want to take in about 8-12 oz/hour of fluid – about ½ of which is sports drink. After about 45 minutes, I recommend taking additional fuel such as gels or chews. You might not feel like you need this additional nutrition yet – but by taking in extra calories and electrolytes sooner than you feel like you have to, you are less likely to deplete your stores. Make sure to chase these with water (NOT sports drink) to ensure adequate absorption and to prevent stomach distress. Why isn’t a sports drink enough to maintain your energy during these longer runs? The gels/chews provide additional calories (more than you would get from just sipping on a sports drink throughout the race) plus an added boost of electrolytes (the most important of which are sodium and potassium). When we sweat, we not only lose water, but we lose important micronutrients called electrolytes. Electrolytes are important for fluid balance, muscle contraction and neural activity. When we get dehydrated or over-hydrate, we throw our electrolytes out of whack – which can negatively impact our race day performance and may be one of the main reasons people DNF (another acronym commonly used by runners, it means: did not finish).

To prevent fatigue, experts recommend 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour. So what does that look like? Here’s what I do: I try to take in about 12 oz fluid each hour – half of which is sports drink. I also take 2 energy chews every 45 minutes. This equates to about 115 calories, 30 g carbohydrate per hour. This is what works for me and what I have practiced. What works for you might be different – so make sure to figure that out now and NOT on race day. Here are how all the different gels, chews and beverages stack up. You might even try some more natural nutrition sources during the race – like raisins or applesauce. Just note – these aren’t going to have the same amount of sodium as something that has been formulated for endurance athletes – but I’ve known runners who have used a combination of these and all have had success. Again – it’s about what works for you.

Item Calories Carbs (g) Sodium (g) Potassium (g)
8 oz sports drink (like Gatorade) 55 14 95 37
6 Gatorade energy chews (1 package) 100 24 90 30
1 PowerGel 110 27 200 20
1, 1-oz package Roundy’s Raisins 90 22 5 220
1 (90g) Roundy’s Fruit Pouch (like applesauce) 40 10 10 65
Powerbar 240 47 200 105
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

chocolate milkPost-Race Recovery: the most important thing to remember post-race is to rehydrate and restore. This can be as simple as a sports drink and an apple or banana. If food sounds like the last thing that would appeal to you – try a smoothie or some toast. The sooner you refuel the better you’ll feel (I promise). After such a long bought of exercise, your body is in negative energy balance. In order to prevent further muscle breakdown, you need to further replace the glycogen lost as well as protein. Studies have shown that consuming protein within an hour post-workout can help enhance the muscle recover process. You want to aim for 1 gram of protein for every 3-4 grams of carbohydrate consumed, or about 35-50 g carb and 10-20 g pro in the first 2 hours post exercise. If you have no appetite, try small, frequent snacks every 15-30 min, such as:

Chocolate Milk
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Organic Milk (Nonfat/Skim, 1 1/2 cup) 125 18 0 12
Roundy’s Chocolate Syrup (2 Tbsp) 100 24 0 1
TOTAL 225 42 0 13
Greek Yogurt Parfait
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Plain Nonfat Greek Yogurt (1 container, 150g) 100 14 0 12
Blueberries (1/2 cup) 42 11 0 1
Roundy’s Granola (1/2 cup) 200 33 6 5
TOTAL 342 58 6 18
PB&J
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Wheat Bread (2 slices) 200 36 2 6
Roundy’s Organic Peanut Butter (2 Tbsp) 210 7 17 7
Roundy’s Strawberry Jam (1 Tbsp) 50 13 0 0
TOTAL 460 56 19 13
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

So what’s the bottom line?

  • Never try anything new on race day
  • What works for you may not work for others
  • Treat your long runs as an opportunity to try something new
  • Pre-race – focus on carbs/hydration
  • During – hydrate and adequate fuel
  • Post-race – recover with protein AND carbohydrates
  • Don’t take it your nutrition too seriously! Food is meant to be enjoyed!

(this post originally appeared on the Chicago Hyatt’s blog in advance of the 2014 Chicago marathon)

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