A race is often the end goal of months of training and lots of effort. Although being optimally fuelled and hydrated before training runs is important to get the most out of each session, it is essential to have a nutrition plan in place for the days leading up to the race and the race day morning itself. Let’s look at three nutritional reasons why races can go wrong even when your training has been going so well.
The two main causes of fatigue are depleted glycogen stores and dehydration. From ‘just having a good breakfast’, to ‘carbo-loading’, the basis of pre-run advice is the same, and that is to start with your tank of glycogen (your carbohydrate stores in your liver and muscles), full. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy fuel and so form the basis of your pre-race nutrition.
However the amount you need, depends on the distance you are running. Unless you are running a half marathon or further, a decent dinner the night before containing about three handful sized portions of carbohydrate (pasta, rice, potatoes, bread or cereal) and a few handfuls of carbohydrate at breakfast, will be sufficient to fuel you through the race. If you don’t like running after breakfast, have a carbohydrate rich supper such as a bowl of porridge or 2-3 slices of toast before you go to bed and an isotonic energy drink on race day morning.
For runs of half marathon distance plus, you will probably be tapering your training prior to the race. By eating the same amount of carbohydrate during this time, your glycogen stores will naturally be topped up. If you do not taper, it is important to have some carbohydrate at each meal as well as carbohydrate snacks for example a few oat cakes or a cereal bar mid-morning, mid afternoon and before bed, on the days leading up to the race.
Being even slightly dehydrated can lead to cramps and headaches and cause you to struggle more than usual during a race. Make sure that you are well hydrated in the days leading up to the event. About 2000ml of fluid (including water, tea, coffee etc) per day will be sufficient, unless it is particularly hot.
You will know that you are hydrated enough if your urine is a pale straw colour. Again, on shorter races in ‘normal’ temperatures, dehydration is much less likely and runners should be warned of over-hydrating in the hours and days before the race as this can lead to a sometimes fatal condition known as hyponatraemia where body salts are diluted.
From when you wake up, sip about 400-600ml of fluids until half an hour before the race. By drinking slowly, you will be able to absorb the fluid more easily.
We have all heard that a fibre-rich diet of fruits, vegetables and high fibre carbohydrates is good for our health. However, in the same way as fibre helps with constipation and makes us ‘more regular’, when combined with an active runner’s lifestyle and pre-race nerves, the dreaded toilet rushes of ‘runners trots’ can be a problem for many. If you are prone to needing the toilet during a race or on training run, it can be a good idea to limit fibre for a few days leading up to the race. Tips on how to do this include peeling fruit and vegetables and choosing white carbohydrates rather than the wholegrain or brown varieties.
It has been suggested that diets high in fat, protein, lactose and fructose can cause some runners to experience gastro-intestinal symptoms while racing. Basing meals on carbohydrate rich foods in the days leading up to a race and keeping fat and protein low makes sense if you are prone to unwanted bowel symptoms.
Doing Something Different On Race Day
When training for any distance, you will have run similar ‘practice runs’, whether that be the weekly long run for marathon training or the mid week threshold run for 5k and 10k training plans. These training runs are a good opportunity to try out what works for you. At least twice in training, carry out these sessions at the same time of day as the race is planned. If your race starts at 10am for example, you need to know what you can tolerate for a 7am breakfast. Likewise, if it is an evening race, you need to know what lunch and afternoon snack works best for you.
Hopefully you are not reading this the night before your race but, if you are, you’re probably better off doing your usual pre-race routine as opposed to trying some of these new tips. Save this knowledge for future races, once you have tried out some of the suggestions and worked out what works for you.