You’ve put in months of mileage, told your running friends about your goals, and have nonstop thoughts of a shiny new PR. So don’t let a bad nutrition plan undercut what you have worked for. Despite months of training, many runners fall short of their goals come race day due to a halfhearted attitude toward their prerace nutrition.
In short, the goal with prerace nutrition is to optimize fuel stores while avoiding gastrointestinal distress. You optimize fuel stores by carb loading in the days prior to race day and by having a carb-rich breakfast the morning of the race. You should take the time to determine the volume of carbs your body needs, as well as what that looks like—meaning, make a nutrition plan based on your preferences, gut feedback, and available options.
Avoid becoming a midrace bonker or a mile two bathroom-stopper, and take the time to develop and practice a smart and effective fueling plan using the following tips.
Understand your individual carbohydrate needs
The goal with carb loading is to optimize muscle glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates) to fill your body’s natural energy bucket to the brim for it to pull from on race day. While races less than 90 minutes do not require carb loading, longer events—like the marathon—do.
The Mayo Clinic currently recommends that you consume 8 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight of carbohydrate per day in the two to three days prior to their event, while resting or significantly dialing back their training. (To convert your weight from pounds to kilograms, simply divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.)
Once you have determined your total daily needs, divide it by the number of meals and snacks you plan to have in the day(s) leading up to your race. Meaning, if you need 540 grams of carbs per day while carb-loading, you could break that up into 120 grams each at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then 60 grams each for your mid-morning, afternoon, and bedtime snack. Needless to say, carbohydrates should make up the vast majority of your intake.
Moving on to race morning, guidelines suggest targeting 2 to 4 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight two to four hours prior to your race. For example, a 140-pound runner should consume just under 200 grams of carbs. This could look like: a cinnamon raisin bagel with apple butter spread, one medium banana, and 12 ounces of a sports drink three hours prior to your race. Then, 15 minutes before the start, eat either a couple Medjool dates or a gel.
Think realistically about what foods will be available
If you are running a local race, the options you can add to your prerace nutrition regimen are flexible—you’re the one who brings home the bread after all. However, if you will be traveling for your race, some extra thought is necessary. For example, consider where in the area of your race you might be dining beforehand, and go ahead and select some options that are similar to what you can practice with in training. You can even contact the restaurant beforehand to make sure the ingredients of the entrée are all familiar to you.
Another option is to simply travel with your own prerace nutrition (a practice common among elites). Carbohydrate sources that travel well include precooked rice or noodles, instant mashed potatoes, instant oatmeal packets, graham crackers, pretzels, bagels, granola, dried fruit, fruit squeezable pouches, and gummies.
We get it, munching on bland carbohydrates brought from home in the day(s) leading up to your race doesn’t sound all that delish, but that postrace burger and fries will be even more satisfying if you’ve just crushed your race energized and with no emergency bathroom stops.
(Gently) practice your prerace nutrition
Once you have a general plan in place for carb loading and your race morning meal, practice, practice, practice! If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Your long run is the dress rehearsal for your race. That phrase couldn’t be more valid when it comes to performance nutrition.
A two- to three-day carb load isn’t generally recommended often during training. Doing this weekly would jeopardize other vital nutrients you need to train and recover (antioxidants, fiber, healthy fats, protein, etc.), especially within peak training. However, you can gently practice your prerace routines. Prerace dinner and prerace breakfast are good options to consistently practice throughout training. It’s also advised to practice carb loading for an entire day before several of your longest training runs. Figure out what carbohydrate sources work best for you. (It’s also important to practice good hydration habits prior to your long run as well.)
Keep a food journal
Keeping a food journal throughout your training is where the magic happens. While it’s not necessary to be overly obsessive about food journaling in training, taking notes of pre-long run meals, snacks, and hydration, as well as your during-run fueling and hydration regimen can be super helpful.
Keeping a food journal is one of the best things you can do to make a plan that works best for you. Training for a half marathon or marathon takes months, which gives you plenty of opportunities to tweak your fueling plan over time. For example, some salty sweaters even find that adding extra sodium to their pre-long run dinner helps them retain the fluid they need to finish their run strong.
Listen to your body and take notes! Putting in a little bit of extra thought to develop a custom prerace nutrition plan is truly a game-changer that can boost your odds of crushing it on race day.