What is the Ultimate Pre-race Meal?
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
What to eat before a race is a question I receive a lot here at Metabolic Performance Solutions.
When asked what went wrong among marathon runners who failed to achieve their goal time in a race, the number one answer was ‘getting my nutrition wrong’.
So what should you be eating before a big event, be this running, cycling, triathlon, or something else.
We will focus on the day before and the breakfast before the event, as nutrition for training is a whole other topic which could fill many pages.
The advice of what to do really is quite simple.
The day before
The day before eat a higher percentage of carbohydrate than you normally would. Think things like rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, and rolled oats. There is no need to really eat more this day however. We simply want to increase the amount of carbohydrate in our diet, and for a single day (or maybe two) we can reduce our fat and protein intake a little. Somewhere around 8-12 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body-weight is ideal.
Perhaps if you were prepping for an ultra-endurance event like an iron-man or something even longer you may wish to aim for the higher end, and if you are aiming for something like a 40km cycling time trial, or half marathon, then towards the lower end should be fine.
The morning of
The morning of is also quite simple. Eat something relatively high in carbohydrate, preferably from a relatively slowly digesting source such as rolled oats/porridge. Aim for 1.5-3 grams per kg of body-weight of carbohydrate here, again tailored to the length of your event, and aim to have this meal around 3h before the start.
Eating a large amount of carbohydrate like this can make you feel a bit sluggish. Insulin gets released to allow you to store the carbohydrate as glycogen for later use. This lowers blood glucose levels which is why you sometimes feel tired after a large carbohydrate meal. But don’t worry! By the time your event comes around you should be feeling good as new again.
If you want to have a snack after breakfast but before the race the ideal time to have it is about 1 hour before the start. Make sure it is something ‘light’ and easily digestible like a banana or a muesli bar.
For a relatively short event, some people may wish to take a sports ‘gel’ around 15 minutes prior to the start, particularly if it contains some caffeine. This can work well, but can also lead to disaster.
Gels like this are pure sugar, and no that is not the reason it can be bad. In sports sugar is fuel, not an evil health destroying substance! The reason this tactic is risky is because of something called ‘rebound hypoglycemia’.
Essentially you consume the gel, it rapidly spikes your blood sugar, your body over compensates for this by releasing too much insulin, and soon your blood sugar levels drop to below where they were before the gel, and you feel terrible and tired.
One way to avoid this is to have the gel during your warm-up after a bit of an effort. This allows the sugar to be used directly as fuel without causing a large insulin spike and sudden crash right before you are about to compete. It is worth testing this in training to see how you react as some individuals will suffer from rebound hypoglycemia while others will not.
In the day(s) before the race and morning of, aim to eat a little less fibre than usual. Fibre is extremely important for general health and keeping regular, but over-consumption of fibre before exercise can add bulk to the contents of the intestine, which best case scenario adds a little bit of unnecessary weight, while in worst case scenario leaves your stomach cramping and you feel horrible. Let’s not get more graphic than that!
What food are high in fibre? Mostly foods such as vegetables. Think the foods which take up quite a bit of space without adding many calories, broccoli, carrots, most fruits. Having some of these before a race is fine, and healthy, but don’t overdo it.
One final point
While there are some practical tips outlined above, make sure whatever you eat before your race is familiar to you, and you know it sits well in your stomach.
People often think there must be some secret meal which unlocks the keys to performance, and as a coach I wish there was and that I knew what it is. But it doesn’t exist.
I leave you with this thought. . . If you are putting large amounts of time and energy into your training, surely you must be eating quite well to ensure you can perform your training as well as possible? Therefore why would you eat much differently before an important event than you would before an important training session?