We all had it happening to us: an upset stomach at the start. Or seemingly total failure during your run – sometimes all of a sudden – without an immediately clear reason. A bit of soul searching nearly always digs up the hard truth: error (or carelessness) in the food or drink department.
So avoidable, yet so common. It happens to the best of us.
What to do? There is no perfect truth out there. We’re all different.
The only sensible option is to try and test several foods and strategies on long (or hard) training runs.
Here are 6 rules to help you get it right.
Before we get too far into the what, let’s discuss the when. After all, what you eat doesn’t matter if you don’t know when to eat it.
Eating too close to the start of the race can lead to feeling heavy, bloated, and crampy, but eating too early might leave you hungry and low on energy halfway through the miles. My personal experience, and the experience I’ve had working with other runners, has lead me to believe that you should eat a meal (think light breakfast, not pasta bowl) no less than an hour before the race and a smaller snack about 15 to 30 minutes before the gun goes off.
#2 Strike the Right Ratio
Race day fuel is all about optimization, and one example of that is finding the right carbohydrate-to-protein radio for your body to process and draw energy from food most effectively.
We focus most heavily on carbohydrates and protein because that’s what our bodies crave the most during exercise: Carbohydrates are an energy source, and protein will help aid and repair muscles. While optimal amounts vary from person to person, studies have shown that a carb-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 is effective for most people.
In other words, aim for the meal to have roughly three to four times as many carbs as it does protein. For example, a plain bagel with dates and peanut butter on top (my favorite pre-race meal) has roughly 61 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein, a near perfect 3:1 ratio.
#3 Keep It Simple—and Complex
There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex, and both are necessary for long runs. Simple carbs, found in fruits like bananas, dates, and apples, release instant energy from sugars, giving that boost you need to take off down the road or trail. Complex carbs are more, well, complex, and aren’t digested or absorbed as quickly. Found in breads, oats, potatoes (regular and sweet), and rice, complex carbs are a great source of energy for further into a race, since your body slowly burns this fuel to maintain appropriate levels of blood glucose.
#4 Figure Out Fats
Fat is the most energy-dense nutrient, providing nine calories per gram while carbohydrates provide just four calories per gram. So why don’t we get our energy from fat during endurance running? Because fat takes longer for the body to break down into a useable energy source, and that conversion process takes way too much time for an endurance athlete whose body needs energy ASAP.
Take it slow and steady when experimenting with how much fat to have before a run. Eating too much too close to a race may make you feel heavy and will waste valuable energy as your body spends more time digesting the food.
#5 Frontload Electrolytes
Electrolytes are minerals found in bodily fluids, and at the right levels, they help keep muscles functioning properly.
On race day, runners will lose electrolytes (mostly sodium and potassium) through sweat. Just as we want to make sure we’re hydrated with plenty of water, it’s also important to maintain appropriate electrolyte levels, otherwise cramping and other stomach issues may take place.
I like to frontload on electrolytes on race day with salty foods in preparation of the deficiency to come. Coconut water is another great way to get pre-run potassium.
(Warning: Too much sodium can also be an issue for runners, and proper hydration techniques are key to any successful—and safe—race.)
#6 Be Finicky About Fiber
Be careful when it comes to high-fiber foods, which are famous for keeping digestion, um, moving. I’m just going to come out and say it: Having to poop during a race is never fun. And sometimes it can get messy. You don’t want that. Trust me.
Source: Doug Hay