What Should I Eat Before A Race?

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Quite often I get the question “what should I eat before a race?” in my inbox.  This used to be one of my biggest questions as well.  This is a reminder of how confusing the topic of nutrition can be and I’m guessing that many more people have the same question. I’m not a nutritionist, but I can offer some basic tips from what I’ve learned over the years.   If there are any nutrition buffs out there reading I welcome you to add to what I’ve suggested below for this reader’s question.

Dear CyclingTips,

I am going to run/ride in the Xterra Duathalon late August and had a few questions for you.

I am not exactly “training” for it, but I am extending my daily commute to work and back so that it takes me up to 1 hour some days, then when I get home I go for a 30 minute run.  I really only want to finish the race, and don’t care at all about my time….well I would rather not be last!

Anyway,  I am unsure what to eat during and before the race.

Here is how the race looks:
1.    3.5 km trail run
2.    20km mountain bike ride
3.    7km trail run

So my questions:

1.    What should I eat the night before to load up on energy?

[cyclingTips]: I wouldn’t eat anything different that what you’re used to eating.  Try to treat your dinner the evening before like a normal healthy meal.  Foods like pasta, breads and rice should be on your dinner plate to get enough glycogen stored in your muscles.  Also include some green veggies and a handful of chicken or fish.  My favorite pre-race meal is a BBQ salmon fillet, about a cup (cooked) of brown rice, and something like asparagus as a veggie. There’s no real point in eating a massive bowl of pasta the night before that’ll just leave you feeling bloated.  If you’ve been training with lots of intensity and feel like you need to eat a massive meal, do this 2 evenings before the big race.

If you’re more serious into racing you may want to consider carb loading.  My advice for a one-off race like this is to just eat as per normal like stated above.  If it were something longer you may want to consider carb loading.

Drinking lots of water in the days leading up to a race is one of the most important things you can do.  Consume enough water so that your urine is is very light to clear in color. That will let you know that you’re hydrated enough.  Anything more will just make you go to the bathroom.  The last thing you want is to be waking up every few hours the night before your big day.

2.    What should I eat for breakfast before the event, and how long before the race starts?  Even though its for fun I get pretty nervous/excited and a bit queasy in the gut

[cyclingTips]: Try to finish your breakfast 2-3 hours before the race-start.  Eat too soon before the race (especially since your first event is the run) and there’s a good chance you’ll feel sick.  As far as what to eat for breakfast, try to go with foods high in carbs such as oatmeal, whole grain breads, bagels, pancakes, waffles, pasta, etc.  Try to keep the high protein foods such as eggs to a minimum. Protein is slow to digest and will also slow the digestion of your carbs down as well.  My favorite pre-race breakfast is 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter and jam as well as a cup of oatmeal and blueberries.  Also some orange juice and admittedly 2-3 cups of coffee.  I can’t live without the coffee!

In between your breakfast and the start of the race try to stay hydrated by sipping on a bottle of sports drink.  If you’re getting hungry again in the last hour before the race don’t be afraid to eat an energy bar (no protein – Cliff Bar are the best!)

[cyclingTips]: I wouldn’t worry about eating anything for the first hour of the race.  The fuel from the night before and breakfast should be more than enough to keep you going.  It’s not easy to eat while you’re running so this takes care of the first segment of the race.  It’s easiest to eat on the bike so about half way into your bike ride (say 1hr – 1.5hrs into the race) you should start to get some sugars into your body.  The gels are the easiest things to eat while racing – especially on a mountain bike.  They have approximately 100 calories and you can injest them in one gulp.  If you don’t like the sweetness of the Gels try the Cliffbar Raspberry Puree flavor.  They’re a bit more tart tasting and easier on the stomach.  I’d try to have a Gel every half hour after you start.  By the looks of the distance of your race, you’ll probably need one more until the finish.

It’s a good idea to hydrate with Gatorade or any other sports drink while racing.  This will help you replace the electrolytes you lose through sweat.  Try to pace yourself so you go through one bottle per hour.

For long events/rides I’ve done a previous post with some nutritional advice while on the bike.

4.    What do I eat or do after the race?  After three 18km laps (spaced out by about 3-4 hours) at 24hrs or Adrenaline I felt pretty sick to my stomach and it took about 4 hours to get over that feeling.

[cyclingTips]: The first half hour after a race is crucial for recovery.  Protein is needed for the body to repair those muscles and carbohydrates need to be replenished.  I find chocolate milk to be a great recovery drink. It has an ideal mix of protein and carbs.  I have a big bottle of it waiting for me directly after most hard races.  Your body cannot digest more than approximately 30g of protein at a time so there’s no need to go overboard.  The rule of thumb for carbs is that you should aim to ingest half a gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight (or 1 gram per kg) in the half hour post exercise.

But seriously – reward yourself and treat yourslef to pizza and beer on a patio somewhere after your race.  Beer has great carbohydrate quantities and make sure you order meatlover’s pizza to get enough protein in  :-)

5.    Oh yeah and should I still be riding/running two or three days before the race?

[cyclingTips]: All your homework should be done by now but I’d definitely advise you to keep your body fired up by continuing to ride and run in the week before.  Keep some intensity in there but reduce the volume of training by about half in that week prior.   It’s highly personal, but I prefer to take 2 days before the race off and do some light training the day before to keep my legs from feeling sluggish on race day.

6.    Or does none of this really mater because, lets face it, I am really just a hack!

[cyclingTips]: If you were training for Ironman or Paris-Roubaix I’d say that it matters, or even in some of my hack amateur races it matters, however if you’re going out to have some fun the basic guidelines above will get you through just fine.  The rest is up to your training and preparation.  Good luck!

Any other advice would be great!

[cyclingTips]:The only other piece of advice I have is to make sure you’ve tested the foods and drinks that you’re planning on having during the race in training prior to the event. Some sports drinks or foods upset people’s stomachs and you won’t know this unless you test it out.

Here’s a good article written by Monique Ryan for some good meal examples and timetables leading up to a big race. Good luck!

If you want to see it how the TdF riders did it in the early 60’s, watch from 3:30 onwards of this video. Sensational! Pay close attention to the feed zone pub at the 5min mark. Thanks to Tim for sending in.

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