Many articles have been written about what to eat before/during/after a long run. The idea of a post about fueling stems from a post on pghrunner blog. So, as everybody is trying to add his own crap on top of this stack of ideas/suggestions/opinions, I can’t stop to put mine! Also, as I have an interest in diet and nutrition, I am glad to add my own non-sense to the debate.
“Sorry, pre-race dinner, I am just carb-loading”
I race so I eat
It’s time for your first race? So, you are very nervous about having enough nutrients in your system to go through 26.2 miles in 5 hours? Your mother told you you gonna die before the finish line, so, you are concerned you packed enough calories to make it to the finish? So, the day before your race, you eat at least 10 pounds of pasta/bread/whatever-contains-sugar (you need the carb, right?) and 3 pounds of chicken breast (people say your body needs lean protein for your muscles!). As a matter of fact, you wake up early in the morning in order to go to the bathroom and get ready for your race and, surprisingly, you have a lot of stuff in your bowels that seems comfortable in your body and do not want to go. As a result, you feel like Ralphy in A Christmas Story and do not think you can even make it to the starting line.
“I do not feel ok to race today ….”
You start the race very nervous and end up at the portable bathroom after 5 miles, telling yourself overeating the day before was not a good strategy. Then, once on the track again, you are convinced that all the good energy is gone and you need to refuel with some bars/gels/powerade/whatever! The glycemic peak starts and you just feel like shit again. One or two other trips to the bathroom will eventually convinced you that your body probably had enough fuel even before starting the food festivities more than 24 hours ago.
This post is for you, fellow runner, because so many people made the mistake and feel miserable on race day! So that you will not make the mistake of overeating!
Stick to the basics
You are doing 13.1 or 26.2 and go for a couple of hours, and trust me, you are not gonna die because of lack of food (you can die for many other reasons on the race, which is another topic). So, if you try to think it through, it does not make any sense to overeat: fueling your body just a few hours before the event will not change anything and will rather overflow your digestive system.
The strategy is to take some carbs here and there the week before, take some rest to be able to hit the road in a good shape and with enough energy to reach the finish line. Remember than energy is not solely related to food and is a combination of enough nutrients but also getting enough sleep (which is obviously not considered as much as food). Forget the traditional carb-load or pasta dinner, it matters most to eat mindfully through the week and stick to healthy habit: eat carbs that has a low-glycemic index, lean protein for your muscles, avoid food with high fat contents and sleep a lot. However, does not avoid fat at all but favor the one enriched with many nutrients (eggs, nut butter, etc.). A good rule is to get a source of lean protein at each meal (fish, chicken/turkey/eggs) and avoid pork/beek.
On the race, keep some gels/power bars/whatever that can provide some sugar. No need to take the latest stuff promoted by your favorite runner, this is mostly something that repackage nutrients with a nice label. However, make sure you get some sugar: this is essential because after 60 or 90 minutes, your batteries are depleted (glucose from your muscles has been consumed) and you need to get some sugar to refuel. Anything with sugar will do the job but take something your body can process. In other words, do not try anything new on race day and try different strategies during your training. Some people like gels, other like bars, other bananas … it does not matter what you take as long as it works well for you.
You should also consider taking some sodium, especially if you sweat a lot. During exercise, your body will consumer the sodium and you need to replenish your reserve. One good idea is to take salty snacks such as chips or pretzels. Other people uses salt energy packs. Again, the best strategy is to try during your training and stick to what work best for you on race day.
Finally, the most important thing: hydrate mindfully. Hydration is probably more important than food: our body contains around 70% of water, so, this is a critical resource. Some survived without food for more than 40 days but you can barely survive without water for more than 20 days. So, water is way more important for your body than food. Consider appropriate hydration before race day and, on race day, hydrate regularly. Be careful not to over-hydrate also because this would potentially disturb your GI track. A good rule is to take a sip of water every mile.
Your body is more resistant than you think
Especially when you start running, you are very concerned about fueling your body and what you take before and after your training. If this is normal, this is more important to take care of your fuel intake through the month or week rather than on some particular days. Observing a regular and balanced diet is the best way to avoid any digestive issue and will provide fuel over the day.
There will be many days when you feel exhausted and need to increase your food intake. In many cases, this craves come from sleep deprivation rather than inappropriate food intake and your muscles probably need more rest than nutrients. Observing a balanced diet with a regular and good sleep patterns will help you to maintain your energy level over the days and recover your body at night. In other words, stop overeating, enjoy your bed and your training!
Fueling for a race, the FAQ
Do I need to eat gel on the way?
Yes, especially if you plan to do a race longer than 2 hours. Do not try anything new, stick to what you are used to. Try different strategies during your training runs and stick with what works best for you on race day. Again, avoid all the bullshit promoted by flashy marketing campaigns … want to replenish the sodium? No need for special pills/oil/bars/gels: all you need is salt! need to get some energy for the next couple of hours? take sugar and try to take snacks with low-glycemic index! Again, this is just common sense and the latest stuff promoted on TV/facebook/gmail/runnersworld is just here to package basic nutrient in an expensive package with some added stuff: stick with something that contains salt and you like, nothing else!
In his book Eat & Run, Scott Jurek (also sponsored by a brand of protein bars) explains that he eats home-made burritos during his runs! Even if he mentioned his sponsors in the book, this dude seems to stick with what he likes and just applies common sense for fueling his body over the race.
What should I eat the week before?
If you are going for 13.1 or 26.2 miles, observe a regular diet and rest normally. Do not overeat before race day, eat a very light dinner and a small breakfast. Avoid the so-called carb-load the day before race. A good strategy will be to take pasta meals the days before the race. No need to overload the plate, just take a regular portion. Also, by pasta, we mean pasta and tomato sauce, avoid all the crap loaded with high fat that will definitively generates GI track issues.
What should I eat the day before?
As said before, no need to observe a special diet the day before the race. Avoid all snake-oil food such as the powergel, vegan bars and other marketing bullshit: you will replenish your energy level with a magic potion within a day! It takes time for your body to get used to run a lot and there is nothing that is going to change that! So, stick with your good usual habits: eat as normal and take a light dinner the night before. You can have a dinner with pasta but do not overload, eat regularly and most important than anything else: make sure you get enough sleep.
In Eat and Run, the author describe how the team Tarahumara (a tribute with a special ability for running) fuel before a race and it seems they do not have any magic potion! These guys are just used to run long distances and their body is just used to it! So, do not look for any magic: either you are ready (and you trained for it since several months) or not (in that case, it would have been better to think about it months ago when signing up for that event!)! But there is definitively no magic at all that will help you to finish except a car or a bike.
What should I eat after the race?
After a race, you want to make sure you get the nutrients your body needs. However, as for eating and feeling hungry, most of the time you feel hungry when you are just tired. On the other hand, it is obvious that you need to eat something but you might consider choosing carefully! Avoid high fat content and try to take some carbs with a low-glycemic index and good protein. For example, chocolate milk is a good recovery drink, a turkey sandwhich is a good candidate and if you want to stick with fast-food, get a burrito at Chipotle or Qdoba! Again, as usual, think about hydration: drink plenty of water! Some runners might enjoy a good beer as well in order to replenish the energy using the sugar from this alcoholic beverage!