If you’re like most runners, you spend the final days before your half- or full marathon feasting on high-carbohydrate foods. But a good nutrition plan doesn’t end with that last plate of pasta the night before your race. Just as important is your prerace breakfast, which helps restock the liver glycogen (or stored energy) that got depleted overnight. “Liver glycogen keeps your blood-sugar level steady during exercise,” says Jackie Berning, Ph.D., R.D., sports nutrition and metabolism professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Your morning meal provides fuel for your brain, helping to sustain motivation and concentration during a long race. But just how much should you eat on race morning to optimize your performance? Probably more than you think. Here’s how to choose the ideal amount and combination of foods and fluids to power you through to a strong finish.
THE RIGHT STUFF
The best prerace breakfast consists mainly of carbohydrates, since they’re digested most rapidly and are your body’s preferred fuel source, says Penny Wilson, Ph.D., a Houston-based registered dietitian who works with endurance athletes. Small amounts of protein will help stave off hunger during the later miles. Limit or avoid fat and fiber; the former takes too long to digest, while the latter can cause bloating and GI problems. “I recommend foods like a bagel and peanut butter, oatmeal with milk and dried fruit, or yogurt and toast,” says Wilson. Other good options include a banana and high-carb energy bar, waffle with syrup and strawberries, or even a bowl of rice.
For runners who tend to feel queasy on race morning, sticking with liquid carbs can help prevent GI problems while still providing energy and hydration. Smoothies, juices, and sports drinks all pack quick-digesting carbs that empty easily from your stomach, says Wilson.
While your usual bagel and banana might power you through a morning of meetings, it’s not enough to fuel you through a half- or full marathon. Research shows that consuming 1.5 to 1.8 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is ideal for improving performance, says Berning. For a 150-pound runner, that translates to 225 to 270 grams of carbohydrate—or about 1,000 calories, which may sound like a lot just before a hard effort. The key is to get that meal in early—three to four hours prerace to be exact, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That gives you enough time to digest so your stomach will be fairly empty and your muscles and liver totally fueled. If you’re not sure you can stomach 1,000 calories at once, you can divide them up into two smaller meals, says Berning. In that case, eat 200 to 400 calories four hours before the start, along with 12 to 20 ounces of water or sports drink (giving you plenty of time to hit the porta potty). Between 90 minutes and two hours before the start, eat most of the remaining carbs—again, choosing easy-to-digest options.
Since many races start at 8 a.m. or earlier, you’ll have to set your alarm for a very early wake-up to hit that four-hour window. If that’s not realistic, you may choose to eat your entire prerace meal just two hours before the start. But because you’ll have less time to digest, eat only one gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (or 150 grams, or 600 calories, for a 150-pound runner)—sticking with foods and liquids you know are very easy on your stomach. Since you’re consuming less, you do risk running out of liver glycogen (Search: What is glycogen?), which will cause your blood sugar to plummet and may mean you hit the wall. So be vigilant about fueling early in the race (consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour) to keep your energy levels high.
Finally, have your last 25 to 30 grams of carbs 30 to 60 minutes prior to the start. This could be an energy gel or chews (with 12 to 16 ounces of water) or 16 ounces of sports drink. “This provides the last shot of fuel to hold you over until you get into the rhythm of fueling midrace,” says Berning.
Berning also stresses that every runner has different food and fluid tolerances, which means a plan that works for one runner might spell GI disaster for another. That’s why it’s key that you practice your prerace meal strategy during training. “The stomach and gut need to be trained to handle food before a long run,” says Berning. She suggests trying different combinations to find the one that works best for you. And once you find the perfect mix, stick with it. “Eat the exact same meal on race morning that you practiced with in training,” says Wilson, “and you’ll be set.”
PRERACE MEAL PLAN
Can't stomach one hue morning meal? Divide it up. Here's how a 150-pound runner would fuel
3 to 4 hours prerace
1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons honey: 62 g
6 ounces yogurt: 7 g
1 large banana: 31 g
2 tablespoons raisins: 16 g
4 ounces juice: 14 g
12 to 20 ounces water: 0 g
Total: 140 g
90 minutes to 2 hours prerace
1 slice bread with 1 tablespoon jam: 28 g
24 ounces sports drink: 47 g
Total: 75 g
30 to 60 minutes prerace
1 energy gel or serving of energy chews: 25 g
8 to 12 ounces water: 0 g
Total: 25 g
How to eat and drink after you cross the finish--right away and beyond
Focus on Carbs
Eat half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of weight. For a 150-pound runner, that’s 75 grams, or the equivalent of a bagel and banana.
Consume 15 to 20 grams of protein to kick-start muscle repair. Get it from a high-protein energy bar along with fruit, or a PB&J.
Aim for 20 ounces of fluid. Including 200 mg of sodium or more will boost fluid absorption. Try sports drinks and recovery shakes.
...But Skip the Booze
You’re already dehydrated. Wait at least several hours, till you’ve had a chance to rehydrate and refuel, and then toast your finish.
Keep It Going
For the next 48 hours, continue to focus on eating plenty of carbohydrates and modest portions of high-quality protein.