By this point in your training journey, you’ve probably ran…a lot. You’ve also probably eaten… a lot. You might wonder though what should change, if anything about your nutrition plan in the days leading up to your big event. I recently did a segment for Global News Winnipeg about Sport Nutrition for the upcoming Manitoba Marathon (click the link below to check it out!). I wanted to share some other last-minute nutrition tips for my fellow runners to help them cross the finish line feeling like a million bucks. Read on to see my top tips for last minute race-day prep!
The ‘Taper’ is the week (or few weeks) leading up to a race where runners will start focusing on preparing to perform their absolute best on race day, rather than pursing improved fitness and training adaptations like we do throughout the rest of our training schedule. This tapering is part of “periodization” of a training program, in which at different intervals we have different goals. I’ve recently read some other articles that prefer to call this ‘taper’ period “peaking” period, to better describe what the real goal is- to take steps to achieve peak performance on race day. The terminology is different and might have different connotations, however the strategies and end goal are the same.
So, how do we change up our nutrition plan to get the most out of our training? Read on for my top tips!
1. The Golden Rule: Nothing New On Race Day
The “nothing new on race day” rule transcends all other recommendations for a successful race. Even if you don’t think what you’ve been doing is an optimal strategy, race day is not the time to make big changes! Just remember to change things up well in advance for next time.
I always recommend treating your long runs like a race-day dress rehearsal during your training. Race-day jitters and new food in your gut can leave you spending more time in the bathroom than on the race course. Just like you train your muscles to be able to run long distances, you can train your gut too to be better at digesting while on the run-literally.
Race Day Fuel
You’ll also find during your training that certain fuel sources work better for you than other ones. There are carbohydrate gels, beans, chews, beverages, all with various amounts and types of sugars in them. There are so many different options for carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement that it’s a good idea to experiment a little and figure out which agrees with your gut the best.
Some are quite concentrated and require you to drink a little more water alongside them. Some might contain a type of sugar that your gut just doesn’t tolerate very well. Others might have less-than-convenient packaging that leaves you fumbling around with a sticky mess on the race course. You may also find that none of these options meet your needs and choose to bring along some dried fruits or homemade sandwich bites instead.
Having options is great, but you might have a clear favorite after trialing some of the different offerings available to keep you fueled. Each training run is an opportunity to try something new!
Stick To The Routine
I also recommend avoiding anything new in all other aspects of your race-day prep as well. Don’t buy a new outfit for the race, or pick up a new pair of socks or shoes the day before. Make sure you’ve done at least one long training run in your race-day gear so you know there won’t be any issues with clothing that slides around, chafing, or blisters. Try to eat the same pre-run meal you typically would eat before a training run (even better if you’ve done a few training runs very early in the morning as most races tend to start at the crack of dawn!). Knowing ahead of time what your game plan will be goes a long way in helping calm race-day jitters, and will avoid you needing to make last minute food choices that could potentially have you racing to the bathroom instead of to the finish line!
2. To carb load or not to carb load?
There’s always an ongoing debate about whether or not a runner should carb-load, and if so what the best strategy is. Most of the minute details are taking place in exercise physiology labs with elite-level athletes who can win or lose a race by a fraction of a second…
For most of us though, we just want to finish our event (and hopefully set a new personal record while we’re at it!). In this case, spending a lot of time stressing about the tiny details can leave us missing the bigger picture when it comes to preparing for an event. If you’ve been training for a longer race distance (like a half or full marathon), chances are your diet is already fairly high in carbs to fuel all those training miles. If this is the case you might find that your carb loading days aren’t all that different from your usual diet and that’s totally fine! My motto is always if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, if your distance of choice is a 5k or 10k, you may find the extra water weight from carb loading just slows you down. Basically, if your event is a half-marathon or longer, I’d suggest fueling up in the days before your event.
How To Carb Load:
3-4 days before your race, prioritize carbohydrates in your diet over foods that have a lot of fat or protein. It doesn’t mean you’re eating zero fat or protein, just that your plate should look a little more generous on the carb side of things. You might also want to add in some sugar-containing fluids like sports drinks or fruit juice as well to bump up those glycogen stores.
Unfortunately, a lot of the foods we think of as great “carb loading” choices are too high in fat and/or protein to really be ideal (like pizza, lasagna, ice cream, french fries or chips). Instead, think of foods like cereals, oatmeal, pasta with tomato sauces, rice, non-fried potatoes, peanut butter and jam or honey sandwiches, fruits, juice, and lower-fat desserts like sorbets or gelatos. Including plenty of fluids is also key as your body stores water alongside glycogen in your muscles to use during a race.
Now, what is interesting that’s been coming out of the sport nutrition science world lately is the concept of something called a “carbohydrate mouth rise”. As strange as it sounds, it’s exactly what it describes – a swish of a sugary beverage in your mouth. This can actually stimulate your central nervous system (your brain), and perk you up a little bit, which in turn can help enhance performance without needing to actually ingest anything. For longer race distances, you’re probably going to want to go ahead and swallow the sip because you do need the carbohydrates for fuel. But if your race is a short, or your tummy is particularly sensitive you may get all the boost you need without needing to take anything in. Just swish and spit! (But watch for other runners on the course!)
3. Take The Fibre Down A Notch In The Days Before The Event
When it comes to carb-loading, choosing the right carbohydrates for your gut can make all the difference. As mentioned in point #2, reducing the fats and proteins you eat leading up to race day can allow you to carb-load the more efficiently without taking in too many extra calories. Too much fibre in the days leading up to a race may also cause issues, as it is the substance that forms the bulk of our poops. Having to stop and wait in line at the porta-potties along the race course is the last place you want to wind up. So, cutting down on the fibre for a few meals leading up to your event can help avoid the dreaded tummy troubles. This can be an especially handy tip if you’re prone to a little pre-race anxiety and find yourself needing a bathroom when you feel stressed. Line ups for the bathrooms can be long out on the race course and the last place you want to spend your time on race day is on the toilet!
Instead of your usual bran cereal, whole grain pastas, and brown rice, try swapping some of those high-fibre foods for the more refined versions (just for a few days!). You may also want to choose a little more fruit juice vs whole fruit as well. If you have a very sensitive gut, you can even peel your vegetables and fruits in the few days before a race just to be sure you’re not going to wind up with issues. After your race, feel free to go back to your usual high-fibre diet.
The good news is if you do have a rather sensitive gut you can better manage your symptoms and improve your tolerance to different pre-run foods with with more training. Practice makes perfect!
4. Don’t Forget Hydration!
Staying hydrated throughout your race is critical for a strong finish. Especially if the weather is hot the day of, you might sweat a lot more than you typically would in a climate-controlled gym. Even losing 2% of your body weight in sweat is enough to impact running performance. When you sweat though, you’re not just losing water, electrolytes like sodium and potassium are also depleted and need to be replaced if you want your muscles to keep working!
Aim for urine thats light yellow in color. Pee that’s completely clear may mean you’re over-hydrated, if its very dark yellow or brown it is a sign that you’re dehydrated and definitely need to up your fluids!
Which fluids are best on race day?
During your race, plain water is ok if you’re going to be running for less than 90 minutes (say a 5 or 10k). If you’re completing a longer race like a half or full marathon, bring along a source of electrolytes either as a beverage, or paired up with your fuel source. Most products that are created for athletes (such as the gels, beans, or drink mixes) will contain electrolytes, but check the package to make sure there’s both sodium and potassium in there! If you want to read more on which fluids are best for supporting your hydration needs, check out this blog post.
Okay, but how much fluid?
How much you need to drink during your event can vary a lot depending on how hard you’re working, the race distance, and your body size. Everyone has a different sweat rate, and loses different amounts of electrolytes in their sweat.
General guidelines are to drink an extra 2 cups of fluids before your race, and sip during the race when you’re feeling thirsty. I definitely recommend bringing a water bottle along the course with you for longer distances, as the water stations during a race can be crowded and might feel pretty far apart! You don’t want to have to stop a run simply because you’re too dehydrated to carry on.
The Bottom Line
A successful race is all about being prepared. After all the hard work you’ve dedicated to training, making sure you have a foolproof nutrition plan can be the difference between crushing your personal record and hitting the wall. Or, hitting the bathroom stall.
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