Race week is here. The long hard training hours are in the rear-view mirror; now you can sit back and relax, right? Sort of, but not exactly. The week leading up to the race includes short tune-up training sessions, prioritizing sleep, avoiding unnecessary stress, and mentally preparing to toe the line. However, this is not the time to let loose on the nutrition front, as tempting as it may be. So here is a nutritional guideline to help optimize race-day performance in the week leading up to your endurance race.
One week out:
In the taper week of an endurance race, your main nutritional focus is to eat in a manner that best prepares you physically and mentally for the challenge that lies ahead.
At least seven days from your event, decrease alcohol intake and avoid overly processed foods and diuretics.
Two to three days out from race day, reduce high-fiber and fried foods, eliminate spicy foods, uncooked meat, and unfamiliar foods to minimize the chance of GI distress, diarrhea, and bloating. In addition, increase sodium intake by adding salt to foods and eating salty foods.
Prioritize hydration but don’t go overboard. Monitor the color of your urine to assess hydration status throughout the week. Optimally it should be light yellow and not clear.
If you plan to use caffeine during the race, reduce caffeine intake by one-third to one-half beginning three days out from race day to optimize the benefits.
The day before the race:
Acute sodium loading is most effective and has the fewest adverse side effects, 12-15 hours out from the race start. Snack on salty foods and increase salt intake at meals and snacks. Suppose you are a salty sweater and experience significant sodium sweat losses. In that case, you may benefit from sodium supplementation or a preload beginning in the afternoon or early evening the day before and morning of the race. But don’t wait until the day before to test drive sodium supplementation. In keeping with the golden rule, “nothing new on race day,” all supplements and food choices should be test-driven repeatedly in training for the best chance of success.
In the two days leading up to race day, this is the time to emphasize easy-to-digest carbohydrates low in fiber. Race week is not the time to be an adventurous eater. Stick with familiar foods that you’ve test-driven repeatedly during training, eat reasonable portions of complex carbohydrates with a protein-rich source, and moderate to low-fat as these foods have staying power, stabilize blood sugars, and support sound sleep. Be careful to avoid overeating or stuffing yourself.
Examples of common, easy to digest carbohydrates:
Oatmeal, yogurt, crackers, bananas, potatoes, pretzels, applesauce, toast, rice, pancakes, waffles, bagels, jam, honey.
The Last Supper
As training volume decreases and caloric intake remains the same during your taper week, your glycogen stores don’t deplete at the same rate as in a heavy training load. Because of this, there is no reason to eat a huge plate or two of pasta in your pre-race meal. Overindulging on carbohydrates will only leave you feeling heavy, sluggish, and possibly bloated on race morning.
It’s best to finish this last meal by 5:00-6:00 pm (earlier if you prefer), keep it bland, low in fat, low in fiber, and moderate protein that is low in fat.
If you prefer your last meal in the mid-afternoon the day before the race, having an early evening snack to top you off around 6:30 or 7:00 pm is wise. Try a bowl of cereal, peanut butter crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pretzels, and nut butter and a banana, Greek yogurt, or an energy bar and wash it down with water or a non-caffeinated non-alcoholic beverage of choice.
If a glass of wine or beer is a part of your regular pre-race routine and helps calm your nerves, enjoy one and save the celebration for after the race!
Examples of dinner or late lunch – the day before the race.
- White rice, 4 oz. grilled chicken, side salad, piece of bread, water
- White or sweet potato, grilled chicken or lean steak, steamed green beans and carrots, piece of bread, water
- Cheese pizza with veggies, side salad, water
- Pasta with a mild sauce, lean protein of choice, steamed veggie (low in fiber).
What to eat the morning of your race
Regardless of the duration of your event, intentionally skipping breakfast is not a wise move. Research shows that eating before a race improves performance. Here’s why: during the night, liver glycogen is responsible for maintaining blood sugars and fueling the body’s work of repairing and rebuilding while you sleep. However, by morning, your liver glycogen is low. Therefore, it’s critical to restock carbohydrates to support performance.
Aim for breakfast 2.5-3 hours before race start to allow plenty of time for digestion. If pre-race jitters get the best of you, either eat small bites and don’t force it or take your breakfast in liquid form as it will clear the gut faster than solids and provide hydration. (Think Smoothies!).
Breakfast should be mainly carbohydrates with a small amount of protein, and a limited amount of fat since fat takes the longest to digest and clear the gut and can lead to GI issues.
Nothing new on race day. Test-drive your pre-race breakfast.
Aim for carbohydrate quantities of 1-1.5g/lb. or 2-3g/kg body weight 2.5-3 hours before the race along with 12-20 ounces of fluid.
Examples of race day breakfasts:
- Bagel, 2 Tbsp jam, 2 Tbsp peanut butter, one large banana, 4 oz. juice, water – 150g carbohydrates
- One cup cooked oatmeal, grapes or banana, 1 Tbsp. honey, 5.3 oz Greek yogurt, 8 oz. juice, water – 159g carbohydrates
- 20-24 oz sports drink (40-50g/bottle), 2 pieces toast, 2 Tbsp. jam, 1 cup applesauce – 160-170g carbohydrates
If breakfast didn’t go down easily – remember, don’t force it. There is still time between breakfast up to 20 minutes before the race to top off blood glucose.
90 minutes prior to race – 30-60g carbohydrates and 12 ounces of fluid
- 12 oz sports drink and ½ sports bar or energy chews
Within one hour of race start – 25-40g carbohydrates. For example:
- 8-12 oz. sports fluid
- Energy chews
- 100 calories of sports supplement fuel
The key to pre-race fueling is to practice during training to determine what works for you. Remember — Nothing new on race day!
Good luck and have fun!