Eat and Run
Tweaking your diet in the days before and after a race can give your running performance an edge.
Posted Wednesday, 3 April, 2002
Just as there is no miracle training plan that can prepare you for a marathon in a week, there are no crash diets (or vitamins or supplements or sports drinks) that can magically deliver wildly enhanced performance in a week, either. Still, a few dietary tweaks in the days before a big race or long training run can give runners an extra edge. In the same way that you adjust your training program as race day approaches, you can also adjust your diet to make sure your body is fueled to capacity.
This dietary "taper" should begin about the same time you start to taper your mileage in anticipation of a race or run -- about seven days for a marathon and four days for 10K races or less. The approach is straightforward: keep doing more of the same by eating lots of carbohydrates, low fat and moderate protein. As always, pasta, potatoes, and bread should be your staples, but now they should take an exaggerated place in your diet. As you reduce your mileage, however, be sure to reduce your calorie intake, too. For most runners, this means eating about 100 calories less per day for every mile that you drop.
This is carbo-loading time. It is an important period to stock your energy reserves to their max, but don't make too much of the process. Some elite runners, for example, will race hard about seven days before the target race day to deplete their glucogen stores, then train normally for three or four days, eating mostly fats and protein to keep glycogen low. Then in the last few days before the race, they pack as many carbohydrates into their system as they possibly can. The theory is that their muscles are so starved for glycogen that they will soak up even more carbos than they normally would, giving them extra energy for the race. We do not recommend this for the mainstream runner -- certainly not without the oversight of a dietitian. Too often, this approach can backfire and leave you out of gas midway through the race.
Instead, follow your normal balanced diet and kick in some extra carbohydates in the week before a race. Fruit juices and sports drinks are good carbo supplements if you're having trouble eating all that pasta. Try not to miss meals, but also try to avoid overeating. Balance and consistency are particularly important as the big run approaches. For the same reason, this is not a time to sample new cuisines or even a new sports drink. Eat foods that you know agree with you.
About two days before a race, particularly longer runs, start loading up on fluids. Sports drinks can kill two birds with one stone by letting you get carbos at the same time. Try to stay away from alcohol, however, since it not only dehydrates you but also interferes with proper storage of glycogen and undercuts your carbo-loading.
In the last 48 hours, avoid high-fiber foods like beans, bran cereals, lettuce and broccoli to avoid an upset stomach or other gastrointestinal discomfort during your run. Avoid hard-to-digest foods like peanut butter, fried food and the like. If possible, cut back on dairy products, too. Some runners have a slight lactose intolerance; while they may not even be aware of the condition on a day-to-day basis, the strenuous effort (and constant sloshing) of a race can cause their bodies to rebel against the lactose in the milk, causing gas and bloating.
By the end of the day before the run, your high-carbo diet should have worked its magic and topped off your glycogen stores. You should snack moderately and frequently on familiar, mild foods. Drink water and juice constantly. For your final meal that night, eat moderately and go for food that contains -- you guessed it -- lots of carbohydrates and only a little fat. Skip the beer or wine and get to bed early.
Race day diet>
On the morning of the big day, have a light breakfast; a bagel and some fruit juice is ideal. Don't eat any solid food for three hours before the run, just water (a good rule of thumb for any run when you really plan to push yourself).
During the race itself, staying hydrated is most important. Drink some fluids every 20 minutes (be sure to review our tips for drinking on the run). For races over an hour, you should plan to snack along the way to keep your energy up. Try to get about 25 grams of carbohydrates every thirty minutes and stick with a sports drink or easily digested foods like sports bars or gels, bananas, orange slices, or even a piece of candy. Whatever you eat, be sure you have tried it before during a practice run. Everyone's stomach reacts differently to different foods, and a race is not the best time to discover that a new sports bar doesn't agree with you.
After the race, drink plenty of water and get some food into yourself as soon as possible. Carbo-reloading is as important as the carbo-loading before a race, particularly for runs over an hour. Try to have a bagel, a cup of soup or a sports bar in the fifteen minutes after you stop running. It's in this window of time that your muscles will absorb the glycogen most readily. Your muscles are hungry, feed them. If your run was over 90 minutes, be sure to graze frequently on high-carb foods for the next 24 hours, since it will take a while to restore your depleted reserves. By the end of that next day you should be back to normal and ready to ramp up for the next big race or training run.