Diet can make all the difference for the endurance athlete. Proper nutrition before a race will make sure that your muscles have everything that they need to function optimally while a healthy meal afterwards will help your body recover and repair itself. But what makes up a proper and healthy meal for the pre- and post- race periods? Let’s consider a few common dietary practices that can have a big impact on your performance, as well some principles that can help you design healthy meals.
Since most races take place in the morning or early afternoon, your breakfast will in fact be the most important meal of the day.
Sports nutrition experts at the Colorado State University Extension recommend having a light meal about three to four hours before the event. This should allow your body enough time to break down your food and make sure the nutrients get where they need to be. Your stomach should also have more than enough time to settle so that you don’t experience any digestive upset during the race.
All told, your pre-race meal should consist of about 500 to 1,000 calories depending on the length of your race. Obviously, a 5k runner will require much less fuel than a marathoner. The majority of your meal should be made up of starchy, complex carbohydrates like breads, pasta, cereal, fruits and vegetables since these break down more easily and provide constant energy over a longer period of time.
Avoid foods that are high in simple sugars and fats since these can both cause an upset stomach. Simple sugar can cause a spike and subsequent fall in blood sugar which, instead of giving you a boost, can limit your overall energy.
The Colorado University also points out the importance of eating foods you both enjoy and tolerate well. Before the race is not the time to experiment with new foods that can bother your stomach. During your training leading up to race day, you can try a variety of foods to figure out what works best for you.
Of course, proper hydration is important before your race. Drink about 64 ounces of water but don’t drink anything at least 30 minutes before the race to avoid discomfort.
Coffee or any other form of caffeine is a bit of a controversial topic for endurance athletes. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning that it can lead to dehydration but many studies show that small amounts can actually improve your performance. Again, experiment during training to see how your body responds to caffeine.
The recommendations for the post-race meal are the same regardless of age, gender or sport. Everyone will benefit from a small meal containing carbs, fat and protein within a 30-minute window after the activity. During this time period your muscles are starved for glycogen fuel and protein synthesis is at its peak so making sure you have these nutrients will jump-start the recovery process.
For some athletes, it can be difficult to have a meal this soon after an event without upsetting their stomach so other options may help. A high-protein, high-carb drink will give you everything you need while putting little to no demand on your digestive system.
Carbo-loading, eating a large amount of carbohydrates before a race, is a common feature of fitness lore. This practice is based on the understanding that carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel, accounting for about 40 to 50 percent of energy production, especially during intense activity.
To understand the problem with this theory, it helps to compare carbohydrates to a car’s fuel. That fuel is stored in your muscles and liver, which are sort of like the body’s gas tanks. Just like a literally gas tank in a car, your muscles and liver can only store a set amount of fuel. Many studies have demonstrated that not only is carbo-loading useless to runners, it can actually slow you down.
A good, healthy meal on race day can help you to perform your best and recover in a way that will leave you even faster and stronger.