Basics on eating before a race

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You have been training rigorously for the past few months, and the race is just around the corner….. should you just charge up with your favourite breakfast of coffee and donuts on race day? After all, all that sugar and caffeine is just what you need to give you an energy boost, right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, what you put into your body 24 hours before race day can affect your performance during the race. So how should you eat for optimal performance?

Some questions to ask before planning when/what to eat before the race:

1. When should you eat?

The first question to think about is “When does the race start?”

Our body takes 24-26 hours to fully process any food we eat. Certain foods take less time to process, but the high fibre, nutrient-dense and natural whole foods tend to take longer.

For this reason, your biggest meal should be eaten at least 20 (if not 24) hours before the race starts. For a race starting at 7 am, I would much prefer that meal to be brunch or lunch the day before. This would be your carbo-loading meal; when you take in high quality carbohydrates to super-charge your muscles for the race.

2. How much should you eat?

For an average adult, the amount of glycogen (the most readily available fuel in your muscle) stored in the body should be sufficient to sustain at least an hour of physical activity, and up to 2 hours with adaptation. 

The question to ask yourself is – “Does my body already have a sufficient store of glycogen for the race, given the expected duration?” If you have been eating and working out regularly, then it is likely you have sufficient glycogen for a race of 1 hour without having to worry about carbo-loading. Any excess calories which are not utilised as glycogen gets converted into fat.

If your race is expected to last less than 2 hours, just make sure you eat enough to keep hunger at bay. There should be no need to eat much more than your usual quantity.

3. What should you eat?

Don’t try anything new before a race!

Right before a race is not the time to experiment with new foods (including supplements), no matter how miraculous they sound. If you want to try them out, do so during your training phase and well before race day, where the cost of any unanticipated reactions would be less catastrophic. There is nothing worse than being unable to race at your best because of food poisoning or a tummy upset.

The question here would be – “Is what I usually eat suitable for the race that I will be doing?”. To answer this, you will need to consider the amount and level of exertion that you will be putting your body through during the race.

Having considered these factors, you are now ready to work out your diet/fuel plan for the race. Put your plan in action the day before (at least!) the race. Some of you might even need to start 3 days before. Apart from eating wisely, remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – until your urine runs pale yellow, but make sure you don’t over-drink such that your body is depleted of essential electrolytes. 

20-24 hours to race: The carbo-loading meal

This meal should consist of a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein, vegetables (for the micronutrients) and some good fats. Aim for at least 800 calories.

Meal suggestion: Brown rice cooked middle eastern style, roasted or pan fried chicken breast, and green salad dressed with flavoured olive oil and vinegar.
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12 hours before race: Light dinner

You don’t want to eat too much or stress your digestive system with a rich foods so close to the race, but neither should you eat so little that your growling tummy keeps you from getting a good night’s sleep. So pick a meal that is light on fats and fibre.
 
Meal suggestion: Salad with salmon and hard-boiled egg. You can have a piece of toast or a handful of pasta to go with it. 
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2 hours before race: Breakfast

Try to eat at least 2 hours before the start of your race. If there is a time to enjoy your refined carbohydrates, this is it!

You don’t want to eat a high-fibre meal that could send you running to the toilet minutes before the race. If you want a caffeine kick, this may be the meal to indulge. If you are sensitive to caffeine, you may want to delay the consumption of it as late as possible, since the effect tends to kick in 20 minutes after you drink your coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverage.

Meal suggestion: omelette with toast/croissant and coffee. 
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After the race

After racing, go ahead and celebrate your achievement with your favourite meal!

For those who want to eat for recovery, think about replenishing the carbohydrates you have used up, as well as eating more protein and Omega 3-rich foods to encourage muscle repair and reduce inflammation from the exertion.