Seven Steps to Fine Tuning Your Race-Day Nutrition

“Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
– Confucius

New York City Marathon, 2009. It was my first marathon, and crossing the finish line in Central Park was a lifelong goal. I had trained for months, logged my miles faithfully, talked with my coach at length about every ache and pain and mental struggle. But as prepared as I thought I was, I had made the rookie mistake of not giving serious consideration to my race-day nutrition.

As I was approaching mile 20, I’d been awake for nearly 10 hours at that point. I’d skipped breakfast because nerves and because inexperience. I’d squeezed and swallowed so many tubes of different brands of gels and energy drinks that even now, 8 years later, I can conjure up the exact feeling of queasiness. I wasn’t thirsty, I wasn’t hungry. I was sick and just plain tired, but at least it was a familiar fatigue.

Until it wasn’t.

Without warning, my first meeting with every runner’s dreaded boogeyman: the wall. Not just the wall – it seemed like an insurmountable skyscraper. I was so surprised by the nauseating wave of halted momentum that I tripped and fell, sprawled out on the Willis Avenue Bridge for what was probably only a second but for what felt like an eternity. Classic. I hit the wall hard from inadequate nutrition that day. The remainder of the race was excruciating to say the least, and I finally crossed the finish line, dazed but happy.

Most of my running career has been full of worst-case nutrition scenarios. I won’t go into the gory details, but finding pre-race and intra-race nutrition that works well for me has been a marathon in itself, beset with lots of trial and even more error.

Race day comes with some variables we can’t control but for which we can prepare our best: weather, which of our competitors show up, and the course profile and terrain. Almost everything else we can prepare, test and train for. Nutrition is no different, and as soon as you start a training cycle, you should also start to also train for your race-day nutrition. My training and race-day nutrition are still a work in progress; I’m still searching for what works best and what doesn’t. (I’ve learned, for example, that energy gels do NOT work for me. Ever.) Here’s the process I’ve been using.

1. Start with a baseline.

As soon as you begin training for a specific event, use every long run to test your nutrition. For your first week, pick a pre-race meal and designate the time you’re going to eat it. A good place to start would be a meal that includes protein, simple carbs and some fat, eaten 30 minutes to three hours before your long run, depending on how well you digest. My baseline breakfast is Greek yogurt, a banana and almond butter. It’s definitely OK to wake up, eat, and go back to sleep if you’re running first thing in the morning and need more time to digest.

2. Simulate race conditions every week.

If we’re trying to eliminate as much of the unknown as possible, then running your weekly long run at the same time as your race is a good idea. If your race is on a Sunday with an 8am start, do your long runs on Sundays at 8 a.m. The same thing goes for your nutrition. If your race is near your home and you’ll be sleeping in your own bed and eating out of your kitchen on race day, then you’ll have more latitude for cooking than if you’ll be staying in a hotel room, at the mercy of a kitchen that may be closed when you wake up. Plan your foods for what you’ll have access to on race day.

3. Record results as soon as you finish your run.

As soon as you finish your training run, objectively evaluate your fueling and write it down. Ask yourself how well fueled you felt at the beginning, middle and end of your run. Did you have any stomach distress? Did any of the food repeat on you? Be honest and trust your gut (literally). Keep in mind you may be feeling the effects for a few hours afterwards.

4. Evaluate and change only one thing for the following week.

After that analysis, you’ll evaluate and change only one aspect for the following week’s long run. Let’s say, using my example meal, that I felt well fueled at the beginning and middle of my run, but felt gassed at the end. Let’s also say I had zero gastrointestinal issues. I would write all that down, and for the following week I change only ONE thing. I’m going to increase my fat intake. You can only store about 2500 Kcals of glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) and more than 70,000 Kcals of fat. Feeling low energy at the end of a run is likely your transition from glycogen burning to fat burning. So next run I would add more almond butter. But that’s the only thing I would change – I’m still going to eat it with the Greek yogurt and banana, and I’m going to eat it at the same time before my run.

5. Retest and reevaluate.

Repeat the same process the following week. You’ll fuel with your new meal, test how you felt during the run, and evaluate whether you had any gastrointestinal issues. Let’s say, using my same example meal of Greek yogurt, banana and more almond butter, that this time I felt well fueled the entire time, but my legs felt extra tired. That may be a sign that I need more protein (or strength and conditioning!), so the following week I’d again make only one change. This time I increase the amount of Greek yogurt, or introduce an additional protein source, like an egg. But again, that’s the only thing I’ll change, and I’ll again eat it three hours before I run the following week.

6. Repeat until race day.

You’ll continue testing, changing one variable at a time, and retesting up until you begin your taper. Calibrations can include things like:

  • When you eat your meal (3 hours before, 2 hours before, etc.)

  • How many meals you eat (1 big meal 3 hours before, a smaller meal 1 hour before, etc.)

  • What you eat – changing proportions of carbs, fat and protein

  • How much you eat – start light and increase proportions conservatively

  • Be mindful of electrolyte levels – if you’re training during the winter for a spring race, it can be difficult to simulate weather conditions on race day. Knowing your sweat rate is good information to have, but also remember to practice with increased salt in your foods (salt keeps water in your body). Either add to your pre-race meal or try Salt Sticks.

  • In general, be wary of eating too much fiber the day of your race. The night before should be fine. Enough said. 

7. Do not try anything new once you start your taper.

Once you start your taper, your nutrition testing period is over. Don’t try any new foods as you approach race day. I’ve heard horror stories of athletes who sample new energy supplements at race expos and pay for it on race day. Stick to what you’ve worked hard to discover – that meal that’s going to fuel you through your race nutrition that is going to fuel you all the way to the finish line.

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Rachael Colacino