By Kelly Schreuder – Registered Dietician And Chef
The combination of race pace and nerves can be quite a challenge to even the hardiest digestive system, so race day nutrition is all about the magical combination “comfort foods”, adequate fuel and hydration, and minimum digestive effort.
By “comfort foods” I mean two things: 1) Foods that you know you can usually digest and tolerate well. This applies to the days leading up to the race as well. There is absolutely some benefit to eating a little more food (especially carbohydrate foods) in the last couple of days leading up to the race, but it makes no sense to scoff down excess amounts of foods that you are not familiar with. For example, a very spicy bean curry from a new restaurant the night before a race, or your friend’s weird purple hydration concoction that you have never used before arriving at the start line – clearly not sensible choices. 2) Foods that you know and love, and that literally provide some psychological comfort. We know that comfort eating on the couch after a break up is not that functional, but if it soothes the nerves on race day to eat chocolate flavoured porridge, which could be a great source of carbohydrates, go for it.
Here are the basics:
- Start with a mixed breakfast (carbohydrates with a bit of protein and a bit of fat) about 2-3 hours before you race. Also have about 500-750ml fluid before you begin.
- In the last 30 minutes before you start, drink about 250ml of that fluid and include some additional carbohydrates to top up what is available for use, and to start the race with something in your stomach. This helps to keep your digestive system active, instead of losing all your blood flow to your legs the moment you start.
- Begin eating and drinking early – within the first 30 minutes, and continue to do so at regular intervals. 30-60g carbohydrates per hour is a good rule of thumb, plus about 500-750ml fluid, although that can vary greatly depending on the intensity of your pace, the heat of the day and the amount you sweat. It is very difficult to catch up if you run out of fuel or become dehydrated, so it’s better not to get to that state. The other extreme (too many carbs and too much fluid) is equally uncomfortable, so if you haven’t tried something during training, do not get overly experimental on race day.
- Carry a little extra. If you regularly train on X amount, make sure you have access to that at least, and take a little extra just in case. A small carbohydrate-based snack with some caffeine in your back pocket can be a great pick-me-up towards the end of a race. Avoiding caffeine for a few days before the race can make you more sensitive to this caffeine boost as well, but if you never have any caffeine, stick with plain carbs to avoid any bad effects.
- Recovery in the form of easily digested protein, carbohydrates and hydration immediately after a race is often forgotten in the relief of finishing. Give your body what it needs to replenish and rebuild so that you bounce back quickly.
Sports nutrition is considered a helping hand and the cherry on top of a good training program, a healthy body and strong mind. A good nutrition strategy can make a race far more fun and successful, in terms of both performance and recovery. It’s a good idea to practice parts of your race day nutrition during training.