[This article was written with Maika Luongo, a registered dietitian on Amwell.]
You've signed up for that race you've wanted to run forever. You've shopped for brand-new sneakers and training gear. You've printed out a training schedule, mapped out how many miles you'll run on what days. And now you are ready to run your big race. You think you are all set. But have you thought about your diet leading up to the big run?
What and when to eat to fuel your body during the big race is just as important as having the right gear and proper training. A common mistake first-time runners make is to embark on a low-carb diet, which is the exact opposite of what you want to be doing. Let’s face it; your body is just as lazy as you are on a weekend afternoon. Your primary source of energy comes from carbohydrates in your diet, which is converted into sugars, which are used to fuel your cells and maintain brain and muscular function.
Jump starting a new training regimen? Talk with a registered dietitian for a specific plan for you.
When you restrict carbohydrates, you restrict readily available energy, which can result in fatigue, weakness, dizziness and headaches. These side effects are more severe for those with an active lifestyle or regular exercise routine. You can find carbohydrates in foods such as whole grain breads, bagels, tortillas, cereals, pasta, rice, quinoa and crackers.
The condition known as “hitting the wall” is the exact result of not having enough carbohydrates in your system before an intense workout. Typically, your body begins to deplete its energy source within 90 minutes, depending on the intensity of the workout; therefore, it’s important to load up with carbs before "hitting the wall”. Once glycogen stores are depleted the running pace is reduced as well in addition to pain and fatigue.
For runs longer than an hour, you want to make sure you're also fueling during the run. Some easy, go-to replacements are gummies, gels or sports beans that contain carbohydrates and electrolytes. If you are running a long-distance race, you should take a carb replacement every 60 minutes to extend endurance performance.
As important as it is to carb-load before a race, it’s just as important to stay hydrated. Remember to drink 3-8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes on runs lasting less than 60 minutes and 3-8 ounces of a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes every 15-20 minutes for runs that are longer than 60-90 minutes. The easiest way to achieve a simple, successful carb-load is to include carbohydrate-rich foods at every meal and snack leading up to your race.
Here are some examples of meals that meet that bill.
Pre-exercise meal, 3-4 hours before run
1 1/2 cup oatmeal (42g CHO)
1 large banana (31g CHO)
1 tablespoon honey (17g CHO)
1 1/2 cup orange juice (42g CHO)
Pre-exercise snack, 30-60 minutes before run
1 cup sweetened apple sauce (43g CHO)
1/2 English muffin (12g CHO)
During run, 30-60g carbs per hour, and every 15-20 minutes
16 ounces Gatorade (28g CHO)
1 pack Sport Beans (25g CHO)
8 Chomps Energy Chews (46g CHO)
1 packet Gu Energy Gel (20-25g CHO depending on flavor)
8 pieces Clif Shot Bloks (48g CHO)
We're not done yet. Once you cross the finish line, you still have to refuel and refuel right. Within 60 minutes of prolonged activity, it's recommended that you consume a lean protein and a carbohydrate to replenish stores.
Here are some options you can include in your diet following your run.
Post-exercise within 30 minutes, and then continue with meals every 2 hours for up to 6 hours:
16 ounces low-fat chocolate milk
First post-race meal, 2 hours after finish
1 large bagel
4 tablespoons peanut butter
Second post-race meal, 4 hours after finish
1 large banana
8 ounces Greek yogurt
Third post-race meal, 6 hours after finish
1 cup canned peaches in extra-light syrup
2 large hard-boiled eggs