With racing season in full swing, it’s time to talk about nutrition –– specifically, finding the ideal pre-race breakfast. Before we get going, let’s underline two basic rules of race day nutrition:
1) NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY
2) BE FLEXIBLE; STUFF HAPPENS.
It’s tempting to conduct nutritional experiments on race day as you search for the perfect fuel boost, but do that on some other day when you can deal privately with the digestive repercussions of chugging a pint of olive oil, or eating five fiber bars. (For the record, I strongly advise against this.) Develop a sound nutritional routine that works and let it do its magic.
However, if you become too reliant on your pre-race routine, you can psych yourself out and lose confidence before the race even begins. If, for example, you always have a banana before your race and you wake up on race day without one, relax. No race has ever been “lost” because of a missing banana. There will be times that your ideal pre-race nutrition routine will need to be revised moderately. Thus, you need to be aware of the general principles that make for a good pre-race meal so you can make sound choices.
Start with the main event: hydration. Drink some water as soon as you wake up. Most runners also like to make sure that they have some caffeine, either in the form of coffee or tea, with their race breakfast. Don’t overdo on the caffeine, however, as it can have a diuretic effect. For hot summer races, I’ll let some chia seeds reconstitute in coconut water in the fridge overnight and drink this concoction instead of water.
Next, turn your attention to food. The typical pre-race meal needs to be simple and easily digestible. It also needs to do some specific nutritional work replenishing liver glycogen depleted during your previous night’s sleep. Therefore, you will race best after a breakfast consisting primarily of carbohydrates with a low or medium Glycemic Index. This kind of carb will provide a slow, steady supply of muscle fuel.
In a highly scientific survey that consisted of asking some of my fellow employees at Fleet Feet about what they typically eat before races, I found that there are some tried and true components to a pre-race meal. The banana is ubiquitous. This makes a lot of sense. It has a medium to low Glycemic Index of 54, is easily digested, has 31 grams of natural sugars, and contains potassium and magnesium –– two electrolytes critical for running. It also comes with its own protective carrying case.
You will also benefit from a small amount of protein to forestall hunger during the latter stages of a race. That is why multi-grain toast with some peanut butter is also a common part of the typical race breakfast.
Breakfast of wanna be champions...
Now that we have the basic components, it’s easy to vary them depending on the conditions. A banana, piece of toast, and an egg or nut butter might work in the winter. On hot summer mornings, you might satisfy your pre-race fueling needs and cool your core with an icy cold smoothie –– a blended mixture of frozen strawberries, banana, and Greek yogurt or milk. (Some runners avoid dairy products, so if you're vegan or a little on the lactose-intolerant side, use a non-dairy alternative.)
How much you eat depends on how close to the race you choose to eat. If you can manage to fit a meal in four hours before the race, you could consume up to 1000 calories. If you are eating two hours before a race, it is best to limit your calorie consumption to 300-400 calories. For longer races, you should consider larger meals. This is where it becomes critically important to practice your pre-race meal plan ahead of your goal race. One person’s yogurt smoothie, piece of toast with peanut butter, and a banana is another runner’s recipe for feeling bloated for 6.2 uncomfortable miles.
Finally, remember not to get too caught up in your pre-race routine. Several years ago before an evening race, I threw common sense to the wind and ate a fried fish sandwich, french fries, and a large strawberry milkshake –– not ideal, yet I managed to run one of my best 5K times ever. Was it the fried fish or despite it? The lesson, here, is that your training and a positive attitude can see you through some less-than-ideal pre-race meals.
So, to break it down:
- Avoid new foods on race day
- Try your pre-race plan out beforehand
- Eat breakfast with low/medium Glycemic Index carbohydrates
- Eat a small amount of protein
- Eat at least 2 hours before your race
- Eat a banana
- Don’t stress!
Within the carbohydrate, protein, and meal timing guidelines, there does seem to be a lot of room for personal preferences regarding the race-day meal. Please share with us what your typical morning meal looks like on race day. Does anybody out there have some unique race-day meal rituals? Please tell us about them in the comments.