After months of training, lacing up those shoes even on the cold mornings and the long days, it’s finally time to go out there and accomplish your goal. You want to roll out the best version of yourself, nutritionally optimized and fueled up for peak performance. Follow these 4 steps and you’ll be sure to UNLEASH THE ELITE ATHLETE on race day:
1. Start your carb load nice and early.
Glycogen is the body’s stored form of sugar that will be rapidly mobilized for energy during the race. Unfortunately, 40% of marathon runners experience severe and performance-limiting depletion of their glycogen reserves, a phenomenon known as ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking.’ In order to avoid accidental bonking, we need to build up healthy glycogen stores.
During the week leading up to your race, taper your running (to reduce glycogen consumption) while increasing your carbohydrate intake (for glycogen production). Carb loading isn’t just for the last 2 days, it’s best done all week! Aim to make about 70% of your calories come from fairly simple carbs.
Beyond pasta, you should look at bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, and fruit. Other calories should come from nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Avoid empty calories from processed foods, fast food, refined sugars and hydrogenated oils that can only slow you down.
By giving yourself all week to carb load, you won’t need to make radical changes to your diet in the last 2 days that could end up backfiring on race day, and you certainly won’t be bonking.
2. Hit the hydration sweet spot.
Chug-a-lug! Chug-a-lug! As entertaining as it is to watch, downing massive amounts of water during race week isn’t as helpful as you would think… Excessive water consumption can dilute down electrolyte levels to the point that your muscles won’t function properly. Even worse, it could lead to hyponatremia, a dangerously (potentially fatal) low level of sodium in the blood.
That said, a little extra water is needed for a proper carb load. For every gram of stored glycogen, the body stores 3 grams of water. So it’s okay to increase your water intake, just don’t overdo it…
Checking the color of your urine may not be something you do regularly, but it can be a helpful habit for race week. If your urine is dark yellow or has a strong odor, you may need more water. Alternatively, if it’s clear and you’re going every hour you may be overdoing it. The sweet spot is light yellow urine that comes every 2-3 hours.
And if you normally drink coffee or tea, there’s no need to stop. Now is not the time to withdraw from caffeine!
3. No need for any eleventh hour drama!
Last minute nutrition is about ensuring your body has everything needed to perform and trying to avoid the pitfalls that can hold you back. There’s no need for dramatic changes in the last day before the race.
Everyone hears about people devouring super-sized bowls of spaghetti the night before the race, but if you’ve been carb loading all week why take the risk of upsetting your stomach? That said, if you feel absolutely compelled to do a large carb meal I’d do it at lunch the day before the race just to make sure you’re not up all night with indigestion.
Fiber is one of the healthiest things you can consume most of the time, but it should be avoided in the last 24-72 hours because it can give you bloating and gas during the race. Similarly, leave the fatty, spicy and acidic foods for after the race when you treat yo’ self.
4. Race day nutrition demystified.
Breakfast before the race is important! Once again, don’t try anything new here. Eat something that you’ve been eating all week, ideally 2-4 hours before race time (smaller portion size if it’s 2 hours). Drink your coffee or tea as you normally would.
For hydration purposes, you should drink about 16 oz. of water two to three hours before the start. You can have one more cup of water at race time or take a shot (maybe even two) of concentrated beet juice.
Beet juice??? Absolutely! Beets contain a precursor to nitric oxide, a signaling molecule in the body that has been shown to improve exercise performance. This graph shows how incrementally larger amounts of beet juice led to increased nitric oxide levels when compared to water consumption.
Note that the peak level is about 2 hours after drinking it, which may be relevant for when you choose to time your beet shot. Also, make sure to test run with beet juice a few times before the race to insure that you tolerate it without undue side effects (ahem, diarrhea).
During the race, your energy comes from glycogen and blood sugar. Therefore, you can give your body an energy boost by keeping your blood sugar levels up. Simple carbohydrate solutions such as gels can be used throughout the run to maintain a consistent blood sugar supply.
And finally, a little caffeine during or right before the race has been shown to improve concentration and performance, particularly for longer runs. Similar to the beet juice, be sure to do a few test runs beforehand to make sure you have the right dose.
Best of luck on race day!
 J Appl Physiol. 2013 Aug 1;115(3):325-36
Dr. Bulsiewicz is a gastroenterologist in Mount Pleasant, SC. He believes that all health begins in the gut, and that only by eating the proper foods and taking care of the friendly microbes can we achieve our fullest potential. His clinical practice includes the full spectrum of gastroenterology including colon cancer screening, colonoscopy and upper endoscopy, GERD, Barrett’s, and hemorrhoids. Follow Dr. B on Instagram (@happygutmd) and Facebook (Lowcountry Gastroenterology) for gut health tips to achieve a “Happy Gut, Healthy Life.”
The entire content of this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult with a qualified healthcare professional. Copyright 2017.