Hey there, athlete! So you've got that big race coming up. I bet you're getting excited since race day is soon. Gotta make sure you're prepared. What's your nutrition plan?
I remember someone asking this before one of my half marathons. My response was a pause, a puzzled look; I uttered "Um..." I had no idea what they meant!
Has anyone asked you this before a big race? What was your response?
I am surprised at the number of amazing and talented athletes that DON'T have a nutrition plan for their next goal race. It's very important for you to have an adequate nutrition plan for optimal performance. Any competitive runner or triathlete I know wants to perform at their best and/or get as much of an edge on their competition as possible. Honestly, having a smart and well-planned-out nutrition plan for your next race could be your key to making that goal time or being the best competitor out there!
What is a nutrition plan and why is it important to have one? The plan itself should outline what carbohydrate and hydration you will use and at what times to help your body perform its best in a race. It is necessary to have one to prevent loss of energy and "bonking," also known as "hitting the wall." According to Suzanne Girard Eberle MS, RD, author of Endurance Sports Nutrition, "if you eat a normal athlete's diet with about 60% of your calories from carbohydrate, you can store 1,400 to 1,800 calories worth of glycogen in your muscles on any given day. An athlete can burn through that in one to three hours of moderate- to high-intensity continuous exercise. [When you ‘hit the wall’], muscle fibers lack the fuel needed for contraction and fatigue takes over." Depleted glycogen stores mean your body can't turn fat into energy fast enough. The liver then no longer releases glucose at the right rate to fuel the brain and muscles, and you, in the end, lose focus, get dizzy, and become disoriented. In worse case scenarios, you may even hallucinate.
That is quite the scary thought! Remember, though, that this only happens in the worst cases. In order to be the most prepared, glycogen stores must be fully topped off and geared for whatever length of race you are running.
Here are some general rules of thumb based on different race lengths:
Marathon: 8 ounces of sports drink pre-race, water and/or sports drink when necessary to prevent dehydration (which means to drink enough so that you don't ever get thirsty, but not so much that the fluid is sloshing in your stomach or slowing you down), 100 to 250 calories per hour (or 25 to 60 grams of carbs), the first hour after the start
(Note: Caloric needs are based on the size of the athlete. Females under 150 pounds probably only need 100 calories per hour, whereas a male over 200 pounds would require 250 calories per hour.)
Half Marathon: 8 ounces of sports drink pre-race, water and/or sports drink when necessary to prevent dehydration, 100 to 250 calories an hour into the race
10K: 8 ounces of sports drink pre-race, water and/or sports drink when necessary to prevent dehydration (only one drink stop is probably needed unless you're a heavy sweater)
5K: 8 ounces of sports drink pre-race (or water if you've had a carb-heavy breakfast), then race to the finish!
Post-race, make sure to keep drinking water to replenish your muscles and the electrolytes you've worked off. Hydration is very important - even after the race is over! I've never had difficulty accomplishing this. I remember during some hot summer races (such as Bellin or Bret Younger) I was crazily craving that icy, refreshing bottle of water waiting for me at the end. It was all I could think about and it was what encouraged me to finish as fast as I could.
Now, for the fun part! You can choose which products will work best for you based on your tastes and caloric needs. What's even better is that most of these aids aren't very expensive and can be found at most sports stores. There are a variety of carb aids out on the sports market shelves that can help you during your race: different flavors of Gatorade, Powerade, juice (though it should probably be watered down to prevent an upset stomach), electrolyte drinks, carb gels (there are a plethora of companies that make a large variety of tasty flavors), and solid packaged carb aids. Even fruits (bananas are popular as they're the easiest to digest and contain lots of potassium for muscle function) or dried fruits are great quick[-]and[-]easy-to-carry carb sources. My personal favorite? CANDY! Gummi bears, jelly beans, Sweet Tarts...these are amazing for fast, simple carbs for instant energy!
If you're not sure what will work for you it's best to just buy it and try it out on your next training run. If you fumble with Gu gels (I once got it all over my face while racing - what a sticky mess) it might be better for you to try Shot Bloks or Sports Beans. Make sure to pick flavors that you like a lot, otherwise you won't want to take it on race day. Some people absolutely can't stand a chocolate-flavored gel, yet the owner of Fox Valley Running Company's favorite flavor of Gu is Chocolate Outrage! A fantastic idea is to find out what will be supplied at your race (tip: Fox Cities Marathon is using Carb Boom for its carb aids) and stock up on it long before race day so you know whether or not you want to use it during the race or if you'd prefer to bring your own nutrition.
There's also a huge selection of energy bars on the market. PowerBar was probably one of the very first quick energy, nutrient-dense, and extremely portable forms of nutrition out there; they're still around for those reasons exactly. If you've ever stood in front of the aisle at your supermarket that showcased all of these bars, it can be quite a conundrum figuring out which one suits you. According to Liz Applegate, Ph D and writer for Runner's World, "given all the [many different] versions, including women-only, high-protein, and meal-replacement bars, try to read labels carefully if you want to fuel up properly." She says that for the best fueling before and/or during a run, a bar should contain around 25 grams of carbs and less than 15 grams of protein (which isn't a necessary fuel source during exercise). It is also good to avoid fat, which slows your stomach's digestion of the carbs inside the bar. "Eat one bar about an hour before a run. If you're running for more than an hour, eat one high-carb bar per hour of running, along with ample water."
I did make the claim that a nutrition plan may be just what you need to beat your competition or to run your goal time. The only thing I can promise about whether or not a nutrition plan may actually work is that it must be practiced. Practice your nutrition plan as soon as you can into your training schedule in order to get a good idea for what timing, fluids, and carb aids work for you. Not only should your plan be geared towards what makes you feel the best (and you WILL notice an improvement in performance if you don't currently do this) but also something your stomach can handle. Make sure to pick something that is the most accessible. That is why there are pockets on most running attire. Running clothing companies WANT you to run your best! (A neat marketing ploy, huh?)
While we're on a roll with race strategies, the next column will discuss what you should eat the weeks leading up to that big race (more specifically half marathon and marathon) and the nutritional keys to optimal recovery post-race so that your body feels the best it can after all that hard work.
Although I tout the true benefits of race gels and carb aids, I have noticed that there are absolutely NO peanut butter-flavored gels out there! Peanut butter-flavored PowerBars are pretty good, but I prefer gel come race day. Maybe I should write Gu or Carb Boom and request peanut butter chocolate (think Reese's) or peanut butter banana flavors? Delicious! If they existed, I'd want to go on a long run just to try one out!
This article is meant to give education on the nutritional content of certain foods. It was not written by a licensed nutrition professional. Please consult your doctor if there are changes you'd like to make to your diet.