If you’re prepping for a race, you’re also probably thinking about the vital days and weeks in the lead-up. This post covers all you need to know and so you have everything you need.

The longer the race is, the more nutrition plays a role. If its duration is under an hour and a half, provided you eat something before and after, your regular glycogen stores will provide enough energy. Regardless of the distance, the most important thing in the lead-up to the big day is to have a clear nutritional strategy. Your macros and food should be based on what your stomach is used to, that’s why tracking in Lifesum from an early stage is important.

There are different theories and nutritional strategies on how best to prepare for races or other endurance competitions. The safest strategy is to eat as you usually would when training and working out, with some minor adjustments in the final stages of preparation (see below). For longer distances, strategies like “carb loading” may be incorporated.  If you are interested in how strategies like these work, you’ll find out more about them at the end of this blogpost.

Remember, these tips are general ones and you are an individual. Testing everything you plan to consume during your training period, together with self evaluation, is therefore of great importance and highly recommended when trying to find a nutritional strategy that suits you.

Why do we need to fuel up?

We have limited carb storage in our liver and muscles. When training for over an hour and a half, we need to supply the body with more fuel. If not, we risk running out of fast energy sources mid-race, which can result in decreased efficiency and speed. Fat on the other hand, has unlimited storage, but “costs” more oxygen and therefore takes a longer time for the body to utilize as energy. 

When running races with prolonged, moderate intensity, we want fat and carbs to be used as fuel. For this we need to supply our body with carbs during the race. We also need to supply the body with water and salt (depending on duration), since we lose these things through sweat. This could, for example, be taken in the form of a sports drink. Read more about hydration and fluid here

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

If your diet has worked well during training, you can continue to eat the same things all the way up to race day. This is usually the safest option, because you know that it works. However, the day before, it can be beneficial to eat some additional simple carbs. If you’re racing longer distances, it can also pay off to increase your sodium intake a bit. 

You may have heard people throwing a pizza/pasta party the night before. YUM we say! It is, as mentioned, good to eat more simple carbs the day before, and pizza and pasta are sources of that. But remember: don’t overdo it! Consuming large amounts of food the evening before a race isn’t recommended, especially if you’re not used to it. Everything in moderation is best and preferably tried and tested in the weeks before. 

Race day

HEADS UP! During longer runs, drinks and food are often served at refill-stations at various points throughout. Find out what will be served during your race. Is it something you know you tolerate well and have tested during training? Then use it. Otherwise, you should consider bringing your own food or sports drink.

If you are an experienced runner, you should already know how nerves affect you come race day. Find out what works for you. When running, how full do you like to feel? What is comfortable for you? Don’t introduce new or unknown elements – treat the race as a regular training day.

Before the race:

Maintaining the same timing and meal order as when training is recommended. Eat a larger meal 3-4 hours before, and eat something snacky containing simple carbs, approximately 1-1½ hours pre-race.

During the race – if duration exceeds 1.5 hour:

Sports drinks or gels containing electrolytes and carbs should ideally be used during races exceeding 1½ hours. 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour are usually recommended (for prolonged intensive sessions, up to 90 grams per hour). This is where you should use your sports drink of choice. Spread your fluid intake over regular intervals during the race; every 15 mins might be good to have in mind. Don’t save all your hydration for one occasion! Larger volumes will be harder for the body to digest.

After the race:

Many people struggle with eating straight after a race, especially over longer distances, but make sure you eat as soon as you can. In the hour after finishing a long race, your glycogen and fluid levels are low, even if you used sports drinks. Restoring the fluid levels and glycogen, and optimizing protein build-up as soon as possible will be important for optimizing recovery, as well as reducing the risk of infection.

It doesn’t have to be a full meal right away, but try to at least snack on foods containing carbs and salt. This helps restore energy, fluid and electrolyte loss. The longer the race, the more important it is to fuel up afterwards for better recovery.

Carb loading?

A strategy you may be familiar with is carb loading. As mentioned above, this strategy is only worth trying for longer races (> 1½ hours). This is a technique where you decrease the amount of carbohydrates in order to deplete your glycogen stores, then fill up with carbs after a few days. The aim of this is to fill up your glycogen stores a bit more than usual and ultimately prolong fast energy sources during the race. There are different types of carb loading, each recommending a different % of carbs and number of days. Tracking with Lifesum will help you see how many carbs your body can handle each day, meaning you’ll be able to understand how much you can increase them without any discomfort.

A key thing to remember: there are potentially negative effects with carb loading. The fewer carbs you eat, compared with what you are used to, the worse the risk of side effects. For example, you risk gaining water weight when increasing the carb amount again (carbs bind water in the body). This typically leads to feelings of bloatedness or heaviness.  Some people also experience low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia), mood swings, infections and bad recovery. 

If you’re keen to try carb loading, it is most important to try it out well before race day. This helps you see how you react on low-carb diets when combined with exercise, and whether or not it’s something for you. Carb loading is not recommended for diabetes or other endocrine disorders. 

Below are strategies for two different types of carb loading:

Recommended Carb Loading

This plan starts 6 days before the main event. As a minimum, you’ll eat 40% carbs. 

If you go for this strategy, we recommend you decrease the amount of carbs, then slowly increase the amount again as the week progresses. This is how we recommend you adjust your carb intake: we’ll assume that you have been eating at least 60% carbs for 3 months and experiencing energy balance – no weight gain and no weight loss. Your carb intake should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the day, whilst keeping in mind those late night workouts also need recovery – read more about recommended meal order here.

Wondering why we recommend this carb loading over the method below (‘strict carb loading’)? With this strategy, you should benefit from the positive effects of carb loading while also minimizing the negative effects. Stricter methods are even lower in carb intake than you might be used to, which may increase the risk of side effects. 

Strict Carb Loading

This plan starts 6 days before race day. As a minimum, you’ll eat 25% carbs. Since this plan reduces carb intake more than our recommended plan, we suggest you seek professional nutrition advice when doing this for the first time. There are no significant differences in performance between the two carb-loading strategies.

Remember, since this method decreases the carb amount even more than the method above, the chances of side effects may also increase. 

Finally

Last but not least, here’s to sticking to a thorough training and nutritional plan! Go get ‘em! Hopefully you’ve found what works for you and what doesn’t. Ultimately, you’re the expert of your body and you’re the one doing all the work. We are here to motivate and assist you, and give you the right nutritional tools to help you reach your full potential. Best of luck!

Kajsa holds a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Umeå University, Sweden. Having worked as a Clinical Dietitian with a focus on dietary treatments for both individuals and groups, Kajsa now supports the Lifesum team in providing professional and evidence-based interventions to users. Kajsa is a self-confessed training nerd and admits her greatest passions are anything to do with food, science and health.

All posts by Kajsa Ernestam