Race Week Nutrition

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s marathon season! Consequently, lots of runners out there are getting ready to toe the line for 26.2. While the bulk of the work has already been done, there are two things that a runner can do during race week to maximize race day potential. One is getting awesome sleep, and the other is focusing on nutrition.

Let’s break it down into the really important factors:

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrate is stored in the liver and in muscles as glycogen, which is used by the body for quick fuel during exercise. Our muscle cells function on glucose, and glycogen is just a bunch of little glucose units linked together – it’s very easy to chop one of these units off and use it to make energy. So, when you’re coming up on mile 23 and you need to keep those legs going, it’s helpful to have some glycogen around! We have a limited glycogen storage capacity that varies based on the size of the individual, but which is typically around 1500 calories. This is less energy than you need to run a marathon! We have other sources of energy (fat) that the body taps into in order to get through long events like the marathon, but this is not quite as efficient as using glycogen. In order to keep your body working as efficiently as possible, it’s important as a marathoner to make sure your glycogen stores are topped off. Enter: the carbo-load.

Even non-runners know the term “carbo-loading”. A mistake that often happens here is that people focus only on the day before the race. You should  moderately increase carbohydrates at all meals for 5 days before the race in order to make sure you get what you need. Waiting until the night before and pounding a giant heap of pasta will not fill your glycogen stores, and it’s definitely going to make you feel uncomfortable the next morning. GI discomfort is the last thing we want! Instead, have a normal portion the night before and work on topping off on glycogen all week. You don’t need to go crazy in the days leading up, just eat a bigger serving of whatever the carbohydrate in your meal is. If you’re a salad for lunch kind of person, make sure to include a roll or a piece of bread or two. Double your portion of roasted potatoes at dinner, have an extra piece of fruit here and there. In order to balance calories, reduce the protein and fat a bit, but don’t worry too much about it.

A note on sugar: While sugar is most definitely a carb and can help to fill your glycogen stores, you don’t want to overdo it. We all know that eating too much sugar makes us feel sluggish and generally crappy afterwards, and while maximizing stored glycogen is a goal that sugar can help us reach it comes secondary to the goal of “feeling like I am prepared for total domination”. So while a little sweet here and there during race week is fine, don’t go eating donuts for breakfast and think it’s gonna be great. Save the treats for after you’ve kicked ass 🙂

Water

Water is extremely important for two reasons:

  1. Optimal hydration is key for running long distances
  2. Glycogen is stored with water

Ever heard the term “water weight”? When your body stores a molecule of glycogen, water is also stored. This water does have weight to it, so as you increase your glycogen stores you can expect to gain a few pounds. Honestly, I do not recommend stepping on a scale the week leading up to your marathon – I promise you, you’re not adding poundage from fat.

With all this water in your muscles, it requires even more water to be adequately hydrated. Drink water constantly throughout the week leading up to the big day. Much like making sure you carb up in the days preceding the race and be moderate the night before, you will want to back off on water a bit the morning of and make sure to use the porta potty a few times before the race to empty your bladder. Do drink water, but don’t pound it like it’s going out of style unless it’s really hot. Trust me on this, I once had to squat behind a bush in CENTRAL PARK during a race. When ya gotta pee, ya gotta pee.

Fiber

This is where recommendations for race prep vary from typical recommendations. Normally I preach fruits, veggies, and whole grains like a religion, but fiber needs to come down in the 2 days before the race. Reduce your portions of vegetables, no adding chia and flax to things, go with white rice and breads versus whole grains and lower-fiber carbohydrate options like potatoes and pastas. While you may have not worried about your fiber intake before your long runs, chances are you’ll be out there for an extra 30-60 minutes, and you never know what could happen – nobody wants to have to make a pit stop in the middle of their race! Better to be safe than sorry!

Electrolytes

We’ve discussed electrolytes in detail before here and here. Those posts will help you out for your during-race hydration, but when it comes to the days leading up we also need to consider electrolytes. For the day or two before, add a non-carbohydrate electrolyte drink into the mix with your regular water. Whether you want to have a couple glasses of Nuun, Powerade Zero, G2, or some other sugar free sports drink is up to you, but it’s a good idea just to be safe. In addition, if it’s going to be hot you may want to consider choosing some salty foods the day before. Not only will they make you more thirsty (thereby making it easier to hydrate), you’ll have a little extra on board to sweat out the next day.

baguette

Race Week Game Plan:

race week

Suggestions for meals early in the week: 

Breakfasts: yogurt with fruit and granola, english muffin egg sandwich with a piece of fruit, peanut butter banana sandwich, milk and cereal with an egg on the side, oatmeal with banana and walnuts

Lunches: Turkey sandwich with carrot sticks and an apple, leftovers from the night before with an extra serving of potatoes/rice/bread/grains of all sorts, green salad with lean protein and two pieces of bread

Dinner: Your normal protein/vegetable/starch combo with an extra serving of starch

Snacks: Fruit, yogurt, string cheese, crackers (whole grain acceptable)

Suggestions for two days out:

Breakfasts: Bagels, oatmeal, English Muffin, cereal, toast; add something with protein like an egg, yogurt, or nuts; banana or peach if desired

Lunch: Carb-heavy options like a baked potato with a small amount of lean protein – try topping a baked sweet potato with BBQ chicken, a sprinkle of cheese, and some avocado slices; stir fry over white rice with well-cooked vegetables and lean protein; Sandwich with a banana;

Dinner: Bring on the carbohydrate! Pizza, pasta, shrimp and grits with french bread, polenta, loaded baked potato

Snacks: Fruit, yogurt, string cheese, toast, bagels, crackers – choose non-whole grain options like saltines or goldfish

Suggestions for the day before:

Breakfasts: Bagels, oatmeal, English muffin, cereal, toast, roasted potatoes; add something with protein like an egg, yogurt, or nuts; banana or peach if desired. Texas’ favorite breakfast tacos would also work well.

Lunch: Sandwiches are perfect for the day before, readily available, and easy to eat in transit. Go for a white bread and a lean protein, stay away from heavy sauces and excessive high-fat toppings. Think turkey with lettuce tomato and cheddar versus Philly cheese steak.

Dinner: We are looking for mainly carbohydrate here, a small amount of protein and fat is fine, and a small side salad would be fine as well but avoid lots of vegetables. Something like a fried rice prepared without much fat (as that may upset some stomachs), a modest portion of pasta with meat sauce, some people swear by pizza before a race. Your call, just keep it carby and don’t overeat. Be mindful of when you are satisfied without overdoing it so that you feel awesome in the morning!

Snacks: Fruit, yogurt, string cheese, toast, bagels, crackers – choose non-whole grain options like saltines or goldfish

Suggestions for the morning of:

Stick with what you know. Go with the same carbohydrate-rich breakfast that has fueled your long runs, a cup of coffee if you’re a coffee drinker, and get out there! YOU ARE READY.

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