Fuel your run

When preparing to run a race, there is more to focus on than just getting fit. Your diet will also need to be up to speed in order to maintain your energy levels. Below is a guideline of what to eat when you’re a runner.

The Start Rules

All runners, report to the starting line.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re taking part in a major marathon or a local 5 kilometre run. You may have clocked many miles, on the treadmill or the trail, to get ready, but have you prepared nutritionally?

Good nutrition should consistently be a major factor in your ongoing training, not only something that you quickly start 2 weeks leading up to the race. Here are some guidelines to follow.

Practice, practice, practice!

The amount of calories you need to consume daily rests on the time and intensity of your workouts. You should keep in mind that you’ll burn around 100 calories for every 1.6 km’s that you run (depending on your size). If you run 6.5 km’s, you’ll burn roughly 400 calories more than you would have if you didn’t exercise. You need to eat enough so that you don’t feel faint or weak towards the end of your workout, but you shouldn’t use running as an excuse to eat everything in sight. Unless you’re a long-distance runner, your daily calorie needs aren’t going to be dramatically higher than a non-runner’s. You should consult with a sports nutritionist who can help you tailor an eating plan that’s right for you.

Kathleen Porter, MS, a registered dietician and long-time runner from New York City, suggests aiming for the following breakdown for your daily meals:

  • 60-70 percent of calories from carbohydrates (grains, pasta, bread, etc.)
  • 20-30 percent of calories from fat sources (oils, avocados, nuts, etc.)
  • 10-15 percent of calories from protein (fish, meat, chicken, beans, etc.)

In order to optimize your training, when you eat is almost as important as what you eat, says triathlete Cindy Sherwin, who is a registered dietician and personal trainer. Within an hour of finishing your run (and ideally within 30 minutes), you should refuel with a snack. Sherwin recommends that your post-run snack contain carbs and protein at a ratio of roughly 4-to-1.

Her suggestions: a slice of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and jam, or some fruit with half a cup of yogurt. You are looking to replenish your glycogen stores so that you can be ready for your next workout. The best uptake of glucose in your body is in those first 30 minutes after your run. In addition to getting you fit for race day, training provides you with the opportunity to practice your fluid-replacement strategies.

You are required to drink regularly during long races (half-marathons and marathons) as well as shorter races in hot weather. You should experiment with hydration during your training runs. Decide whether you like drinking on the go, or prefer to stop running, take a few sips, and then get moving again. Choose between whether you prefer Energade and similar sports drinks, or do you prefer to stick to water. You should use your training runs as dress rehearsals for race day.

Two Weeks Out

Some nutritional principles to keep in mind as race day approaches:

  • Start adding more complex carbohydrates to your diet. Complex carbohydrates are found in all plant-based foods; they take longer for the body to digest than simple ones and are available as stored energy for use when needed. Whole-grain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and vegetables are good sources of complex carbohydrates.
  • Drink lots of water. Even being slightly dehydrated can leave you feeling lethargic, so make sure you’re getting plenty of fluids. There’s no need to worry about exact measurements, but it’s a good idea to keep a water bottle with you during the day so you can drink frequently. During long training runs, you should consume water every 20-30 minutes or more often as needed.
  • Be an iron-woman. A woman who doesn’t get enough iron may become anaemic and feel tired and weak; she also could be more vulnerable to infection. To avoid getting run down, increase your iron intake by eating: lean red meats and leafy greens which are good sources.

Three to Four Days Prior to Race Day

  • You need carbohydrates for energy. Your diet should consist of about 70 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent fats, and 10 percent protein.
  • Increase consumption of complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates will give your muscles and brain the fuel they need to get through the race. Most women tend to load up on familiar sources like pasta and rice, but you should be considering complex carbohydrates sources like tabouleh, oatmeal, and other whole grains.

The Night Before

  • Don’t experiment. While we all love to try new foods and taste new flavours, it’s best to stick with what’s familiar and what works for you the night before the race. If you had bolognaise sauce the night before your previous successful long training run, then you shouldn’t try something heavy and different on this night. A new food or spice could upset your stomach or leave you feeling “off.”
  • Eat a nutritious meal composed of whole grains (whole wheat pasta or brown rice); grilled or steamed vegetables or a salad (lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and light dressing); and a small amount of protein such as grilled chicken, fish, or lean red meat. Stick with what’s familiar: If you’ve found that too much fibre was problematic for you on your training days, then you may want to eat a white-flour (not whole-grain) carbohydrates source.
  • Continue drinking water.

Race Day

Morning of Race (Three Hours Out)

  • Eat a healthy breakfast of 400-600 calories. The trick is to top off your energy stores without eating something that will feel heavy in your stomach. Some good options are: Oatmeal or cold cereal with low-fat milk, or half a bagel and some low-fat yogurt. Stick with what’s familiar and has worked well for you in training.
  • Drink water to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid fatty foods that could make you feel nauseated, full, or lethargic. You don’t want your body wasting energy on digesting something heavy.
  • If you’re used to doing so, have a cup of coffee. Caffeine can make your run seem easier, but beware: it can also stimulate your digestive tract.

During the Race

  • Keep hydrated. It’s a good idea to take a drink at every drink station, even if you don’t feel thirsty — especially on a hot day. It is also important not to over hydrate. Hyponatremia is a rare but serious condition in which the body’s natural balance of electrolytes is disturbed by too much fluid. Consider taking Energade or another electrolyte-replacement drink along with water to make sure you don’t experience “water intoxication.” If you feel nauseated, dizzy, or overtired, stop running and seek medical attention.
  • Maintain your blood-sugar levels. If you’re running a long race (a half-marathon or longer), it’s likely that some fuelling stations along the route will offer energy gels containing carbohydrates and caffeine. This may be a good energy-replacement option for you if you’ve tolerated energy gels well in your training runs.

After the Race

  • Drink Energade or another sports-drink to replace electrolytes, the sodium, and the potassium that you burned off during the race.
  • Eat a piece of fruit, some pretzels, or something with sugar to start stabilizing your blood sugar levels and aid recovery. You may not feel hungry after the race, but it is important to consume something, even if it’s just a sports drink to avoid fainting and aid recovery.
  • Avoid eating a huge meal immediately after the race. Your body has been pushed to its limits and overeating may nauseate you. So even if your family and friends want to treat you to a celebratory all-you-can-eat brunch, don’t overindulge until you’re sure you can stomach a large amount of food.
  • Go easy on the alcohol. You may be tempted to toast your new personal best with a couple of drinks, but be aware that alcohol causes dehydration and you may get drunk faster if you drink after a race. Keep drinking plenty of water.
  • Let your body recuperate. Stretch gently after the race, and consider booking a massage to help your strained muscles recover. Consider your time on the table a reward for your effort!
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