The Complete Guide to Runners Race Nutrition

Updated: Apr 10


By Holley Samuel MEd, RD, LD, CPT


Failing to plan is planning to fail when it comes to race day nutrition.


As the training winds down before your upcoming goal race, you'll have more time and energy to think about the logistics of the event. Besides planning how you'll get to the start line, housing accommodations, weather, and what you'll wear, it's essential to consider and review the nutritional plan.


Nutrition is one of the things entirely in our control leading up to race day, so hopefully, you've been practicing your nutrition during training to be sure that you nail the fueling strategies on race day.



Travel Nutritional Tips For Running and Racing


Carb load in the 1-3 days pre-race if your event will take longer than 2 hours. If you are traveling for your race and need to carb load, you need to consider where your food will come from during the days leading up to the race. Carb loading doesn’t have to be complicated, but it requires some planning and intention to meet your carbohydrate needs to top off your glycogen stores before your race. Layout the snacks you'll need between meals and identify where you'll be stopping to eat during the trip.


Hydration check. Stay in tune with your hydration, including electrolyte consumption, when traveling. With the elevation changes from flying to an event, dehydration can occur. The last thing you want is to show up to race weekend depleted because you didn't account for travel day nutrition.


"I'll just figure it out when I get there" is the recipe for disaster as this usually leads to skipped meals, dehydration, stress, food that doesn't settle well, and self frustration. The days leading up to your race are just as if not even more important than dinner the night before or breakfast the morning of your race when it comes to topping off your glycogen stores.



How to Structure the Day Before Your Race


Identify where you will be staying, how much walking around you'll want to do before the race, when you want to eat meals that day, and where those meals will come from.


Many runners opt for an early dinner pre-race and then settle in for the evening to get plenty of rest. If this is relatable, make sure anyone you are traveling with is aware of the plan. Will you need to make dinner reservations to ensure this plan works, or are you able to make dinner where you are staying? Either way, be sure that what you eat before your race is something that you have successfully fueled with during training.


Things to avoid before the race include:

  • New diets, new foods, cutting out a food group or trying a brand new restaurant.

  • Race-sponsored pasta dinner if you never have pasta the night before a long run.

  • Trying various fuel samples at the expo just because all of the other runners are doing it.

Stick with what you know works and feel confident in your fueling plan. If you are unsure of your nutritional plan, consider practicing some options in your last couple of training runs to assess what you want to do during race week.



Race Morning Fuel


Stick with your typical fueling strategies before long runs or strenuous workouts; this is the template you should follow before your race, and it should include about 0.5- 1.8g/lb body weight easy to digest carbohydrates ~1-2 hours before your race starts (account for any extra time you need to digest as practiced in training). For a 150lb runner, they would need between 75-270g of carbohydrates over the course of their pre-race fuel.


Breakfast for a 150lb runner (1.5 hours before the race):

1 bagel

1 banana

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp peanut butter

12oz of sports drink (Gatorade endurance or Skratch Labs)

Total ~125g carbohydrate


*If you are consuming less than this before your typical long run or strenuous workout, or the nutrition is outside of these parameters, consider doing a “race day simulation run.” On this run, wake up the same time you plan to wake up on race day. Consume what you plan to eat the morning of the race and start your run at the same time you will start your race. Pay attention to how you feel. Look for signs of GI distress, and assess how strong you felt during and post-workout.


Bring your race day fuel with you, or identify where and how you will get it the day of the race. Account for the time you will need to wake up to eat before starting your race and if stores, hotel breakfast buffets, coffee shops etc. will be open that morning. Also, identify how you will travel to get there and if a race-related road closure will interfere with the plan.



Fuel and Nutrition During The Race


Finally, review your fueling plan and strategies during the race. If you plan to carry fuel with you, I recommend you pack extra items in the case that you need more on the course. Use only sports nutrition you've had success with during training. Consider any vessels you will need to carry hydration, fuel, phone, etc. And review the race rules to ensure that what you're training with is approved for race day. Also, it's essential to confirm the locations of the aid stations on the course and the types of fuel they have to offer.


*For example, the Marathon World Majors do not allow hydration vests or large bottles. The Chicago Marathon will make you dump out any fluids you try to bring through security, so make sure you are aware of your specific race’s rules and prohibited items.


In most cases, races will have water for athletes and bathrooms, but check your race’s website to learn more about what will be offered at the race in terms of nutrition. Remember that all this planning will prepare you for success on race day. After the race is over, you can celebrate!


Need help organizing your race day nutrition plan?

It can help to write it all out, so you don’t miss anything. Check out this free Guide to Race Week template as a resource to help you out!






References

Vitale K, Getzin A. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1289. Published 2019 Jun 7. doi:10.3390/nu11061289