Marathon legend Bill Rogers once said “more races are lost at the dinner table the night before than on the actual race course.” Being that a marathon is such a long and enduring event you need to be sure you are eating the right foods prior to the event to make sure you are fueled up and primed to go the distance but not needing to stop and use the bathroom along the way. All of us as runner have experienced both issues in training and racing where we either lack energy or have to make several pit stops to avoid an accident in our shorts. While it really is a matter of trial and error to determine what foods work best for you personally, there are several guidelines you can follow for your meals the day before, as well as the morning of and during your event. Furthermore, these tips also apply to shorter races even as short as the 5k as stomach problems are common in these as well.
The Day Before
We all know the basics of what to eat the day before a big race. We need to insure our carbohydrate supply is topped of so we have maximal energy and this runners typically go to a large plate of pasta to carbo load. However what we fail to realize is that massive quantities of pasta is not the best way to store carbohydrates as we can not digest and store that many carbs at once. It is much better to have smaller carbohydrate meals for a couple days leading up to your event. Furthermore, if you eat an entire box of pasta the night before it will only weigh you down in your race as it will more than likely still be in your digestive track.
A mistake that runners often make is choosing whole wheat pasta over standard as it is viewed as a healthier alternative. While this is true in general, whole wheat is not the better option for your prerace meal. The reason is that it has a high fiber content and this adds a lot of bulk to your food. This will sit in your stomach and likely lead to bathroom issues along the race course. Also, runners tend to add large amounts of sauce and spices to their pasta which only leads to dehydrate you. If you do choose to add sauce be sure to drink a lot of water with it to make sure you are not dehydrated for the race. I personally eat my pasta prerace plain without sauce, it’s like my coach always tells me “eat cardboard before your race.” While he isn’t literally saying to eat cardboard, it is best to choose bland foods to avoid stomach issues.
On top of the carbohydrates it will benefit you to add a little bit of lowfat protein to your meal such as chicken breast or fish. These choices are light on your stomach and won’t weigh you down the next day but will help you to feel strong.
The Day Of
Your meals on race day depend greatly on the time of the race, whether it is a morning or night race. No matter what the time however, I recommend eating something. The reason for this is that while your muscle glycogen may still be fueled up from your meal the night before, your liver glycogen gets depleted overnight. Therefore, you should refuel it in order to have maximum energy.
Some options for good race day foods are a light snack of fruit such as a banana and an apple with a side of lowfat yogurt. This provides mainly light carbs with a little bit of protein to prevent you from showing up to the line with your stomach growling. Other runners may choose a plain bagel with peanut butter and honey. This meal also provides protein with carbs. Another favorite of runners is a bowl of oatmeal. Be wary with this one though as oatmeal has a large amount of fiber which you may find upsets your stomach. Make sure not to eat these foods too close to your race, a couple hours out should be fine though. If you need anything closer to the start choose liquids such as Gatorade as they will not sit in your stomach.
During the Race
If you are racing anything other than a marathon I would avoid consuming anything including water as it will only weigh you down and potentially cause stomach issues. With the marathon however, glycogen becomes a limiting factor and you should restore it early and often to avoid “bonking out” near the end. Liquids and gels are the best choices for during the race as they are easily digested. If you choose gel be sure to consume plenty of water with it. Some pros have their special concoctions at water stations but Gatorade is just as effective as anything they are drinking. It’s all about getting the carbs in!
These are not steadfast rules that you need to follow but more of guidelines to tailor to your own personalized needs. Everyone responds differently to different foods so the key is to find what works for you and stick with it!