Race Nutrition — How much and when?

“Any advice on how to figure out how much in race nutrition you need, and when to consume it?” — Matt K

One of the most confounding aspects of running is how to handle nutrition. It is a common question, and unfortunately one I cannot answer without veering out of my lane.* In order to tackle this topic, though, we can start with some generalizations. 

Regardless of how long you are running, you should be drinking enough water or fluid to keep your thirst down. If you are already thirsty, it is too late. How much in ounces that takes for you, though, is a very individual equation. Starting with 24 ounces of water per hour might seem like a lot, but for a while it might be better to err on the side of caution. Too much can lead to a sloshy stomach, not enough could lead to dehydration and muscle cramping.

If you are running or racing for under 75 minutes (up to 90 depending on the effort), you should be fine with plain water. If it is warmer, or you have a higher sweat rate, add a low-calorie, low sugar electrolyte mix. These can be found in effervescent tablets or packets

If you are racing for over 75 minutes, then consider adding carbohydrates. Start with a quarter of your body weight (in pounds) in grams of carbs per hour. It is important to practice race fueling in training, especially during your long runs. The more you practice race day fueling in training, the better chance you have to find what works. If it doesn’t work one week, try something else next week. 

Why Carbohydrates? Carbs are gas for the engine. Our bodies break down carbohydrates into glycogen, to then store in the muscles for quick use during activity. Running out of gas equals hitting the wall — our legs become heavy, and it just gets much harder to put one foot in front of the other. We need to replace the glycogen stores as we burn through them in longer distance races. However, those stores don’t really start depleting for a couple of hours. We carry enough glycogen for 75-90 minutes which is why we don’t need much in the way of fuel during shorter races. For longer distance races consider the following fuel sources for race day: Gels, Gummies, Bars, Waffles, Sport Beans, Fluid nutrition (Tailwind, Hammer, UCan). 

What about before the race? Depending on when your race start time is, consume 100-200 calories at least an hour before your start. This will top off the tank, and replenish the glycogen stores. You can do this for any race distance. Waffles are great for this, but also bananas, or toast with nut butter. Hydrating well prior to race time is a careful balance. Stop drinking to hydrate about an hour or two before your race to make sure you won’t have to stop along the race course. 

After the race, refueling as soon as possible is critical for recovery. A balance of carbohydrates to replenish glycogen and protein to rebuild damaged tissues will start that recovery process very quickly. Aim for at least 50 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein as soon after the race as possible. 

Please note that the nutrition equation isn’t about distance, but duration. The longer you are out there, the more fuel and hydration you need. There is no one-size-fits all equation, and your fueling practices may look very different compared to others. Practicing what works for you in training will be crucial to your performance on race day. Find the combination that works for you, make a race day plan, and execute the plan. 

How do you fuel on race day? I would love to hear from you. 

*I am not a Certified Nutritionist, nor am I a Registered Dietician. This article contains general information only as a guide. It is not meant to serve as nutritional advice. You know your body best. If you have allergies or food sensitivities, it is important to find the right formula that will work for you.

For more, check out my recent video:

Heather Jergensen

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