When determining what to eat prior to athletic events like a road race, always keep in mind that the only way to have enough energy for the race is to consume enough energy. Different types of exercise require different needs -- the harder, longer and more often you do an activity, the more energy is needed for your muscles to work.
Carbohydrates are important for activities that require high intensity and quick bursts of energy. Both carbohydrates and fats are needed to sustain you through longer activity periods. Carbohydrates are broken down when you eat and changed into glucose that travels in your bloodstream to produce immediate energy or are stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen. If excess calories are consumed, fat will become the storage form for the energy.
Athletes are advised to consume 5-10 grams of carbohydrate a day for every kilogram of body weight. Carbohydrates are important because it helps you maintain rigorous activity longer, your body even uses carbohydrates more efficiently and stores more as muscle glycogen the longer you train. Glycogen is the stored energy found in the muscle or liver that provides most of the fuel for exercise.
For a long distance endurance race, you primarily use glucose, glycogen and fat to provide the energy you need. Glucose and glycogen come from starches and sugars, found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains.
Since carbs are the best energy source, what foods should you be consuming during training and prior to your road race?
Prior to your event
Start 6 days before your event, training at normal levels to deplete the glycogen in your muscles, then taper off hard exercise to allow your muscle glycogen to resupply itself. During those days, consume a normal mixed diet.
When you cut back on training in the few days before your event, consider increasing your carbohydrate calories from 5 grams per kilogram to 7 or even 10 grams per kilogram of body weight. You do not need to necessarily to increase total calories, just focus on carbohydrate-rich foods. Complex carbohydrate are better choices than simple carbohydrates.
While resting on the last day before your event, plan on packing yourself sports drinks if the race will be more than an hour and a carbohydrate-rich snack for after the end of the event so that your body can begin replenishing your glycogen stores immediately.
If your race is longer than an hour, a sugary snack like an energy bar before your race may extend your stamina. You should drink water with your snack but keep the snack small because otherwise too much glucose may delay the time it takes for water to leave your stomach. A sports drink, raisins, a small energy bar or a banana are all good choices. Even longer distance runners may want to carry glucose gels, cubes or shots, although too much glucose during a run can lead to GI issues. Use only drinks or gels that you have tried prior to the event during training.
Especially when you are training and prior to your event, you want to avoid processed foods, fried foods and foods that cause GI distress. Although complex carbohydrates are ideal, if you are worried about intestinal discomfort, consider reducing your fiber in the day or two prior to your run, like switching from whole-wheat pasta to white flour pasta.
Carbohydrate-rich meal ideas
- Stir-fry vegetables with a protein source like tofu, shrimp or chicken over brown rice.
- Baked sweet potatoes with steamed broccoli and carrots. Add 3 oz of a lean meat choice.
- Whole-grain corn tortillas with fresh pico de gallo, refried beans and cheese.
- Chili made with textured vegetable protein, kidney and black beans in a whole wheat bread bowl.
- Steamed fish fillets with vegetables in coconut milk and a side of steamed cassava.
- Spaghetti with whole-wheat pasta, consider adding beans or lentils to the sauce or a lean meat choice.
- Desserts made from whole-wheat flour topped with fresh fruits! Try a quick berry cobbler, topping frozen berries with oats and nuts and seeds then baking until browned.
- Dried fruit snacks with nuts.
- Pagan Pancakes, which mix a variety of grains like oats, buckwheat and millet into your pancake batter.
- Enchiladas with black beans and a side of mixed green salad.
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.