What to eat before, during and after a race
One of the most common questions I get from runners is “what should I eat the night before a big race? What about during and after?”. I recently taught a cooking class to group of women where we talked about and made some delicious, nourishing fuel for each of those categories. We learned, cooked, and ate our way through the class (a dream come true!).
The most important thing to remember is that what you eat before, during and after a race is very dependent on the person. One person in the class told me their friend just keeps some crispy bacon in their pocket as their race fuel and that’s what works best for her! Make sure to try everything out before race day to figure out what works best for you.
Also, check my earlier post if you’re wondering what to eat before and after a workout!
What to eat for your pre-race dinner
Carbohydrates are our preferred and most efficient source of immediate energy. Our bodies break it down into glucose which is then stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. During the race, your body relies on those muscle glycogen stores for energy, with the liver stores as back up.
The whole week leading up to a race, you should be tapering back on training but still eating as you normally do. By doing this, you’re gradually building up your glycogen stores for race day. The point here is that you don’t have to focus so much on that one pre-race meal. Instead, focus on eating good complex carbs, quality protein, healthy fats and plenty of veggies all week leading up to your race. This is the best way to make sure your glycogen stores are maxed out.
The pre-race dinner still shouldn’t be ignored and does still help to top off your glycogen stores. Just make sure not to eat anything the night before a race that you wouldn’t normally eat, like gorging on a giant bowl of pasta. I have nothing against pasta, but a lot of people feel like they need to pack it all in the night before and end up eating more than they should, which can make you feel heavy and/or mess with your digestion (something we definitely want to avoid!).
Since you’re building up your glycogen stores all week, there’s no need to over-indulge the night before a race. Just like you’ve been doing all week, focus on getting in good carbs, quality protein, healthy fats, and veggies. Make sure everything that falls into those categories is easy for you to digest. For example, I would personally stay away from too many beans and cruciferous veggies. You want your digestion to be in tip top shape for race day!
My favorite pre-race dinners:
Grain bowls: rice or quinoa topped with a protein (meatballs or shredded chicken), veg (roasted sweet potatoes, beets) and topped with a sauce (guac, tahini sauce, Garlicky Yogurt Sauce).
Pasta with meat sauce + salad
Whole roasted sweet potato topped with guac, Stovetop Taco Chicken and pickled onions.
What to eat during a long race
Your muscles and liver can only store so much glycogen and if you’re exercising for more than 90 minutes (sometimes less if it’s high intensity) you’ll likely go through all your glycogen stores. Having a snack can help top off those stores and power you to the finish line without crashing.
A lot of runners want to know what they can eat to replace the processed energy gels, gus and blocks. Most sports bars/gels use fructose and maltodextrin (from corn) as the source of carbs and have over 20g of these refined, high-glycemic sugars. Also, when you ingest such a high dose of high-glycemic sugars, your intestines react by bringing in water to dilute the sugar, leaving your body more dehydrated. Again, gu’s may work great for some people who don’t experience negative effects, but these are the reasons why they might not be a great idea for others.
The most important thing for what to eat during the race is to make sure you try out different options while your training and see what works best for you. Focus on getting in digestible carbs with a touch of protein and fat for sustenance. If you want to try a homemade version, here are a few ideas to test out. Make sure to always have water after consuming.
On race day I usually use a snack-sized ziplock bag so I can just throw it away when I’m done with it. Just tear a little hole with your teeth when you’re ready to eat it.
If you want a reusable squeeze packet, these ones on Amazon are my fav!
Favorite DIY Energy Squeezes
Sweet potato mashed up with a little nut butter, fresh ginger, and chia seeds
→ sweet potatoes are an excellent source of carbs, the nut butter adds a touch of fat, the ginger helps with digestion and chia seeds are great for electrolyte and fluid regulation
Mashed potatoes with salt, chicken broth and a touch of butter
→ regular white potatoes are another good option, chicken broth adds bone building minerals and electrolytes and butter adds a bit of fat.
Banana mashed and mixed with chopped pineapple, chia seeds, cashew butter or coconut oil and salt.
→ fruit is another great source of carbs and bananas are my favorite option because of their ‘mashability’ and high potassium content.
What to eat after your race
Within 30 minutes of finishing your race, it’s most important to get in some quick carbs, fluids, and electrolytes to hydrate and replenish your glycogen stores. This will allow your body to recover much more efficiently. Often times runners aren’t hungry immediately after finishing, so I find the best way to do this is through a recovery drink.
Most sports drinks are loaded with refined sugar, food coloring and lots of unrecognizable ingredients. This is fine to have after your race if there aren’t other options, but I always try to bring my own carton of coconut water -- it has natural sugars that will replenish your glycogen and is packed with electrolytes. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll mix in some fruit juice for more carbs/flavor, blackstrap molasses for an iron and calcium boost, and grass-fed collagen powder for protein.
Once you’ve had your recovery drink, you should be feeling much better. You’ll probably start getting your appetite back and head to the local brewery or diner for that post-race meal. This is when you really want to focus on protein to help your muscles rebuild and recover. You also want to make sure to have more carbs and some veggies and good healthy fats for inflammation.
Favorite post-race meals when eating out:
Burger topped with veggies with sweet potato fries
Veggie chili with cornbread
Tacos or Burrito with extra guacamole and rice
Favorite post-race homemade meals:
Avocado toast loaded with avocado, sauteed greens and topped with frieg eggs and salt
Spiced Lentils and Rice with Garlicky Yogurt Sauce (pictured above)
Rice bowls: a combination of grains, protein, veggies and a fatty sauce to smother everything in
Banh Mi Rice Bowl (pictured above)
Grilled chicken or burger with Thai Quinoa Salad
Spiced Chickpea and Sweet Potato Stew
I hope this post helped give you some race fuel ideas and answered common questions.
Comment below if you have any other questions. I’d love to hear your favorite go-to race fuel!