Race Day: Nutritional Bliss!

As a sports nutritionist and a fellow endurance athlete, I have come across almost every ugly nutritional scenario possible. Below, is some insight on how you can avoid these disasters and prepare your body for race day ...
How many of you have been extremely disgruntled after a less-than-optimal race day performance? I think we have all been there before. While sub-par performances are inevitable from time to time, it is really disheartening when you put many months of training in only to have your race day performance be compromised due to ignorance with nutrition.

Avoiding Disaster

As a sports nutritionist and a fellow endurance athlete, I have come across pretty much every ugly nutritional scenario possible. Below, I provide some insight on how you can avoid these disasters and prepare your body for race day nutritional bliss.

Stick With Food Norms In The Days Leading Up To Your Race.

    Exploring the exotic foods of a new land (if you are racing abroad), ordering an intriguing (and new) meal, and significantly varying up your typical nutrition routine in the days leading up to your race are big nutritional NO NO's!!!

    The last thing you want to find out is that you have an allergy or intolerance to a new food, which causes severe stomach distress including nausea, vomiting (and consequent dehydration) and perhaps a lovely spotting of hives as you mentally and physically prepare yourself for peak race day performance.

    So do yourself a favor, save your food adventures for post-race and stick with the foods you have trained with in the days leading up to your big race.

Have You Ever Performed In An Athletic Competition While Sick?

No, Thank Goodness.
Yes, It Was Awful.

Practice The Modern Version Of Carbo-Loading For Longer Races.

    Carbohydrate-loading protocols prior to an endurance event have previously been suggested during the 7 days prior to a competitive endurance event, specifically events lasting more than two hours.

    In the traditional carb-loading technique, athletes went through a glycogen depletion phase, where they were asked to engage in one long training session one week out from their event followed by 3-4 days of minimal carbohydrate intake and continued exercise.

 Endurance Performance Fuel Sources! Endurance Performance Fuel Sources!
To maximize performance we will look at two very important energy sources; carbohydrates and fat. See what you should be doing to maximize these sources.
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    In the final three days prior to the event, athletes "loaded" on carbohydrates and engaged in minimal training. Unfortunately, athletes following the dietary depletion phase were experiencing overwhelming fatigue coupled with illness, injury, and irritability secondary to low blood sugars making it a less than desirable approach to peak race day performance.

    New research supports a more moderate approach to carbo-loading that eliminates the dietary depletion phase and merely involves a short bout of near maximal-intensity exercise followed by 24-72+ hours of a high carbohydrate intake as means to maximize muscle and liver glycogen stores without risk for injury and infection in the days leading up to the race.

What Is Glycogen?
Glycogen is the principal stored form of carbohydrate energy (glucose), which is reserved in muscles. When your muscles are full of glycogen, they look and feel full.

    Goforth et al1 discovered that when exhaustive cycle exercise was performed followed by a high carbohydrate diet (~4-5 grams per pound of lean body weight each day), muscle glycogen returned to 103% of baseline within 24 hours, 138% within 3 days, and a peak of 147% from days 5-7.

    Fairchild et al2 discovered an 82% increase in baseline muscle glycogen stores in cyclists engaging in an short, exhaustive 3 minute burst (2.5 min at 130% peak oxygen uptake or let's say 5k pace for runners followed by 30 seconds all out) followed by a 24-hour carbo-loading menu that included just under 5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of lean body weight.

    Therefore, in order to supersaturate glycogen stores and potentially boost endurance performance by 2-3%, runners should aim at consuming ~4-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of lean body weight in the 1-5 days prior to race day.

BF %

    Table 1 provides a sample 500 gram carbo-loading protocol appropriate for a 120-lb runner with 15% body fat.

Table 1. Sample 500 Gram Carbo-Loading Protocol
Meal Menu Item Carbohydrates
Breakfast Strawberry Banana Smoothie: Blend 1 cup orange juice with 1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt, 1 frozen banana (cut into cubes) and 1 cup frozen strawberries (chopped) and 2 tbsp protein powder. 105 grams
Snack 1 large (~4 ounces) whole grain bagel spread with 2 tbsp Natural Peanut butter. Drink 2 cups 100% fruit punch with snack. 125 grams
Lunch 2 Bean & Rice Burritos served with 16 ounces water. 90 grams
Snack 2 cups mixed fruit. Serve snack with glass of water. 65 grams
Dinner Pasta Dinner: 2 cups cooked pasta with marinara sauce, served with small salad topped with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and 2 slices Italian bread. Drink plenty of water with meal. 115 grams
TOTALS 500 grams

An All-You-Can Eat Buffet Is Not Your Pre-Race Ticket To Peak Performance.

    While fueling your engine is essential prior to racing, especially longer races, overeating and eating the wrong foods can be a huge nutritional detriment to race day performance.

    Easily digested carbohydrates with a low-to-moderate glycemic load (bananas, low sugar cereals like Special K®, energy bars like Powerbar® or Clif Bar®, sourdough toast, berries, low fat yogurt) should be the focus of your pre-race meal with a small amount of protein like that found in yogurt or a pat of peanut butter being beneficial for athletes gearing up for longer races like marathons.

Table 2.
Nutrients To Limit Sample Disaster Meal A Better Choice
Fiber Large bowl of bran flakes topped raisins and whole milk. A bowl of low fiber, low sugar cereal (e.g. Special K) topped with lower fiber fruits (berries, banana, melon) and nonfat milk.
Protein Plateful of scrambled eggs and several slices of bacon. 1 hard boiled egg served with 2 slices sourdough toast.
Fat Leftover pepperoni pizza Leftover spaghetti with marinara sauce.

    Be sure to avoid consuming foods rich in fiber, fat, or protein prior to racing, as these nutrients slow down digestion, causing diversion of blood, oxygen, and water to the stomach to aid in breakdown of the meal ultimately leading to cramping, diarrhea and nausea during the initial stages of your race.

    As a general rule, aim at consuming 2 calories per pound of lean body weight for every hour prior to race start. For most female athletes, this equates out to be ~200-250 calories for every hour prior to starting a race. For most male athletes, this equates out to be ~250-300 calories for every hour prior to race start.

BF %
Hours Before Race

    For example, a 150 pound runner with 15% body fat could consume an energy bar (~250 calories) one hour prior to a 10k race, a 3-ounce bagel spread lightly with peanut butter and 1 sliced banana (~500 calories) two hours prior to a half marathon or a fruit smoothie prepared with 8 ounces orange juice, 1 cup nonfat yogurt, 1 frozen banana, 3/4 cup berries and 2 Tbsp protein powder (~750 calories) three hours prior to a marathon.

Stay Hydrated But Don't Over-Drink.

    While hydration is of paramount importance both as you carb-load for your big-event as well as during the race, too much of a good thing can be potentially dangerous, even deadly, when water is the primary source of ingested fluids.

    In the days leading up to race start, aim at consuming 1/2 your body weight (pounds) in fluid ounces outside of the fluids you consume during training. Be sure to include a variety of fluids like juice, milk, even soup to ensure you are also receiving essential electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.


    Also, try to spread out your fluid intake in smaller increments rather than ingesting large amount of fluids in bolus doses; this will allow your cells to absorb the fluid rather than having half be emptied into your bladder. On race day morning, aim at sipping on 12-16 ounces of an electrolyte containing beverage for every hour prior to race start.

What Does Bolus Mean?
A single, relatively large quantity of a substance, such as a dose of a drug, intended for therapeutic use and taken orally.

    For short races, water is an appropriate fluid replacement beverage. For the half marathon, marathon, and ultra marathon races, use of a full strength (not diluted) electrolyte-containing sports drink beyond 90 minutes of racing is essential for optimal muscle hydration. Another problem to watch out for is hyponatremia (aka "water intoxication").

    To maintain fluid balance during your race, athletes should aim at consuming approximately ½-1 liter of fluid per hour or 4-6 ounces every 10-15 minutes of the race. Those who sweat heavily should stay on the latter end of these recommendations.

Water: The Most Important Element Of All Water: The Most Important Element Of All.
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Fuel Your Engine With Premium Carbohydrates During Longer Races But Don't Cause Your Tank To Overflow.

    To replenish our diminishing supply of muscle glycogen, it is essential to refuel with carbohydrates after 90 minutes of racing. Failure to refuel will lead to complete depletion of glycogen stores, triggering a "mental bonk" marked by dizziness as well as an ugly "wall" marked by muscle cramping and fatigue and sub-par performances.

    However, fueling too soon can bring the concentration of food stomach too high leading to stomach cramps, sluggish energy levels, inadequate fluid absorption, nausea, vomiting and poor performances.

Table 3. Sports Drinks with Protein
Infinit Customized Blends (www.infinitnutrition.com)*
Spiz (www.spiz.net)*
Powerbar Performance Recovery (www.powerbar.com)*
Champion Nutrition Revenge Pro (www.champion-nutrition.com)
Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy (www.hammernutrition.com)*
Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem (www.hammernutrition.com) *
Accelerade (www.accelerade.com)

*Maltodextrin used as primary sugar.

    The most important nutrients during the initial stages of racing are water and electrolytes. Beyond 90 minutes of racing, aim at replacing 30-50% of your total calories expended, which, for most athletes, ranges from 200-300 calories per hour.

    For short races (<1 hour), high glycemic carbohydrates should be the focus of your calorie intake. When using simple sugars such as fructose, glucose, and galactose, keep your concentration of carbohydrates in a 6-8% range; mixing at a higher concentration can lead to gastrointestinal distress (e.g. diarrhea).

    If you desire to mix at a higher concentration, use a complex carbohydrate like maltodextrin instead, which can be mixed as high as a 15% concentration without causing stomach distress.

    For longer races (>2 hours), a small amount of protein (~1 gram for every 4-7 grams of carbohydrate) seems to help spare muscle glycogen by as much as 25%, thereby making it an essential nutrient for peak endurance performance. Because dehydration is the most common performance inhibitor among endurance athletes, liquid calories (e.g. sports drinks) are the most efficient source of energy.

All Carbs Are NOT Created Equal! All Carbs Are NOT Created Equal!
Have you ever eaten a meal, or slammed a carbohydrate drink before you trained, to find yourself feeling lethargic mid-way through your workout? Find out why here!
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Soak In The Glory Of Race Day But Be Sure To Replenish Your Tank When You Cross That Covenanted Finish Line.

    It is important to enjoy your race day success upon crossing that finish line, but if you'd like to enhance your recovery, it is essential that you start thinking about calorie replacement as well. Many studies have proven the existence of a 30-minute muscle recovery window for protein and glycogen synthesis.

    In one such study, performed at Vanderbilt University, glycogen replenishment occurred 3.5 times faster when subjects were fed a carbohydrate-protein solution within 30 minutes versus 3 hours after a 60 minute moderate-intensity effort.3

    Muscle protein synthesis also proceeded more than 3 times faster when replenishing within the 30-minute window. Dr. John Ivy of the University of Texas at Austin attributes this desirable physiological response to our heightened sensitivity to insulin post-workout.4

    Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps deliver amino acids, proteins and carbohydrates to our depleted muscle cells. When carbohydrate and protein are consumed together, there is a greater insulin response than when either nutrient is taken alone, ultimately aiding muscle glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis.

    To obtain the optimal nutritional formula for enhanced muscle recovery, high glycemic carbohydrates should be balanced with protein in a 4:1 ratio. Athletes stuck on the mentality that protein should be favored post-workout should be aware that a recovery ratio favoring protein will actually reduce the rate of gastric emptying, slowing the transfer of nutrients to the muscles, ultimately sabotaging the muscle recovery window.

    To obtain the proper caloric volume for optimal muscle recovery, athletes should aim at consuming 4/10 gram of high glycemic carbohydrate and 1/10 gram of protein (or approximately 2 calories), per pound of lean body weight within 30 minutes of high intensity or prolonged training bouts.


    For most athletes, this equates out to be 40-80 grams of carbohydrate and 10-20 grams of protein or approximately 200-400 calories. Samples of post-workout recovery foods include low-fat chocolate milk, meal replacement shakes like Boost® or Ensure®, recovery-based sports drink like Infinit Nutrition , peanut butter and banana sandwiches, mashed potatoes prepared with low-fat milk, and energy bars.

About The Author:

Kim Mueller, MS, RD is a Registered Sports Dietitian and competitive endurance athlete who regularly practice all these race day nutritional tips as she prepares for her endurance races. She provides nutritional counseling and customized meal planning to athletes all around the world.


  1. Goforth, H.W., Laurent, D., Prusaczyk, W.K., Schneider, K.E., Peterson, K.F., Shulman, G.I. Effects of depletion exercise and light training on muscle glycogen supercompensation in man. Naval Health Research Center, 2003.
  2. Fairchild, T.J., S. Fletcher, P. Steele, C. Goodman, B. Dawson, P.A Fournier. Rapid carbohydrate loading after a short bout of near maximal-intensity exercise. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 980-986, 2002.
  3. Levenhagen D. L. et al. Post-exercise nutrient intake timing in humans is critical to recovery of leg glucose and protein homeostasis. Am J Phys, Endocrin Met. 280: E982-E993, 2001.
  4. Van Loon, L. J. et al. Plasma insulin responses after ingestion of different amino acid or protein mixtures with carbohydrate. Am J Clin Nutr. 72:96-105, 2000.