Races can be nerve racking, and each small worry you can put behind you means a better run and a better result. Eating right on race morning means one less worry for you to think about at the startline.
The good news is that the correct method for eating on race day is pretty simple and there really aren’t many secrets.
For starters, eating something you’re accustomed to eating before a long run or workout is the first rule to keep in the back of your head. If you eat the same meal each morning before heading out the door for your run and don’t have problems with it there is no reason to assume your body will react differently on race day. If you have a bagel with peanut butter each morning then a bagel with peanut butter will be a great option.
Still, not all meal choices are best if you’re trying to maximize your racing potential. If you have a few different options which are standard morning-fare, thinking about which is the best to eat is worth your time. Refined carbs and high-fiber options are your best bet. The previous example of a bagel with peanut butter is a great option. Whole grains are great in your general diet but can upset your stomach on race day. Avoiding fruit and dairy products is also a good choice. Fruit is high in fiber and can cause stomach issues. Dairy will sit in your stomach and can make you feel bloated.
A practice some runners like to follow is a carb-load the night before a race. This is a high-carbohydrate meal the night before a race of usually pasta. The problem with carb-loading is that it’s often not needed and will weigh you down unless you’re running for a long time. Unless your race is longer than 90 minutes, you likely won’t benefit from a serious carb-load. Your muscle have enough stored glycogen that you will be fine without preparing them for when you’ve exhausted it. All the food will sit in your stomach and not really helping. If you’re running a marathon or half-marathon it may be worth it, but for something shorter you are probably fine.
Optimally, you should have your last full meal before racing three or four hours before the gun goes off. Unfortunately, that’s often not a possibility. Races tend to be in the morning. If the race starts at 11 a.m., a 7 or 8 a.m. breakfast fits perfectly, but if the gun goes off at 8 a.m. it might not make sense to wake up for a 5 a.m. meal, so you can cut it closer. Two hours before the race is fine if you’re tight on time, but less time that that may leave you with cramps during the race. Your food won’t have time to digest, leaving you bloated and without the added energy from the meal anyways.
Not eating for three or four hours can leave someone hungry and hunger is not something anyone wants to deal with during a race. A pre-race snack is an option but make sure to keep it light. A few handfuls of trail mix or an energy bar 30 to 45 minutes before a race will keep you ready to run but not fill you up too much.
All in all, stick to what you know works. There are some choices which will be better than others, but if you eat the same meal each morning, that is probably your best option. Your body will be accustomed to it and there won’t be any mid-race stomach cramps.