Race nutrition is tricky, and knowing exactly what type and how much fuel to take in during a race can take some trial and error. Sports nutritionist Anne Guzman addressed this in a recent blog post, and while her guidelines focused on cyclists, they are very applicable to runners. So, whether you have a 5K or a marathon on the schedule, take a look at her advice to perform your best on race day.
30 min — one hour
The first category in Guzman’s infographic can be equated to a 5K-10K race for most runners. For these short races, just drinking water will likely be enough, provided you’ve eaten well the night before and the morning of the race to ensure your glycogen stores have been topped up.
If you’re running a 5K on a temperate day, for example, simply drinking some water before the race and re-hydrating afterward will be adequate — no mid-race drink necessary. On a hot day, you may want to consider grabbing a few sips of water from the aid station, but even then, as long as you’re well-hydrated going into the race, you likely won’t need much while you’re running.
As your race gets longer (up to an hour), Guzman says carbohydrate mouth rinses can help “lower our perception of pain and/or send messages to muscles leading to additional recruitment of muscle fibers,” although, she admits, the mechanism behind how this works is still somewhat unclear.
Similarly, she says consuming a small amount of carbohydrates in the form of a sports drink or a gel with water can help improve performance as your race gets a bit longer. Still, if your race is less than one hour, this extra carbohydrate isn’t crucial to your performance, and runners should be careful to only do what they’re comfortable with/what they have practiced, to prevent stomach issues.
10K — half-marathon
If your race is lasting longer than an hour, taking in carbohydrates during the race becomes more important for delaying fatigue and improving performance. While Guzman makes a few different suggestions for cyclists, runners completing these distances should probably stick to sports drinks and gels, since running can be a bit harder on your stomach than cycling.
Guzman suggests taking in 30-60 grams per hour, from either a single carbohydrate source (like glucose) or a mix (like glucose, sucrose and fructose). Whatever carbohydrate source you choose, make sure you eat it earlier in the race so your body will be able to use it in the latter stages when fatigue is starting to set in.
Marathon and up
As experienced marathon runners know, your mid-race fuel can make or break your performance, since runs of this duration surpass the amount of carbohydrates your body can store. To have success in events lasting longer than two hours, it’s crucial that you go into the race with a fuelling plan, and that you are strict about sticking to that plan.
Most experts recommend taking in about 60 grams of easy-to-digest carbohydrates per hour during a marathon. Again, unlike cyclists, marathoners should stick to drinks, gels and chews to get their carb fix, since those tend to be easier on your digestive system (not to mention they’re easier to carry with you, as well). Of course, once you move up into the world of ultrarunning, you’re going to need even more carbohydrates to get you to the finish line, and runners in these events can start to add denser foods, like potatoes, waffles and energy bars into the mix.
The fuelling strategies for marathoners and ultramarathoners often look quite different, but they have one thing in common: runners must practice them before their race. Stomach issues can ruin your performance on race day, so it’s important to practice ahead of time to know what works and doesn’t work for you.