Allison Koch, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
It’s Time To Perfect Your Race Day Nutrition Strategy: Fueling Tips For Pre/ Post/During Long Run
Fall racing season is seemingly around the corner. It may look a little different this year (and a lot more virtual) but it is not canceled. I know many of you may be prepping for big endurance feats such as the CARA 26.2 Training Run or virtual marathons. That means your longest runs to date (and maybe ever!) are coming up in the weeks that follow. What better time to revisit your overall nutrition and practice your race day fueling strategy?
Just as you practice for the race by doing workouts, long runs, and easy runs, you should also be practicing what you will eat, and drink come the big day. Whether it is your first marathon or tenth, you are likely striving to achieve a new personal record (PR) and in order to do that, you need to practice. So, what should you do? First, I want to be clear: everyone is different with what they can and cannot tolerate from a nutrition standpoint before, during and after a run. But the general recommendations are similar, and it is important to figure out what works for you now and not on race day. As I like to say with the athletes I work with, practice makes PRs. Here are some general fueling tips on how and what you should eat and drink pre, post, and during your long runs to not only feel great but achieve your next PR.
Pre-Long Run Nutrition: It’s Time to Fill ‘Er Up!
How you fuel for your long run should actually start the day before. You will want to eat a higher proportion of carbohydrate-containing foods like bread, pasta, rice, or cereal, and decrease the amount of protein- and fat-containing foods as well as veggies at every meal. To put this into practice: fill at least ½ your plate at each meal with carbs. The other ½ should be split between a lean protein (like chicken, fish, or tofu) and vegetables. Snack on carbohydrate-rich foods (like pretzels, dry cereal, dried or fresh fruit, fig bars, or crackers) every 2 to 3 hours. This ensures your glycogen stores (glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate in our muscles and our preferred energy source during higher intensity exercise) are full going into the long run the next day.
Do not forget to hydrate! Aim for at least ½ your body weight in ounces of water (so someone who weighs 150 lbs would need roughly 75 ounces per day or about 9 cups). Consider additional fluids especially if it is going to be hot or humid or you have an easy shakeout run planned. Finish your last meal or snack early and get a good night of sleep (if you can) so you wake up hungry for breakfast and ready to take on the challenge!
The morning of your long run, it is important that you take in enough calories beforehand to ensure you can stay fueled throughout the entirety of the run. Think about it this way: for each mile you run, you will burn roughly 100 calories (this differs for everyone based on height, weight, muscle mass, level of fitness, and age – but it’s a good rule of thumb). If you only take in about 200 calories prior to a 10-mile run (or nothing at all if you wake up and roll out the door on empty), after you burn through those 200 calories, your body will begin to utilize whatever you have stored from the day/night before. Then it will tap into your reserves – like your muscle mass – which is the last thing you want. To prevent under-fueling your long run, here is what I recommend:
At least 1-4 hours before your long run have a meal consisting primarily of carbohydrates (at least 0.5 grams and up to 2 grams/lb. body weight) and a little bit of protein (around 15-20 grams of protein) to help sustain you and stabilize your blood sugar. Aim for at least 400-600 calories total (the longer the run, the more you should try to take in) or more if you can tolerate it.
Limit the amount of fat, fiber, or caffeine in your pre-long run meal to decrease the chances you will end up needing a pit stop. Though – if you are used to a cup of joe before your regular long run, that’s fine – it’s when it’s in excess that you may have some stomach upset.
Example pre-long run meals:
a bagel with peanut butter and jelly
a small piece of fruit and 8-16 oz of Gatorade
oatmeal topped with nut butter, honey, ½ cup milk and sliced banana
yogurt, granola or a granola bar and some berries or dried fruit mixed in
a turkey sandwich with a handful of pretzels and grapes
As you approach the start of your run, with less than 30 minutes to go, you might also consider an easily tolerated source of fuel to top off those glycogen stores one last time. This could be a gel or gu, some Gatorade, a small piece of fruit or applesauce, or a handful of pretzels.
Do not forget to also hydrate! How much is specific to the individual and how much they sweat. I generally recommend aiming for 1.5-2 cups (12-16 oz) of water or sports drink at least 2 hours in advance of your activity. You can drink about 1 more cup (8 oz) 15-20 min before. Sip on it over the 2 hours while you are getting ready and do not chug it to allow time for the body to absorb/digest it. If you chug it down, you will likely find yourself peeing it all out shortly after or worse, a couple miles into your run.
Mid-Run Nutrition: Fuel (and Hydrate) Often and Early to Avoid the Bonk!
Remember those glycogen stores we talked about? Well they are limited, and you will eventually run through them, resulting in the dreaded bonk. That is why it is so important to fuel often and early to not only avoid it but to perform at your best and feel better both during your run and after. Speaking from personal experience – the best I have ever felt after a marathon was very much in part to taking in the most nutrition I possibly could during the race.
So how much and how often? I will say it again, everyone is different with what they need and can tolerate; figuring out what works for you now will help you be prepared for race day! Some general rules of thumb for both fueling and hydrating:
You need at least 30 grams of carbohydrate/hour of exercise to maintain blood glucose levels. The more you can take in the better you will feel and likely perform (most elites take in closer to 60 grams/hour). To put it in simpler terms - that is at least 100 calories per hour. You will want to fuel early and often.
Do not wait until you run out of gas. Start taking solid nutrition at about the 45-60 min mark of your long run and continue every 45-60 minutes. This could be a combination of solid nutrition like a gel, gu, a serving of Bloks/gummies or sport beans, a bar—whatever works for you (I’ve even had athletes consume potatoes, raisins or applesauce mid-run), plus sips of a sports drink.
A note about mid-run fuel options: Most commercially available gels have about 20-25g of carbohydrates and a variety of levels of electrolytes per serving. Experiment and find the one that sits well with you and then to reach the bottom threshold of the target carbohydrate range, I recommend alternating between water and Gatorade or other sports beverage on the race course or that you carry along with you. A couple swigs of Gatorade and 1 gel will get you at least 30g of carbohydrate.
Avoid taking solid nutrition and sports drinks together. The electrolytes from both may overwhelm your digestive system and result in stomach upset. Only take your solid nutrition with water and then alternate between it and your sports drink.
For hydration, I recommend about a 1/2-3/4 cup (4-6 oz) every 15-20 minutes. That is equivalent to a couple gulps every 15-20 minutes. If it is hot or you are an excessive sweater you may benefit from more than this, so it is important to practice now and find that sweet hydration spot for you. For more on hydration, check out this blog post I did for CARA earlier this year.
Post Long Run: Restore, Rehydrate and Repair!
Proper nutrition is also essential to help us recover from not only our long runs but our workouts, easy runs, and races. It helps our bodies fully recover and adapt to the hard work we put in on the roads, trails, and track so we can get faster, stronger and go farther. Omit it and you could be throwing a lot of that work out the window. Within 30 to 60 minutes or ASAP try to include some carbohydrate to Restore glycogen stores, fluids to Rehydrate, and protein to Repair the damage done to our muscle tissue; otherwise known as the 3 Rs of post-workout recovery nutrition.
I recently covered each topic in a 3-part series on my blog, which you can find linked to above. In summary, following a long run (or workout for that matter), consider consuming a recovery beverage or snack that contains at least 10-20g of high-quality protein plus 35-50g carbohydrate. That means at least 200-300 calories of high-quality fuel (the more the better). Then, try and have a full meal within a couple hours of that (or sooner). Also, sip on water or an electrolyte-containing beverage – at least 20-24 oz for every pound of weight lost during exercise – throughout the rest of the day. Trust me on this (speaking again from experience as a runner and not just as a dietitian) – you will feel better sooner, less sore, recover faster and it will even help boost your immune system.
Remember - the most important thing to do post-workout to aid your recovery is to just eat something. Do not worry so much about meeting the exact macro-nutrient breakdown and just fuel up. Your body will figure out what to do with the energy you provide it - as long as it is adequate in calories and contains both carbs and protein.
Here are a couple of my favorite post-workout recovery meal or snack ideas you can try for yourself and a recipe for one of my favorite post-workout meals – a super simple smoothie bowl. Enjoy!
Chocolate milk (12 oz) + an RxBar or Picky Bar (60 grams carb; 24 grams protein)
Container of high protein yogurt + 1/4 cup granola + medium banana (60 grams carb; 20 grams protein)
PB&J sandwich + a cup of Soymilk (64 grams carb; 21 grams protein)
Overnight Oats (56-68 grams carb; 20 grams protein)
Smoothie bowl (70 grams carb; 34 grams protein) made with:
3/4 cup low-fat plain kefir
1 scoop unflavored whey-based protein powder
1-2 frozen beets (optional but gives your smoothie great color and a dose of added naturally occurring nitrates that may improve endurance if consumed regularly throughout training)
1/2 cup frozen berries
1 tsp chia seeds
Directions: blend above ingredients, pour into a bowl, and top with fresh fruit and granola or cereal of choice.
Still have questions about what to eat to help fuel your long runs? Or in general? Reach out to Allison today to set up a free discovery session and/or learn about the 1-on-1 services she offers!