Race season is upon us. Whether you're a runner, triathlete or cyclist, with your training plan nicely ticked off there's one last preparation hurdle before donning the lycra: what to eat on the day.
Get ready... (24 hours to go)
The day before a big race is the time to properly hydrate your body in preparation for what lies ahead. It's also time to carbo-load and top up your body's glycogen supply, which is the energy source you'll be predominantly using during the race. As a general rule of thumb; the recommendation is around 7g - 10g of carbohydrate per kg body weight per day, so for somebody who weighs 60 kilos, that's 420g - 600g of carbohydrates to factor into your meal planning.
Example meal plan:
Lunch: a jacket potato and beans with salad
Snacks: bananas, crispbread, a handful of dried fruit, rice cakes with honey or jam
Take a look at our week of marathon meal plans.
Other things to keep in mind the day before any big race:
- You can begin carb-loading three days before a race
- Include carbs in all your meals - don't just have one big bowl of pasta the night before
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol as they'll only dehydrate your body
- Don't overdo the carbs if you're not used to it, you'll make yourself feel lethargic
- Keep in mind it's not all about pasta - fruit and vegetables count as carbohydrates too
- Focus on low-GI carbs such as wholefood options, which release energy slowly
Get set... (3-4 hours before)
The morning of your race is the time to top up your glycogen stores and hydrate after a night's sleep. While it's trickier with morning races, try to fit in a meal a good three hours before an event to give your body time to digest. Slow release (low GI) carbs are the best nourishment for your body a few hours before a race - try porridge topped with fruit, a bagel or wholegrain toast. It's wise to avoid fatty foods that will lie in your stomach, and anything that you're not used to, to avoid an upset stomach. If you struggle with eating early in the morning or suffer from pre-race nerves, try whisking up a low-fat smoothie or milkshake or a sports drink that contains carbohydrates as well as electrolytes.
Go... (During the race)
If you're racing for longer than 60-90 mins, you'll need to take on board carbohydrate during the race to prevent your glycogen stores from becoming depleted. Think in one hour blocks: start taking on carbs an hour or so into your race, then every hour try to consume 30-60g, that's roughly a gel plus a sports drink (containing carbs) every hour. Stick with the fuels you used in your training; energy gels, bananas or gummy sweets are the usual candidates. As well as sports drinks that will replace electrolytes, drink water little and often and don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink. By the time thirst kicks in your body will already be dehydrated, and a dehydration level of only 3% will cause your energy levels to drop. Some people also like to take on caffeine (contained in some gels) during a race to give them an added energy boost, though it's only wise to do this if you've tried it during training to avoid a gurgling stomach!
...and stop (After the race)
Whether you collapse in a heap or parade around with your shiny new medal keep on drinking after you cross the finish line. If isotonic sports drinks are given out, grab one to replace fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates. Bananas are often given out after big races too as they give a good supply of carbohydrate and potassium to prevent muscle cramps. If you can stomach food straight after the race, snack on high GI carbs and protein-rich foods to boost your energy, rebuild glycogen stores and repair damaged muscle tissue. Recovery bars, milkshakes, smoothies made with milk or yogurt, chicken or tuna sandwiches and cereal and milk are good post-race snacking foods.
When you get home, treat your weary muscles with a soak in the bath and a well-deserved meal - high in muscle-healing protein and carbohydrate, of course! These are our favourite post-race recipes:
Fully loaded Cajun chicken burgers
Mild chilli & bean pasta bake
Quick chilli with creamy chive crushed potatoes
Chicken & chorizo jambalaya
Tuna & lemon pasta
Triple-decker steak sandwich
Moroccan turkey meatballs with citrus couscous
Will you be racing in a marathon this year? Tell us your top tips for training and how you're getting on below.
Katie Hiscock is a fitness writer with diplomas in personal training and sports massage therapy. With an interest in sports nutrition, antenatal exercise and injury prevention, she works as a therapist for Brighton & Hove Albion.