5 Steps for Successful Pre-Race Nutrition

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This isn’t your first rodeo. You’ve done the whole racing thing two, four, nine times, and now you’re hungry for more. If you are looking to shave a little time off that PR, nutrition is a great place to start. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about how and why to dial in a pre-race nutrition routine, but you don’t need a PhD in Nutrition and Metabolism to understand the basics. With that in mind, here are our five simple steps for a happy race day.

1. Plan ahead

Most running schedules include some sort of taper before a big race. If you’re like me, you capitalize on the extra time by doing some of the things you never do while training (you forgot you had friends who don’t run, didn’t you?). Piling your schedule full, though, can leave you without adequate time to prepare mentally and nutritionally for the big day. Plan meals for the week ahead of time, and set aside time to make and enjoy the food. Pick predictable foods that are always easy on your stomach, and avoid eating out to have control over the ingredients going into your body.

2. Carbo-load, or don’t

If your race will last less than 90 minutes, don’t carbo-load – it won’t help. However, if you are racing for longer than 90 minutes, increasing your carbohydrate intake for two days leading up to the race has been proven to increase performance by 2-3% (1).

Your body uses glycogen as the primary fuel for running, but your muscles and liver only store enough glycogen for approximately 90 minutes of running. After running out of glycogen, you “hit the wall” or “bonk” as your body slows down to begin converting fat to fuel. If you are able to super load carbohydrate as glycogen into your muscles and liver, it will take longer for your body to run out of glycogen, giving you more time to kick-start fat metabolism.

2 ½. Carbo-load correctly

If you are going to carbo-load, make sure to do it right. A pasta binge the night before the race won’t actually help you, and in some cases it may cause more problems than it solves. To properly carbo-load, start increasing your carbohydrate intake about two days prior to your race. It’s suggested that about four or five grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is sufficient to maximize glycogen stores. According to Runners World (2), about 85 – 95% of a runner’s calories should come from carbohydrates. For example, a 150-pound runner will need approximately 600 grams, or 2,400 calories, of carbs per day. That is quite a lot of carbohydrate, so you’ll want to build each of your meals around a high-carb dish for those two days.

3. Eat right, eat light

The night before your race is not the time to stuff yourself. The carbs you eat the night before typically won’t add to your glycogen stores, and it’s more important to make sure you wake up hungry the morning of your race. So eat a carb-rich dinner, but just a normal portion. If you’re wondering what to eat, read #5, then follow your heart.

4. Eat breakfast

Yes, even if you have an early race, it’s still important to eat breakfast. Eating a carbohydrate-rich meal three to four hours before activity can have positive effects on performance. For an early race, this may mean a very early alarm, but the positive results will make it worthwhile! One strategy is to wake up, eat, then go back to sleep to savor a few extra moments of shut-eye. When it comes to a pre-race snack (less than 60 minutes before the start), opinions are mixed. Conventional running wisdom states that you should eat a carbohydrate rich snack a little before the start of the race, but scientific evidence isn’t black and white (1). The bottom line is that if you are hungry before the race, have a snack, but if you aren’t hungry, there is no need to force yourself to eat up.

5. Practice

Last but not least, race day is not the day to experiment with new foods. It’s basic, but so wise. Decide on your strategy well before your race, and make sure to do a trial before a serious effort. If you’re running a long race, practice carbo-loading two to three days before your longest run. That will give you a sense of what works for you and what doesn’t. Then, the morning of your long run, make a note of what foods you try and how that affects performance.

Now get out there and nail that PR!


  1. Jeukendrup, Asker. “Nutrition for endurance sports: Marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.” Journal of Sports Sciences.   http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640414.2011.610348#abstract
  2. McDowell, Dimity, “The right way to carbo-load before a race.” Runner’s World   http://www.runnersworld.com/nutrition-for-runners/the-right-way-to-carbo-load-before-a-race

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Juli is known around Running Warehouse for her vast knowledge of running product, from shoes to hydration to nutrition to… well just about anything running related. With a background in food science (Read: Bachelor’s degree and an addiction to scholarly journal articles on exercise nutrition), she’s also a trail lover who fiends for long runs in beautiful places.

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