FAQ: Pre-Race Nutrition for Beginners

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You’re new to the world of running, you’re gearing up for your first race, and you’ve got a lot of questions. I know you do, because I did too. One important thing to know from the get-go is that you will need to consider many different factors when planning your pre-race nutrition. Remember that when it comes to nutrition, everyone is different. You need to realize that you may not get it right for your first race, but you’ll learn more about what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s not a “one size fits all” formula, but if you follow a few general guidelines, you are more likely to find something that helps you run your best.

Frequently Asked Questions from Beginners

How will I know what works for me if this is my first race? Make sure you allow for a few trial runs in your training schedule that will mirror the course distance, conditions, and time of day. Try out your nutrition method and see how it works. This is really the only way you can know what works for you, by actually trying it!

Should I carbo-load? Generally, if you are running a 10k or shorter distance, you won’t need to carbo-load. For these distances, stick to a diet consistent to what works for you on a daily basis. If your race is going to last 90 minutes or more, carbo-loading may be beneficial, though it isn’t necessary. Some runners just stick to whatever nutrition they normally consume before a long run, and that works for them. One common misconception about carbo-loading is that you only do it the night before. To properly carbo-load, you want to increase your complex carb intake within a few days prior to your race.

What are complex carbs? These are carbs that aren’t quick to burn. They last longer as a stored energy source, and are often rich in fiber, thus more satisfying and filling. That being said, while high-fiber foods are an essential part to a healthy diet, they can cause GI distress if too much is consumed before a race. So steer clear of super fibrous carbs, especially if you don’t normally eat a high-fiber diet. Here are a few examples of complex carbs that are ideal to carbo-load with:

  • Green vegetables (but don’t overdo it)
  • Tortillas, oatmeal, bread, pancakes, waffles, bagels, white bread, white rice
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin
  • Yogurt
  • Juice

rice_puddingWhat should I eat for breakfast on race day? Stick with what you normally would eat before a long run. If you are running for less than an hour, your body may not require food before you run, and if that’s what you’re used to, then stick with it. There’s almost nothing worse than running into unexpected digestive issues on your first race! For races that will last over an hour, eating before you run is advised or you may bonk and DNF.

When should I eat breakfast? Make sure you’ve eaten about two hours before the start. This will help you avoid needing to make a pit stop during your race.

What if my stomach isn’t awake yet? An early morning race means an early morning pre-race meal, and if you’re not accustomed to eating that early, you may find that you’re just not hungry yet. In that case, try something small a few hours before your race, and make sure to test this out on an early morning training run as well. Train your stomach to be okay with food early in the morning, and test it out a few times before race day. Also, keep in mind that for shorter distances (10k and under), you may be fine without eating before you run. For longer distances (half-marathon and marathon lengths), you should try to find something that works and train your stomach to be okay with a small meal.

What if I have a sensitive stomach? For some runners with a more sensitive digestive system, eating before running (even a few hours before) can cause an upset stomach. If this is you, try to find a food that you can eat through a process of trial and error. There are options out there for runners with sensitive tummies, like cream of wheat (a low fiber warm cereal) or white rice with a little brown sugar in it.

Should I drink coffee? If you normally drink coffee every morning before you run, then yes. If you’re not a coffee drinker but think coffee could have an energizing effect on your run, make sure and do a few test runs first.

How much should I hydrate? Have a glass of water or a sports drink 45 minutes before your race. This will give you time to use the restroom one last time before you run and help you avoid making a pee stop early in the race.


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