What you eat has a profound effect on your performance. So what should runners eat before a race? Look no further than our comprehensive guide to pre-run nutrition…


It is well documented that the food you consume can have a strong effect on your athletic performance; however, trying to work out the right components of the nutritional jigsaw puzzle can be a little more daunting and confusing. So what should you eat?

Well, the answer to that really depends on what type of run you have planned.

Carbohydrate

For those of you who are planning a high intensity run – anything that involves running at an effort of 7/10 or more such as intervals, tempo, hill reps – then it is essential that you have consumed sufficient carbohydrate leading up to this session. This is because our bodies break down carbohydrate easier than any other fuel source in order to provide us with energy quickly; we need this energy quickly when we are trying to work at a high intensity.

For sessions 60 minutes or under, aim to include carbohydrate at every meal prior to this session. I usually work with the figure of 1-1.5g/Kg BW carbohydrate at each meal. So for a 60Kg individual, this would be 60-90g of carbohydrate.

Food facts

  • 60g of carbohydrate = one medium sweet potato; 100g porridge oats; 1 bagel or 75g dry weight rice.
  • If you are going to do a morning hill session, then an ideal breakfast would be: Bagel with peanut butter; or 50g porridge oats made with milk, topped with a banana and honey.

The recommendations with regards to timing of this is one to three hours before your run but it will be very individual; some people find they need well over two hours, while others will be able to eat 30 minutes before running. Again, some of this will also depend on the type of session. For higher intensity sessions, you may want to leave a longer gap between eating and running; whilst for slower runs you may even find you can eat on the go!

Whichever way, it is essential that you find what works best for you. Try keeping a food diary and note what works best for you, this is especially important to avoid any problems during a race or event.

Chicken-pasta-and-rice

Don’t neglect the protein

It’s important to remember that protein should be included throughout the day, not just after. There is a common misconception that only power athletes need a high protein diet; instead it has been demonstrated that endurance athletes have just as high demands due to the need for repair and adaptation of muscles.

I always recommend 4-6 servings of protein daily, where one serving is the equivalent of: two eggs; a smart phone size piece of meat or fish; or half a large tin of baked beans.

When don’t I need carbs?

Any run that is done at an effort of 6/10 or less, or where you are not worried about hitting a fast pace, can be done either in a fasted state or in a carbohydrate depleted state. This is because our bodies have a huge reserve of energy within our fat stores. These fat stores can potentially provide us with energy for months; however, the release of energy is at a much slower rate.

Someone who might be commuting to work but running at a moderate pace would be able to do this in a fasted state without any real difficulty at all. Similarly, if you are going out for a run with the intention of just covering a certain mileage without any concerns over pace, this could also be done in a fasted or low carbohydrate state.

But it’s important to always ensure that you hydrate and then recover with a decent breakfast to restore glycogen levels and repair muscles. The ideal recovery is a mixture of both carbohydrate and protein.

Equally, if you have been out for a run after work, then it’s important to ensure your evening meal has the right combination.

Ideal meal choices: Jacket potato with baked salmon and vegetables. Pasta with roasted vegetables and chicken. Courgette and halloumi frittata served with toast.

Low carb snacks

  • Nuts
  • 1/2 avocado
  • Two boiled eggs
  • Matchbox piece of cheese
  • Handful of beef jerky

Long runs

The other time when carbohydrates will be important as a fuel source will be for long endurance runs. Even when our bodies have full glycogen stores, these stores will only supply working muscles with energy for around 90 minutes (or less if you are running faster). Ensure that you have consumed enough carbohydrate prior to these long runs, and you may need to take on additional fuel for anything over two hours.

You also need to be thinking about your nutrition in the 24 hours prior to a long endurance run. Again, aim for around 1g/Kg BW carbohydrate at every meal, and possibly 0.5g/Kg BW carbohydrate in one to two snacks during the day if your run is going to be over two hours.

Runner-stretching

Food facts

An ideal day might look like this: Porridge with honey and walnuts for breakfast. Banana mid-morning. Sweet potato and feta salad for lunch, followed by Greek yoghurt and honey. Couple of slices of malt loaf mid afternoon. Chicken stir fry with rice for evening meal followed by fruit and custard.

Then in the morning prior to the long endurance run: Bagel with peanut butter.

Running on empty

So what happens in these situations when an individual just can’t stomach food, but needs to do a high intensity interval run? As stated earlier, in order to hit faster paces our bodies rely on carbohydrate for energy. If this is not available then the individual will struggle to maintain a high pace.

The simplest and most convenient solution is for that individual to take on an energy drink; this could be a branded variety or homemade (300ml orange juice diluted with 300ml water and 1/4 tsp salt). These provide around 30g of carbohydrate, so are useful for topping up carbohydrate when food cannot be tolerated.

But I can’t run on empty!

On the opposite side of this, is the individual who feels the need to eat something before they run regardless of whether it is an easy 40-minute jog, or a 40-minute hard tempo run? Obviously if they are going for an easy run, there is no real benefit to putting carbohydrate into their body. Our bodies will always use carbohydrate as fuel preferentially, so if it is available then this is what our body will use.

However if our body really doesn’t need carbohydrate for this level of run, then why should we consume it? This is particularly important if you are trying to lose weight. These slow runs are a great opportunity to tap into fat stores and help with weight loss.

If you just can’t face leaving the house on an empty stomach, try taking on food that is high in protein; eggs are ideal. Another good option is a handful of almonds which are high in fat and protein, but again contain no carbohydrate.

CARBOHYDRATE SNACKS

  • Malt loaf
  • Oatcakes with peanut butter
  • Banana and five brazil nuts
  • 1/2 a flapjack bar
  • Natural yoghurt and honey

Dried-fruit

What to avoid

I know that I am unable to eat dried fruit or lentils the day before a long or tough session, as this generally causes me gastrointestinal (GI) distress. And yet I have turned up to many ultra races where other competitors are chomping away on dried mango.

GI distress can be caused by numerous factors, including your nutrition, so high fibre diets can be problematic. Dehydration can also lead to stomach upset as the salt balance is affected.

In general terms, I recommend that before races and long runs, you should aim to keep high fibre food to a minimum and stay hydrated, using an electrolyte to aid with salt balance. Trial and error will help you to build a better picture of what works best.

Food and running is a very personal issue; for every individual that will not be able to tolerate food at all prior to a run, there will be an equal number that can’t bear run on an empty stomach.

WORDS Renee McGregor