Ask the Diet Doctor: Pre-Race Eating Plan
Forget what you've heard about carb-loading. This strategy will ensure you're ready at the start line
Q: What is my best race-day eating plan leading up to an evening event?
A: When it comes to optimizing your race performance, the two highest impact areas you need to look at are pre-loading and sustaining.
Don't worry about carb-loading on the days leading up to the race-despite its popularity, research shows that it doesn't consistently increase performance, and even less so in women due to estrogen muddling things up with respects to glycogen storage.
Instead, to ensure your body will be ready to go when the start gun goes off, eat as you normally would on the day of your race, and then two to three hours before it starts, pre-load with a meal that's high-carbohydrate (~70g) and low- to moderate-protein (~15g). This combo will temporarily supersaturate your muscle energy stores and increase the proportion of carbs that you use to fuel your efforts during your race, plus the protein can help attenuate muscle damage.
You may be surprised to know that despite the wild popularity of carbohydrate-based sports drinks, the research regarding the impact of carbs pre-exercise on performance is mixed, with some studies showing a beneficial effect and others showing no effect. Despite this, I recommend using the carbohydrate pre-load meal since on race day you want to give yourself any possible extra edge.
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Sample Pre-Load Meal: Quinoa & Black Beans
1 teaspoon avocado oil
1 tomato, diced
1/2 bell pepper, diced
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup canned low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup cooked quinoa
3 tablespoons minced cilantro
Heat oil in a medium nonstick pan over medium heat. Add tomatoes, peppers, and cumin and saute for 2 minutes. Add beans and quinoa and cook until heated through. Add cilantro and salt and pepper to taste, and serve warm.
Nutrition score per serving: 397 calories, 10g fat, 68g carbs, 17g protein
The duration of your race plays an important role in how important your eating strategy to sustain performance is. For example, if you are running in a 5K, on average this will take 25 to 35 minutes and you have more than enough stored energy in your muscles to fuel you, so you don't need a sustaining component to your nutrition. However, if you are running in a 10K, which can take 70 to 80 minutes, you can use extra carbohydrates later in your race to maintain your performance and give you an extra kick in the last miles.
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A good rule of thumb is that once your race goes beyond 60 minutes, you will want to supply 30 to 45 grams of carbohydrates per hour to augment the fuel your body is already getting from the sugar stored in your muscles. If you estimate that it'll take you 80 minutes to run your 10K, then 8 ounces of Gatorade or another sports drink 45 to 50 minutes into your event will be all you'll need to ensure sustained performance and energy to the finish line.