Perform at your peak with these 3 tips for fueling with real food on race day!
Note from Dena: This guest post was written by Abbie Womack, Dietetic Intern, as part of a research partnership between Back To The Book Nutrition and post-graduate nutrition students from the University of Houston.
In Part 1 of this series on nutrition for endurance sports, we discussed how to use real food during your training. Today we’ll tackle some tips for the big event with 3 tips for using real food for race day success!
Real Food for Race Day
1. Maximize Glycogen Stores with Real Food Before Race Day
Yes, this article is about race day nutrition. But filling your glycogen tank before the event is key for peak performance during your race.
As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, glycogen is a form of stored glucose. The largest glycogen stores are in the liver, but the muscles also house small amounts of glycogen than can be released once the glucose in the bloodstream (i.e., pre-race snacks) is depleted. Typically, glycogen stores can fuel about 2 hours of exercise.
The point where glycogen stores are approaching depletion is referred to as “hitting the wall” or “bonking” – something every endurance athlete wants to avoid. Maximizing your glycogen stores pre-race and choosing the right foods on race day can help bonk-proof your race.
Although everyone has some glycogen, you can increase your glycogen stores over time by consuming a higher carbohydrate diet during your endurance training period, which we discussed in detail in Part 1 (1). Carb loading – eating more carbs in the few days leading up to your event – can also be helpful.
So, how much carbohydrate should you eat on pre-race days?
- For a non-professional athlete participating in less than 7 hours of exercise per week, an intake of 2-3 grams carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day is recommended (1). So, a 150-pound person would aim for 300-450 grams of carbs per day.
- For a more serious athlete (or perhaps someone in the late stages of training) doing 7-21 hours of exercise per week, the recommendation increases to 3-5 grams carbohydrate per pound per day. So, a 150-pound person would aim for 450-600 grams of carbs per day.
Glycogen-Building Real Food Recipes:
- Lemon Blueberry Breakfast Bars
- Peach Pineapple Green Smoothie
- Apple Ring Pancakes
- Zucchini Muffins with Maple Walnut Streusel
- Stovetop Spinach & Sausage Penne
Note: This post contains affiliate links. By making purchases through these links, you pay the same amount for products, but a small portion of the sale will be sent my way to help support the mission of Back To The Book Nutrition. Thank you!
2. Plan Your Real Food for Race Day
Most endurance athletes prefer to eat 1-2 hours before the event, though some who are more prone to pre-race jitters feel best timing their food 3-4 hours prior to the event.
Test out which timing works best for you during your training. Either way, your pre-race snack should be rich in carbohydrates – sugar from those carbs will be the main source of energy for your workout. Below are some pre-workout ideas for easy, portable high-carb snacks made with real foods.
- Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Granola (pictured above)
- Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Snack Bars
- Orange Pineapple Green Smoothie
- Larabars (make your own here!)
Some longer endurance events might require you to consume food during the event to provide fuel so you don’t bonk once you’ve exhausted your glycogen stores. For food eaten during exercise, products like Gu energy gels or energy chews are popular as quick energy sources, but don’t necessarily fall into the “real food” category. Below are some real foods that can help provide steady fuel during race instead.
Real Food During the Race:
- Larabars (make your own here!)
- Dried fruit (like Medjool dates, apricots, or raisins)
- Fruit purees
- Trail Butter packets (these maple and sea salt versions with added carbs and electrolytes are perfect)
- Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter packets
Regardless of what you choose, make sure you try it before the race to see how your body reacts. You should never try anything for the first time on race day – plan for no surprises!
Can you use fat as fuel on race day?
Recently, more athletes have begun to train and compete in a ketogenic or even a fasted state (which also requires the body to use ketones for fuel). Many athletes are drawn to this approach since a steady flow of ketones from fat breakdown can provide a consistent fuel source throughout the event without them having to worry about food (carbohydrate) intake. Anecdotal reports are promising, but more data is needed to determine whether this approach is superior or right for everyone. (2,3)
One other essential for endurance athletes involves fluid and electrolyte intake. Depending on the circumstances, athletes can lose as much as 7 liters of water and 7000 mg of sodium during exercise! Some symptoms of dehydration include muscle cramps, dizziness, headaches, and dry mouth/skin.
Fluid and electrolyte requirements vary; however, it is important for everyone to consume enough water and electrolytes both during and after endurance events (4).
Commercially available electrolyte sports drinks such as Organic Gatorade will provide hydration as well as some sugar without the corn syrup, dyes, and artificial flavors in most sports drinks. But you can also choose water for hydration and take electrolyte tablets like the ones by Nuun Hydration or Trace Minerals.
About the Author
Abbie earned her Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Nutritional Sciences from Oklahoma State University, and is currently completing her dietetic internship with the University of Houston before going on to work in the field of eating disorders. Abbie is newly married and enjoys swimming and eating ice cream!
Disclaimer: Information on this site is intended only for informational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Always consult with a trusted healthcare provider before implementing significant dietary change. Read additional disclaimer info here.
- Burke, Louise M., et al. “Carbohydrates for Training and Competition.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 29, 2011, pp. 17–27. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21660838)
- Zinn, Caryn, et al. “Ketogenic Diet Benefits Body Composition and Well-Being but Not Performance in a Pilot Case Study of New Zealand Endurance Athletes.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BioMed Central, 12 July 2017. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5506682/)
- Ohio State University. “Endurance athletes who ‘go against the grain’ become incredible fat-burners: Elite performance on a diet with minimal carbs represents a paradigm shift in sports nutrition.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2015. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151117091234.htm)
- Shirreffs, Susan M., and Michael N. Sawka. “Fluid and Electrolyte Needs for Training, Competition, and Recovery.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 29, 2011, pp. 39–46. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150427)