I was recently asked if I had ever posted about running nutrition. When reviewing my old posts, I saw that I had certainly mentioned elements of nutrition within posts but had never written anything comprehensive (which is slightly embarrassing because this is such an important topic).
Note: I am not a nutritionist! This post is based on my own experience (the school of hard knocks and a LOT of trial and error) and what works for me may not work for everybody!
When I first started running in middle school (oh, let’s say this was in the late 90s) the extent of the nutritional advice that we received was “eat carbs.” These carbs typically took the form of white pasta, french bread with butter (or breadsticks), and cookies. They were usually consumed at team pasta parties in mass quantities. This form of fueling continued throughout high school (sometimes even supplemented by a Portillo’s chocolate cake shake). Even though the longest race that we would run was a 5k, I consumed enough carbs pre-race that it may have well been a marathon!
By 2013 I started assessing my nutrition. This was also when I decided to try to go gluten free (which was a complete 180 degree change from my diet at that time). While “gluten free” options may seem to be everywhere these days, they were not quite as accessible just a few years ago. Switching to gluten free ultimately meant a little more experimenting with food before racing. During this time, I also met other runners who did not abide by the “bread and pasta” only mentality and was able to open my eyes to different options. Around this time my husband also introduced me to the Paleo diet concept (which I was initially adamantly opposed to). While I still don’t think that strict Paleo is the best choice for long distance runners – learning about such a diametrically different food philosophy helped me to extract principles that I do find helpful and that I believed helped me change my eating habits for the better.
My pre-race nutrition strategy changed in the following ways:
- I moved my carb-heavy meal to two nights before the race rather than the night before the race.
- The night before the race I make sure to eat a meal with lean protein and carbs (and lots of salt, which helps prevent hypoatremia due to the excessive amounts of sweat lost during a race) . I usually eat a larger lunch and a smaller dinner on the day before a race. My recent go-tos have been stir-fry (rice, chicken, select veggies and soy sauce), gluten-free pasta (small portion) with chicken and a side salad, or chicken and a sweet potato.
- I make sure to avoid anything high-fiber (there is a reason there are long lines at porta-potties on race day morning).
- I eat more frequent, smaller meals. While I don’t abide by any strict nutritional ratios, I try to diversify what I put on my plate.
- I eat lots of bananas the week of the race. This was a pro-tip from a friend who is ridiculously fast (think low to mid 2s for a marathon). I’m not sure of the science behind it other than potassium is said to help prevent muscle cramping – but I don’t question it.
- I make sure to carry a bottle of water around with me at all times the week before the race. The two days before, I start supplementing water with an electrolyte drink as well.
I have also changed how I approach fueling and hydrating during the race. First, I realized that my body does not tolerate Gu, Clif Gels, or Power Gels well so I have had to branch out and explore other brands. Currently, my favorites are Honey Stingers (made with tapioca syrup and honey), Huma Gels (made with cane juice, chia seeds, coconut water, and sea salt), and Hammer Gels (made with juice concentrates, salt, and amino acids). If gels don’t work for you, there are other options available as well (such as chews or wafers) or you can always make your own bites to eat during the run!
I also have switched from Gatorade to Nuun for my training runs. The only hangup with Nuun is that it isn’t offered by most races on the course. This means that either you carry your own hydration (not happening, for me) or learn to adapt. On the course, I will typically only drink a half cup of Gatorade (rather than a full) and then drink a half cup of water. My last marathon I ran on water and gel alone (so it certainly can be done). Another pro-tip: don’t take a gel and a Gatorade at the same aid station – it is a recipe for GI distress. Gels should be taken with water! Race day fueling can be really tricky and is very individualized. It took me four marathons to figure out what worked for me. Use your long runs to experiment!
Post-race can be unpredictable (and is often the inverse of what you would expect). My appetite has ranged from famished (usually after shorter races) to the sight of food makes me want to puke (usually after marathons). However, racing burns a lot of calories and it is important to get something back into your system! Usually I will nibble on whatever is being handed out at the finish line (usually a banana to prevent cramping and something salty like potato chips). I also tend to crave bloody marys after marathons (again, I blame the salt deficiency from racing). I figure that I am craving it for a reason, so I usually just go with it. Of course, make sure to drink lots of non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated fluids to replenish all of your lost energy stores. Even if you feel okay, racing takes a toll on the body and it is important to take care of yourself after the race as well so as to optimize your recovery.
What nutrition strategies work for you? Do you have a go-to pre-race meal? Any nutrition mistakes you will never make again?