Race week is here. The long, hard training hours are in the rearview mirror, and now you can sit back, relax, and carb-load…right? Close, but not quite.
The week leading up to your race (otherwise known as a “taper”) should include a lot of rest, but also a lot of preparation: short tune-up training sessions, prioritizing sleep, avoiding unnecessary stress, and mentally preparing to toe the line. Though you may feel like you need to carb-load all day, every day, this is not the time to let loose on the nutrition front. What you eat in the week leading up to your race can sometimes be the difference between a PR and a DNF. Food is fuel, and you want to make sure you fill your body up with the best. Here’s everything you need to know about eating for optimal performance as you count down to the big day.
For more on tapering, with a breakdown of the days leading up to your race: Triathlete’s Guide on How to TaperSection divider
One Week Out:
In the week before any endurance race, your main nutritional focus should be to eat in a manner that best prepares you physically and mentally for the challenge that lies ahead. Many athletes focus solely on carbs, but eating for optimal performance is much more than that. During taper week, it’s a good idea to implement the following nutritional strategies:
Decrease alcohol intake
At least seven days from your event, decrease alcohol intake. In addition to helping you stay hydrated, cutting out alcohol can ensure you get quality sleep before the event. Sure, that nightcap may help you feel sleepy, but experts say it can actually end up robbing you of a good night’s rest. So skip the wine and instead pour yourself a glass of sparkling water.
Cut back on caffeine
If you plan to use caffeine during the race, reduce caffeine intake by one-third to one-half beginning three days out from race day to optimize the race-day benefits.
Avoid overly processed foods
Junk food can drain your energy instead of filling your tank during race week. Studies show eating fast food causes impaired task performance and lack of motivation – the opposite of getting revved up for your big race.
Hopefully, in training, you noticed that certain foods served you well before big workouts, and certain foods not so much. Use this knowledge to choose foods that won’t put your race at risk. Two to three days out from race day, reduce high-fiber and fried foods, eliminate spicy foods, uncooked meat, and unfamiliar foods. This will minimize the chance of GI distress, diarrhea, and bloating. In addition, increase sodium intake by adding salt to foods and eating salty foods.
Prioritize hydration, but don’t go overboard. Monitor the color of your urine to assess hydration status throughout the week. Optimally, it should be light yellow and not clear.Section divider
The Day Before the Race:
Acute sodium loading is most effective and has the fewest adverse side effects when begun 12 to 15 hours before the start of the race. The day before the race, it’s a good idea to snack on salty foods and increase salt intake at meals and snacks.
If you’re a particularly salty sweater and know you experience significant sodium sweat losses while exercising, you may benefit from sodium supplementation or a preload the afternoon or early evening the day before and morning of the race. However, don’t wait until the day before your race to test-drive sodium supplementation. In keeping with the golden rule, “nothing new on race day,” all supplements and food choices should be test-driven repeatedly in training for the best chance of success.
The right way to carb-load
In the two days leading up to race day, this is the time to emphasize easy-to-digest carbohydrates low in fiber. Race week is not the time to be an adventurous eater. Stick with familiar foods that you’ve test-driven repeatedly during training, eat reasonable portions of complex carbohydrates with a protein-rich source, and moderate to low-fat as these foods have staying power, stabilize blood sugars, and support sound sleep. Be careful to avoid overeating or stuffing yourself.
|Examples of easy-to-digest carbohydrates|
|Oatmeal, yogurt, crackers, bananas, potatoes, pretzels, applesauce, toast, rice, pancakes, waffles, bagels, jam, honey.|
|Pancakes and waffles|
The Last Supper:
Get the early bird special
It’s best to finish your last meal of the day by 5-6 p.m. (earlier, if you prefer). Keep it bland, low in fat, low in fiber, and moderate in lean protein. Some examples of pre-race meals:
- White rice, 4 oz. grilled chicken, side salad, piece of bread, water
- White or sweet potato, grilled chicken, or lean steak, steamed green beans and carrots, piece of bread, water
- Cheese pizza with veggies, side salad, water
- Pasta with a mild sauce, lean protein of choice, steamed veggies (low in fiber).
Some athletes prefer to have their last meal in the mid-afternoon the day before the race, to ensure a good night’s sleep and allow for full digestion of the meal before the starting gun goes off. That’s also fine! Since bedtime is usually much earlier the night before the race, eating a meal and laying down one hour later is a solid strategy, too. If you choose to go this route, consider an early evening snack to top off the tank around 6:30 7 p.m. Try a bowl of cereal, peanut butter crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pretzels, and nut butter and a banana, Greek yogurt, or an energy bar, and wash it down with water or a non-caffeinated non-alcoholic beverage of choice.
No, really, you don’t need to eat spaghetti
As training volume decreases and caloric intake remains the same during your taper week, your glycogen stores don’t deplete at the same rate as in a heavy training load. Because of this, there is no reason to eat a huge plate or two of pasta in your pre-race meal. Overindulging on carbohydrates will only leave you feeling heavy, sluggish, and possibly bloated on race morning.Section divider
Eat breakfast – it really is the most important meal
Regardless of the duration of your event, intentionally skipping breakfast is not a wise move. Research shows that eating before a race improves performance. Here’s why: during the night, liver glycogen is responsible for maintaining blood sugars and fueling the body’s work of repairing and rebuilding while you sleep. However, by morning, your liver glycogen is low. Therefore, it’s critical to restock carbohydrates to support performance.
Time it right
Aim for breakfast 2.5-3 hours before race start to allow plenty of time for digestion. Your morning meal should be mainly carbohydrates with a small amount of protein. Limit your fat intake, as fat takes the longest to digest and clear the gut, which can lead to GI issues.
Ideal race-morning breakfasts
How much carbohydrate you need depends on your body weight. Aim for 1-1.5g/lb. or 2-3g/kg body weight 2.5-3 hours before the race. Test drive your pre-race breakfast in training, so you know exactly what works well for you. A 150-200g carbohydrate meal might look like:
- Bagel, 2 Tbsp jam, 2 Tbsp peanut butter, one large banana, 4 oz. juice, water – 150g carbohydrates
- One cup cooked oatmeal, grapes or banana, 1 Tbsp. honey, 5.3 oz Greek yogurt, 8 oz. juice, water – 159g carbohydrates
- 20-24 oz sports drink (40-50g/bottle), 2 pieces toast, 2 Tbsp. jam, 1 cup applesauce – 160-170g carbohydrates
Got a nervous stomach? Try this instead.
If pre-race jitters get the best of you, either eat small bites and don’t force it or take your breakfast in liquid form, as it will clear the gut faster than solids and provide hydration. Smoothies are a great way to get in calories and nutrients without upsetting your stomach. If you know you’re one to struggle with breakfast on race morning, try the liquid breakfast route—but be sure to test-drive this in training.
If breakfast doesn’t go down easily, don’t force it. There is still time before the race to top off your blood glucose levels.
The final countdown
Your in-race fueling plan actually begins 90 minutes before the starting gun goes off. While setting up in transition on race morning, follow these guidelines:
90 minutes prior
Take in 30-60g carbohydrates and 12 ounces of fluid
- 12 oz sports drink and ½ sports bar or energy chews
Within one hour of race start
Ingest 25-40g carbohydrates
- 8-12 oz. sports fluid
- Energy chews
- 100 calories of sports supplement fuel
Practice makes perfect
If you’re reading this guide the night before your race, the best fueling advice is to stick with what you know. Remember: Nothing new on race day!
If you’re planning ahead, include nutrition in your training plan. The key to pre-race fueling is to practice during training to determine what works for you, so rehearse your pre-race meal the night before and morning of your big training rides and runs and make note of what works (and what most definitely doesn’t). Armed with this knowledge, you can create the perfect race-week menu for your needs.
For more details, check out: Triathlete’s Guide to Race Fueling for Every Distance
Good luck and have fun!
Susan Kitchen is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon and IRONMAN Certified Coach, accomplished endurance athlete, and published author. She is the owner of Race Smart, an endurance coaching and performance nutrition company that works with athletes across the globe as they strive toward optimal health, fitness, and performance.