What to Eat Before an Endurance Race

by Beth Skwarecki

So you’ve decided to tackle an endurance race—maybe a marathon or half marathon, maybe a triathlon, century ride, all-day hike, or some other multi-hour effort. Of the many tough decisions you’ll make that day, one of the first is: What should you eat for breakfast?

There’s only one right answer, in a sense, and that is: Whatever you practiced during your training. Race day is not the time to try anything new, because you’ll be living with the consequences for several (possibly agonizing) hours. Still, you have to start somewhere, so here are some of the things you’ll want to keep in mind to prepare the best breakfasts.

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Keep Your Guts Happy

Exercise, and especially running, can make your guts unhappy. Digestion can result in uncomfortable bubbling, and meals that digest slowly—which means especially large or fatty ones—can feel heavy in your stomach.

Small meals give your body less to digest at a time, increasing the chance that food will be out of your stomach and into your small intestine by race time. Food in your stomach tends to be the least comfortable. Once it’s in your small intestine, you can efficiently absorb the sugars and other nutrients in the meal.

Carbohydrates (like sugars and starches) tend to make it through the stomach the fastest, so they make for a “light” meal. Liquid foods move through even more quickly.

Carbohydrates may increase your chances of GI distress (nausea, flatulence, diarrhea); some athletes swear they get symptoms from eating too much sugar (like combining Gatorade and gels), but the situation may be more complicated.

Ultimately, what upsets someone else’s stomach may not upset yours. Responses to different foods are personal, so experimentation is key. Try a new breakfast on a short run day, then on a long run day, before deciding it’s safe for your race. In other words, trust your gut.

Manage Your Time

Most races and endurance events start in the morning, so you’re already getting up early and dealing with a million tiny things. (Where are my safety pins? Which roads will be closed? Did I remember to put BodyGlide everywhere?)

Race morning breakfasts are, for almost every athlete I know, something that’s quick and easy to prepare. Make sure to shop the night before so you have those bagels and bananas handy, or consider a make-ahead recipe like overnight oats that you can grab on your way out the door.

You’ll want to consider the amount of time it takes to begin digesting the meal. Most runners I know will eat their breakfast about 2 hours before the race’s start time, to be sure they won’t be running with a heavy stomach. If you’re pinched for time, liquid calories like a smoothie or a cup of gatorade will digest quickly, and could make a good last-minute breakfast or a post-breakfast snack to carry with you to the start line.

Hydration should factor into your schedule, too. Rather than chugging water right before the race (which could leave you looking for a porta-potty when none are to be found), you’re better off drinking lots of water in the days leading up to the race. To schedule that other important bathroom duty, consider drinking hot tea or coffee (or even hot water) to make yourself poop. (Make sure to practice this on training days to be sure you have your timing down!)

Some Winning Breakfasts

Here are some classic runners’ breakfasts, along with what makes them so great:

  • Peanut butter on toast: Provides carbs, along with a little fat and protein to slow down digestion so you won’t feel hungry while you’re lining up at the start. Because of the digestion time, fans of peanut butter either have it in small doses, or recommend eating it at least two hours before the start.
  • Bananas: A good source of carbs (mainly sugar) with just a little fiber to slow it down, and some potassium for good measure. (Some runners swear potassium staves off cramps, although the science isn’t clear on that.)
  • Coffee: In addition to helping you poop, coffee is good for a caffeine boost that can help athletic performance. Keep the amount within the limits of what your body is able to handle—another key area to experiment.
  • Oatmeal, overnight or otherwise: Oats are both a good source of carbs and a great vehicle for your favorite type and amount of proteins, fats, and fruits. Have it hot, or try cold oats made the day before, which you can pack into a jar for a portable breakfast.
  • Bacon and eggs: These break the rules (unless you’re used to exercising on a ketogenic diet), but it’s possible to work these into your morning if you get up early enough to have time to digest it all, or if you keep the amounts small (for example, a little bacon with your toast and banana).

Any breakfast can be a great one for race day if it’s something that works for your body, but now you know some of the ground rules for building a great pre-race meal. Athletes out there, what’s your favorite breakfast?

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