I often get asked, what should I eat before a half marathon, marathon, triathlon? Whether you are training for, or are competing in an endurance event, you really want to start thinking about fueling your endurance activities weeks before your event. You will hear me say that endurance athletes will too often concentrate on what to eat before, or during an event – when the bulk of what they eat – and the bulk of what matters – is their day-to-day nutrition. In other words, how can you train your best, if you don’t fuel your best – and where does that leave your performance?

In fact, as a Registered Dietitian, I will often see trainers touting their “on-line certified nutrition certificate”, giving nutrition advice to competitive amateur athletes. Typically, they’ll overlook an individual’s health history, blood labs, gender, age, work and/or home-life, food sensitivities, propensity toward gastrointestinal issues (GI), weight loss or gain concerns, or their individual needs in respect to healing and recovery. These concerns should be addressed in order to properly support an athlete’s day-to-day fuel needs to maximize their training efforts, event goals, recover quickly, and above all – prevent injury.

With that said, let’s at least start the week before your endurance event. It’s important to note some big changes that should occur, of which have nothing to do directly with your nutrition – but will absolutely affect how your body will store the energy you’ll need for your endurance event. For example, the week prior to your event, your training should start to taper off. This allows your muscles adequate time to:

  • Load-up on carbohydrates (guarantees adequate muscle glycogen)
  • Replace depleted fat stores within the muscle (another source of fuel for your endurance event)
  • Heal tiny tears in your muscles that have resulted from your hard training efforts (ensures that you start the event with fresh legs, and rested muscles)

In terms of the taper, I recently ran into someone at the gym who told me that I should watch my calories the week before my upcoming marathon. The truth is, if you’re eating good sources of carbohydrate, and loading your muscle glycogen stores, it’s likely you will gain a few pounds. See, for each ounce of muscle glycogen stored, it’s possible to gain about 3 ounces of water. This extra water weight really isn’t a bad thing because it can be a good source of fluid during your endurance event.

All this talk about carbohydrate, what do you really need to know?

… what type of food and how much?

Carbohydrates are in breads, cereals, pasta, vegetables, fruits, juices, jam, jelly, and sweets – like ice cream, pudding, cakes, cookies, and candy. I am a big proponent of eating whole, unprocessed foods to not only carb-load your muscles the week before an endurance event, but to also maintain overall health. In fact, here are some basic examples that you might try the week before the race:

Meal 1:

  • Breakfast: Granola, Greek yogurt, Finely Diced Nuts, Fruit (banana, berries)
  • Lunch: Potato, Grilled Chicken, Salad
  • Dinner: Acorn squash, Roasted Vegetables, Baked Fish

Meal 2:

  • Breakfast: Oats, Lowfat Milk, Finely Diced Nuts, Fruit (banana, berries)
  • Lunch: Small Yam, Sliced Turkey, Roasted Vegetables (the best lunch is leftover dinner!)
  • Dinner: Brown Rice (with beans if tolerated), Salad, Baked Chicken

Meal 3:

  • Breakfast: Freezer waffles, Nut Butter, Fruit (banana, berries)
  • Lunch: Sliced Bread, Vegetable Omelet, Cheese and/or Avocado,
  • Dinner: Pasta, Salad or Broccoli Raab, Meatballs with Tomoato Sauce or Ground Turkey Tomato Sauce

For my endurance athletes, I promote the following macronutrient guideline:

  • Carbohydrate: About 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight
  • Protein: About 1.2 – 1.4 grams protein/lb of body weight
  • Fat: About 20-35% of total calories, or the balance of calories after carbohydrate and protein needs have been met

Once your muscles are fully glycogen loaded during your taper, your appetite will likely drop. You’ll notice yourself feeling more full, with smaller portions. You will also likely find yourself less hungry when you wake, between meals, and even late at night.

In the two to three days and nights before your endurance event, I suggest concentrating on adding a little more carbohydrate and fluids. After all that time and effort you put in during training, it’s not uncommon to feel anxious, and nervous the day and night before a race. Sometimes, you are still traveling to get to your event, and it’s likely you may not sleep well the night before. If you are trying that last minute carb load/pasta dinner, you might wake up feeling full, and uncomfortable – you may even run into some GI issues. After all the training you put in – this is not how you want to start your endurance event! Eating a little extra carbohydrate two – three days before your event will give your body time to digest so to avoid those bloated feelings the morning of the event.

As outlined in Meals 1-3, above, you should be eating balanced meals the day(s) before the event. I like to follow the Harvard Healthy Plate.

The Harvard Healthy Plate is a great roadmap for meal planning. It can help ensure that you are getting the proper mix of macro- and micro- nutrients. You will also want to make sure you consume plenty of liquids, including those high in electrolytes. Some people like to add Gatorade or coconut water to their water to make drinking extra fluids a little more palatable to ensure their hydration, as well as their electrolyte status. Also, don’t rule out soup, which is an excellent source of sodium and potassium – two key electrolytes. Fruits – like clementines, oranges, watermelon – are also be high in water and electrolytes. Of course, since fruit is high in fiber, it should be tried and tested for tolerance throughout training for your endurance event. Which brings me to an important point, on the day before and the morning of your event, please whatever you do, do not consume anything that you haven’t already tested to fuel your endurance training!

On the morning of your big event, you are going to want to pay attention to nutrient timing. If you are competing in a large event, you may not start until 10 or 11 am. For these events, you will have plenty of time to eat breakfast, and a snack. Either way, if you start at 8am, or 11 am, you’re going to want to eat 3-4 hours pre-event to ensure that you have enough time to digest your food, and fully load your liver and muscle glycogen stores. You will want to make sure that you consume enough food and fluids to maintain your normal blood sugar and blood pressure throughout your event. If you don’t consume enough food and fluids, your blood sugar will eventually drop, your blood pressure (via dehydration) will drop, fatigue will set in, and your perceived level of exertion will exacerbate.

Regarding fluids, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 5-7 ml/kg of fluids at least 4 hours prior to exercise. This would provide a 150-lb male about 340 – 477 ml, or about 12 to 16 ounces of water. You will also need to consider environmental conditions, temperature, whether or not you sweat a lot, if you are a salty sweater, etc. Since it takes about 90-minutes for your kidneys to process fluids, you may want to drink a little extra fluids (water, juice, sports drink) up to about two hours before your event to give your body some time to urinate the excess. To ensure you are properly hydrated, you can also top off with a little extra water, watered down Gatorade, or coconut water about 15 to 20-minutes before the start of the event.

Your pre-event meal should include food and drinks that are easily digested – this is not the time to add in healthy fiber or fats because these foods can cause GI stress. Instead you will want to the bulk of your calories to come from easy to digest carbohydrates. Let’s face it, race morning nerves are normal – and they’re a good thing because they help elevate certain hormones to raise blood glucose levels and mobilize fats, both of which you will need for energy during your event. Unfortunately, nerves can also also interfere with an athlete’s appetite. This is why most pre-race foods that are recommended are usually soft, bland, low in fiber, low in fat, and easy on the stomach. Some examples include:

  • Oatmeal or Cold Cereal (like Cheerios), low fat milk, and banana
  • Banana with nut butter and 1-2 slices of toast, English muffin, or bagel
  • Banana with nut butter, and 1-2 Freezer waffles topped with a little honey or maple syrup
  • Skinless baked or sweet potato, 2-3 egg whites, and applesauce
  • I like my homemade coconut flour banana nut bread with tiny chocolate chips, a small container of plain Greek yogurt with honey, and a banana

As a “rule of thumb,” I use the following pre-event carbohydrate recommendations: 1 g/kg 1-hour prior, 2 g/kg 2-hours prior, 3 g/kg 3-hours prior for training. Don’t forget, some of these calories can come from fluids!

Your meal will likely be accompanied by coffee, juice, or a sports drink. As for coffee, I consider up to 2 cups hydrating – any more than that can increase urine output – and be dehydrating.

You can also add in a little more carbohydrate the closer you get to the start of your event. Keep in mind, the closer you get to the start of the event, the more simple, and bland your fuel should be. Continue to avoid gas-producing foods such as those very high in fiber, FODMAP sensitive foods, or carbonated beverages. The last thing you need is gas trapped in your GI tract, forcing you to stop during your event! Instead, stick with another half of a low fiber freezer waffle, salted low fiber pretzels or crackers, and of course more fluids, which could include watered down coconut water, sports drink, or water.

By eating wisely day-to-day, tapering and fueling properly in the days leading up to your event, and sticking with foods and fluids that you practiced consuming during your training, you can face your endurance nutrition concerns with confidence, and enjoy your event!

To learn more about how to build and maintain a healthy body, increase your athletic performance, or to simply sustain a lifestyle of healthy eating, contact me at 973.852.3335

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