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Running Basics: What to Eat the Night Before a Race

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You’ve put in the time, worked really hard, trained to your optimal levels and have made it up to the big day. It’s way more than normal to have butterflies in your stomach, but the important thing is, what else are you supposed to have in your stomach. The last thing you want to do is have a pre-race dinner or meal letting you down. Whatever be your food intake, its whats going to prepare your body to perform at its best. If you do not provide your body with favorable food and fluid, your body won’t be able to perform at its best, because what you consume before the day of your race, will directly impact the way your stomach will act during the race. Many runners are stumped by the question – What to eat the night before a race, what is an ideal meal the night before a long run, and there is no doubting this struggle of decision-making, since you need to fuel yourself up for the grilling miles you’ll be covering, simultaneously, incorporating essential vitamins and nutrients. 

I Run because I really like Food

Yes, among the various elements of performance, are training, fitness, genetics, mental state, but there also exists a large scientific premise of preparing nutritionally well for a race. The kind of nutrition and fuelling you’re into during the entire length of your training cycle will affect your GI system on race day. What kind of food you are eating the day or the night before your race will determine your performance levels. If you are one of those whose intake consists of carbohydrates around training and racing events, then the night before a race is your opportunity to up the intake as a last endeavor to mount the muscle and liver fuel stores. Apart from this, it’s also a chance to boost your fluid and electrolyte levels to keep up with your body’s hydration needs.

Know More Here:

The Concept of Carb Loading 

Running as an activity burns a lot of calories in a short time period, and runners are fully aware of the onus of carb high foods. Carbohydrate loading, or carb-loading/carbo-loading, is an approach commonly used by endurance runners, which helps maximize the storage of glycogen or energy in the muscles or liver. This strategy only proves to be effective in the case of events that last longer than 90 minutes, since its post 90 minutes that your muscles will be depleted of glycogen, which is where carb loading comes to the rescue. Carb loading stores the extra glycogen that your muscles can utilize, post the exhaustion in the normal stores. 

While not being the only source of energy, Glycogen is the body's most easily accessible form of energy. While running a full or even a half marathon, you will be burning through not only glycogen but also fat. However, fat isn’t an efficient energy source, as the body has to put in more effort to convert it into an efficient energy fuel. This means that after you run out of glycogen, your body will slow down as it starts to convert fat into energy. Now, don’t misunderstand, proper carbo-loading or packing your muscles with glycogen right up to the brink, will not increase your speed, although it will allow you to run your best.  

Especially the night before a long race is an ideal time to load muscle glycogen (carb loading) while ensuring to consume foods which your body will be able to digest easily and not cause gastrointestinal surprises. Depending on your individual needs, there is a wide range of foods available that will rise to the occasion. Also, apart from fitness levels, size and gender, environmental conditions, nerves will also play their part in dictating to you how much and what to eat the night before a race. Well, you might want to take your mind’s cravings into consideration too!   

carb loading
Store the glycogen in your body (source)

To eat is a necessity but to eat intelligently is an art

How many Carbs Should You Eat? 

You should start carb loading two to three days prior to your race since one meal isn’t going to suffice in fuelling up your muscles with the required glycogen. Despite the fact that you will continue to run a few miles (or in some way utilize) this in the days before the race, the glycogen will still accumulate within your muscles. At this point of time carbs should be providing you 85 – 90% of your calories. So, for every pound of body weight, you would have to pull in about four grams of carbs. To make that simpler, in the case of a 150-pound runner, that would make it an intake of 2,400 calories or 600 grams of carbs per day.  

carbs for the runners
Healthy carbs to run faster

Charge up Your Body Before the Race

Find out the quick tips and tricks on what to eat before the race:

  • The major aspects that cause fatigue during a race are dehydration and fuel or carbohydrate depletion. 
  • In order to ensure that runners finish the race at desired intensity, they are required to store adequate muscle fuel or glycogen. 
  • Carb loading up to 24-48 hrs prior to a race will help to boost the glycogen stores in the event of long distances such as a half marathon or more, thereby enhancing the availability of fuel during the event. 
  • To avoid facing a stomach upset during the race, reduce or avoid the intake of high protein or high-fat foods, about 12 – 24 hrs prior to the race.
  • Your pre-event meal is your golden chance to perk up your hydration levels and glycogen stores. 
hydration before the race
Keep the fluid level up

Do’s and Don’ts for a Pre-Race Meal

DO - Include Healthy Fats

Healthy fat foods such as seeds, nuts, hemp oil, coconut oil, real butter, avocado, oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon, help control body temperature, absorption of nutrients, keep the body well fuelled, help with recovery etc. Also, fat becomes a necessary element that protects and lubricates your joints. Do not attempt a low-fat diet, as it could be detrimental to health.

DO - Eat Carbs as Part of Your Pre-Race Breakfast

Prepping your body with carbs is one of the best ways to ensure that your performance doesn’t suffer while running. Your pre-race breakfast could be the best source of taking on fuel for your body to start strong. Include foods such as bagels, porridge, toast, cereal, and fluids such as fruit juices. Fibre and fat should be held down to the bare minimum to avoid stomach upsets. 

DO – Remain Hydrated

‘Little and Often’ is a solid key to keep in mind for regular hydration. Drinking enough fluids the day before the race or even the morning of, is sometimes a lost cause with runners, often slipping off from the mind. Another error in judgment is underestimating the effect of sports drinks which as compared to water, provide not only the fluid but electrolytes - particularly sodium and easily digestible carbs. Dehydration will only cause a decline in your endurance performance so remember to hydrate well. 

DO – Take on Additional Fuel During the Race

Seems a little odd? Well, it isn’t, since we would be replenishing our bodies with food during normal activities that consume long durations, why shouldn’t running too? An intake of 30 – 60 Gms of carbohydrates per hour is recommended. The stores of carbohydrates will exhaust after a time period of running, and your body won’t run on empty. To put off the onset of fatigue, energy gels or sweets can be of great help! 

what to eat before a race
Art of healthy eating

Now let's get into the dont's for a pre-race meal:

DON'T - Eat Late into the Night Before the Race 

Along with what to eat the night before a race, it is important to pick the right time to eat too! Ideally your last meal should be around 13 hours before the race time. Eating early will not only give your body enough time to relax and digest the food but will also increase your chances of hitting the bed early for a good night’s rest.

DON’T – Eat High Fibrous Foods

Suddenly including a serving of sautéed vegetables, or going all ‘salad-crunchy-green’ is only going to make your stomach go topsy-turvy with GI distress. Why put yourself through all of that, simply avoid eating any high fibrous foods. 

DON'T – Experiment with New Foods 

The way you wouldn’t break open a brand new pair of trainers on the big day, similarly stay away from trying out new dishes. Attempting to gulp down new variants means putting your body through a different digestive experience and it could very easily lead to stomach upsets, dehydration. Even with your breakfast, try not to switch up to any new foods on your race day. 

DON’T – Skip Breakfast 

Skipping breakfast would mean inviting low blood sugar, and no way to make up for that additional push of energy. While many runners cannot even think of facing a full breakfast, going without is a sure shot way of reducing your body’s performance levels. If you feel like you would end up with an overfilled stomach or you are too nervous to eat, consume your breakfast few hours before the race, which will give it enough time to settle. Or you could opt to replace solids altogether by consuming fruit smoothies or fruit juices. They will provide the necessary energy but will keep you feeling light.  

DON'T - Eat as Soon as You Cross the Finish Line

Yes, you’ve totally earned the right to gulp down a big helping of all your favs, but hold on. Eating right after a race could be counterproductive as the chances of effective digestion are low. Wait at least for 30 minutes, giving your body the time to calm down. You could drink some water to rehydrate. Once you are ready to eat, indulge in a meal balanced out with proteins, carbs, and healthy fats. This will help to support your joints, replenish your glycogen levels and muscle recovery. 

never skip breakfast

What to Eat the Night Before a Race

You should keep in mind, the time between your last meal and the beginning of the race to schedule your meals on the night before your race. This will help prevent anything from weighing you down, especially if your race is scheduled for an early morning. Whilst keeping the size of your meal large, note that it shouldn’t be too heavy. This means, that foods high in fibre, fat and protein aren’t really suitable as they slow down gastric emptying, leading to slower digestion, and a possibility of facing digestive problems during the race. Trust us you don’t want to be ‘running’ to the bathroom……

Breaking down the confusion over ‘what to eat the night before a race’ - Your ideal meal composition should be 2/3 carbohydrate and 1/3 protein. A fat overload the night before, basically incorporating fatty foods will not enhance your performance or fuel your muscles. 

The night before race meal recipes and ideas: 

  • Lean meat and veggies with baked potatoes or Lean meat Sandwiches 
  • Bean and Cheese burritos 
  • Rice Bowls or Chinese food with Rice 
  • Pasta with red sauces
  • Fruit juice with the meals (could be consumed throughout the day as well) 
night meal ideas befor a race
Healthy food for faster run

Healthy Pre-Race Meal Plan Ideas 

A sprinter’s event doesn’t last longer than a few seconds to minutes, therefore, while sprinters require carbohydrates before events, they need not be participative of a carb load strategy. Short distance races like the 5K could cause a stomach upset or GI distress because of their high intensity. To keep the intake of foods low in calories and fat to avoid digestive issues during the event. Therefore, to make it easy on the belly we suggest that your meal include low fibre carbs and be low in protein and fat. 

Planning your meals 3 – 4 hours prior to the competition will give you a chance to intake heartier meals. Your choice should be from the line of complex carbohydrates such as turkey sandwich wheat bread, chicken and brown rice, cereal with banana and low-fat milk, whole grain pasta in tomato sauce etc. three to four hours is ample time to digest the food before the competition.

Listed below we have a few meal plan examples you could give a spin: 

1. Breakfast (an hour to an hour and a half before the race)

What to eat for breakfast before a race? Your body has utilized energy when whilst sleeping, so you need to top that up in the morning before your race. Similar to your night meal, your breakfast needs to be one that is high in carbs, small amounts of proteins, and low fat. 

Also, keep in mind the time between your breakfast and the race as you do not want to feel weighed down. 

Breakfast Ideas before a race:

  • Fruit or Yogurt Smoothie 
  • Peanut butter sandwich with juice 
  • Oatmeal 
  • Bowl of cereal with banana and milk 
  • A granola bar or an energy bar 
  • 16 oz. water or low-calorie sports drink
  • Eggs 
  • Pancakes
  • Toast 
  • Fruit Smoothie
  • Coffee (Coffee if it is a regular intake, then sure, go ahead, but if the body isn’t accustomed then avoid having any in the two-four hours before the race.)
breakfast ideas for runners
Yummy and healthy

2. Pre-Race Lunch Ideas 

If you have enrolled yourself for the marathon, then you must follow a strict diet plan. Listed below are the lunch ideas that you can incorporate months before the race day.

  • Turkey sandwich with avocado
  • Carrots dipped in hummus
  • Small apple
  • Rice and Bean Enchiladas 

3. Evening Snack Ideas

For mid-day and mid-evening snacks you can make a choice from the following:

  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Trail mix
  • Fruit, Oats and Seed Bars 
healthy snacks for runners
Treats for your body

4. Interesting Pre-race Dinner Ideas

Make sure you incorporate clean eating, as that will help you stay on the tracks for longer hours. Added bonus- your body will thank you! Some of the dinner options are:

  • Grilled salmon
  • Brown rice
  • Steamed zucchini
  • Quinoa Salad with Grilled Chicken, Walnuts, Raisins and Fresh Parsley

Livingit Tip-
Remember to keep drinking ample amounts of water during the day and to also include it with your meals. 

grilled salmon for runners
Delicious salmon for runners

Making it to the Finish Line 

As is clearly evident, race nutrition and pre-race meals are a major part of your success on your race day. When you decide on your pre-race meal, it not only provides you with the carbohydrates to maintain your glycogen levels but will also include key vitamins and minerals to ensure you’re making the most of your efforts. Your meal should incorporate the energy of carbohydrates, the building and restorative properties of the lean protein, and not too much of fat which will otherwise leave you feeling heavy and sluggish, and regretful for having included it. What to eat the night before a race, plays a major role before the big day, so eat clean to stay strong during the race. 

Food is Fuel!

You can even indulge your compulsions and whacky food superstitions, like maybe a lucky cupcake, long as it isn’t new to your body. Aim to pay food and nutrition the same amount of attention as that to your training, since it’s what might make all the difference! 

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