Race-Day Nutrition: Why It Matters and How to Get It Right

Race-Day Nutrition: Why It Matters and How to Get It Right

What, when, and how much you eat and drink the night before and day of a major race—such as the upcoming TCS New York City Marathon—can make a big difference in how you feel and perform. With that in mind, several dozen runners gathered at the NYRR RUNCENTER featuring the NB Run Hub on July 24 for a Running 201 session with Tiffany Chag, MS, RD, CSCS, a sports dietitian and performance coach at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Tisch Sports Performance Center.

Chag likened race-day fueling to putting gas in your car for a long drive—you need to fill the tank and pay attention to quality. She also stressed that race-day fueling and hydration are individual: “What works for your training partner may be all wrong for you.”

Here are Chag’s top five tips for fueling before, during, and after the TCS New York City Marathon—or any marathon or half-marathon:

Make the “big three” your primary focus. Carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluids have the biggest impact on your performance—and comfort—during long runs and races. Carbs are widely available in starchy foods, beans, fruits, and vegetables, as well as sports drinks and energy gels and chews; they provide easily digested and quickly available energy to fuel endurance activity. Electrolytes (primarily sodium, potassium, and chloride) help maintain fluid balance. Fluids, of course, keep you hydrated; anything non-alcoholic that your stomach tolerates will do the job. “If your urine is the color of straw, you’re well-hydrated,” said Chag. Dark urine indicates dehydration, while clear urine means you’ve hydrated too much, which can cause nausea, cramping, headache, and dizziness/disorientation, she noted.

Test, then retest. With all the choices available, how do you know what to eat and drink on race day? “You need to test different things during your long runs—starting now,” said Chag. Ideally, test just one thing on each run—say, a pre-run breakfast, a sports drink or energy gel along the way, or a post-run recovery food. Test what you eat and drink, when, and how much, and take note of the results, both positive and negative. “You have time now to get it right,” she assured the audience. But if you wait till October to start testing, time may run out.

If you get stuck, get help. What if nothing’s working to keep you fueled, hydrated, and feeling strong on your long runs, or if you’re having a specific problem, like indigestion or late-run cramping? “Find someone to talk to,” said Chag. That might be a training partner, coach, experienced runner friend, or sports nutrition expert. Your problem may well have a simple solution. “The biggest problem is just not getting enough calories before and during your run,” Chag noted. That can result in “hitting the wall,” (also known as “bonking”) a sudden slowing of pace or need to work much harder to maintain the same pace. The solution is often to eat and drink more the night before and morning of your run.

Plan—working backward from your start time. Once you know what foods and fluids work best for you, you can plan your pre-race dinner, breakfast (ideally 3-4 hours out), snack (30-60 minutes out), last-minute top-off (as little as 5 minutes before you start running), and on-course fueling and hydration. “With a plan that’s been tested, you won’t have any guesswork on race day and you’ll know what to pack,” said Chag.

Refuel and rehydrate for recovery. What you eat and drink after your long runs and races makes a difference in how you bounce back. Again, test different foods and fluids and take note of what’s best. Chocolate milk, kefir, and soy products are popular choices for 30-60 minutes post-run, said Chag. She recommended whole grains, lean protein, vegetables, legumes, and plenty of fluids for your post-run meal. “This meal can be a celebration of foods that you enjoy, as well as alcohol in moderation,” she said. Continue to eat and drink for healthy recovery over the next 24-72 hours.

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