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How to Fuel Your Body Properly for a Big Race

You've signed up for that race you've wanted to run forever. You've shopped for brand-new sneaks and training gear. You've printed out a training schedule and mapped out how many miles you'll run on what days.


You're all set, right? But what and when to eat to fuel your body for the training runs and the big race is just as important as having the right gear. A common mistake I hear from first-time runners is that they're on a low-carb diet, which is the exact opposite of what you want to be doing. Carbs are the preferred fuel source for an exercising muscle and the brain.

When carbs are restricted in the diet, carbohydrate stores are low in the body, and you'll eventually burn muscle protein as fuel. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim for 6-10 grams per kilogram of body weight of carbohydrates per day to maintain glucose levels during exercise and replace stored carbohydrates, or muscle glycogen.

Carbohydrates are foods such as whole grain breads, bagels, tortillas, cereals, pasta, rice, quinoa and crackers. Depletion of glycogen stores typically occurs within 90 minutes depending on the intensity of the workout; therefore it is important to carb load to avoid "hitting the wall." Carbohydrates are needed to burn fat that your muscles also use for fuel.  Once glycogen stores are ultimately depleted our pace is reduced as well as causing pain and fatigue. 

For any runs longer than an hour, you want to make sure you're also fueling. Some easy, go-to replacements are gummies, gels or sports beans that contain carbohydrates and electrolytes. This should be done every 60 minutes and you should aim for 30-60g of carbohydrates to extend endurance performance

And don't forget to stay hydrated! You should be drinking 3-8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes on runs lasting less than 60 minutes and 3-8 ounces of a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes every 15-20 minutes for runs that are longer than 60-90 minutes

Other tips I’ve learned along the way:

1. Practice with your diet during your training runs. Some foods may work better for you than for others

2. Never try anything new on race day

3. Practice drinking sports drinks or experimenting with gels and gummies during your training runs to see what works best for you

4. When tapering, do not taper your carb loading. Remember, you're still carb loading to fuel for race day.

5. Wear your race day outfit while you train. This is non-nutrition related, but important because you don't want to be uncomfortable on race day. There's nothing worse than dealing with itchy tags or a shirt that rides up while trying to focus on your pace and breathing.

6. And lastly, have fun! You've worked hard for this.

What Do I Eat?
Here are some good meal and snack ideas to get you ready to run.
*CHO = carbohydrates provided in grams. Examples based on weight of 135 pounds (61.3kg)

Pre-exercise meal 3-4 hours before run:
1 1/2 cup oatmeal (42g CHO)
1 large banana (31g CHO)
1 tablespoon honey (17g CHO)
1 1/2 cup orange juice (42g CHO)

Pre-exercise snack 30-60 minutes before run:
1 cup sweetened apple sauce (43g CHO)
1/2 English muffin (12g CHO)

During run, 30-60g carbs per hour, every 15-20 minutes:
16 ounces Gatorade (28g CHO)
1 pack Sport Beans (25g CHO)
8 Chomps Energy Chews (46g CHO)
1 packet Gu Energy Gel (20-25g CHO depending on flavor)
8 pieces Clif Shot Bloks (48g CHO)

But we're not done yet. Once you cross the finish line, you still have to refuel and refuel right. Within 60 minutes of prolonged activity, it's recommended that you consume a lean protein and a carbohydrate to replenish stores.

Post-exercise within 30 minutes, then continue meals every 2 hours for up to 6 hours:
16 ounces low-fat chocolate milk

First post-race meal (2 hours after finish):
1 large bagel
4 tablespoons peanut butter

Second post-race meal:
1 large banana
8 ounces Greek yogurt

Third post-race meal:
1 cup canned peaches in extra-light syrup
2 large hard-boiled eggs

– Maika

Readers - Do you have any tips or tricks for getting properly fueled for a race? What are some mistakes you've made when training for a race? What do you eat on race day? Leave a comment below and let us know.

 Maika Luongo is a transplant dietitian at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. She also provides general counseling and education in the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts. Maika enjoys running, working out and healthy eating. She has completed three Boston Marathons, one NYC Marathon, and nine half marathons ranging from Boston all the way to Key Largo, Fl.

Connect with Maika on Twitter.


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