Race day can feel extremely stressful for a variety of reasons. I’ve noticed throughout my time coaching athletes that one of the reasons we carry so many nerves on race day is that we simply “want to do everything right.” We spend months and maybe even years training for a race so it’s terrifying that we could seemingly throw all of that hard work out the window just by eating something wrong that turns our race into a series of port-o-potty stops. One of the ways to eliminate that stress is to create a routine that you know works, practice it, and then hold fast to it. But, where do you start?
When to Eat:
When you eat can be almost as important as what you eat on race day. If you eat too far out from your race then you may be hungry or even depleted by the time you start the race. If you eat too close to the race then you may have gut distress during the race. As a general rule of thumb eat your standard sized pre-race meal about 3-4 hours before the race. Then, if you want to add a little something you might consider eating some race specific food (such as a gel or blocks) within 15 minutes of starting.
Sometimes people can get really thrown off by the time of day that they race. For example, if you race at 8 am then you might feel like you need to eat something different than if you race at noon. Let me tell you a secret: You can eat the same thing no matter what time of day and in fact, I highly recommend it. Once you find something that sits well with your stomach that would be your pre-race meal no matter what time of day you are racing. If you race later in the day then eat something simple and easily digestible in the morning and eat your normal pre-race meal 3-4 hours before your race.
Factors to Consider
One of the challenging things about nutrition is that everyone is different. In fact, different scenarios pose different problems. Here are some standard issues and solutions that I often hear discussed:
Early Starts: Sometimes races start super early and that makes it hard to eat the traditional 3-4 hours before. Often times I will base my wake-up time around my eating schedule. If the race starts at 7 then I will wake up and 4 and eat immediately. If you know based on experience that you need to eat so early that it would require you to wake up before 4 to eat then consider waking up, eating, and going back to bed. This is actually a fairly common strategy amongst ultra-endurance racers.
Running and Triathlon: If you are a runner or triathlete then you probably know that panicky sensation when you suddenly need a port-o-potty and you need it NOW! You are not alone. Running can increase gastric motility and gastric emptying so runners often have to be even more cautious with what they eat before training and racing than a cyclist. Consider avoiding foods high in fiber and eating a little further out from the event.
Race Intensity: The higher the intensity the race then the more gut distress you might have. When a race is very high intensity then I will eat further out from the start. If the race is lower intensity, then I will push my food intake closer to the start. In fact for extremely long ultra-endurance events I might eat as close at 2 hours to the start since I would rather ensure I am fully fueled than worrying about being fully digested by the time the race starts.
What to Eat
My biggest recommendation when deciding what you pre-race meal is going to be is picking something that is accessible to you at nearly every event. That means if you plan to travel or fly to races often then you may want to pick food that you can find all over the world or something that you know that you can travel with. Here are some of my recommendations:
Pancakes: Pancakes (or waffles) are a fantastic pre-race meal because they are high in carbohydrates and easy to digest. I recommend using a mix so that it’s easy to make and you can travel with it. The Feed sells Birch Blenders pancake mix which is delicious and you can just add water.
Instant Oatmeal: Oatmeal is a classic option for pre-race nutrition. The Feed sells a variety of oatmeal cups (such as Super Good Foods Oatmeal) that are easy to pack and take on the go. Just add hot water.
Granola: Granola and oat milk can be a quick and easy meal to get down before an event. I think this is why so many standard athletic nutrition companies have started creating granolas in their product line as well. You can check out Picky Performance Granola on The Feed.
Rice: Finally, rice can be a really great meal for those with ultra-sensitive stomachs. Aim for white rice (rather than brown). You can make it sweet with oat milk and cinnamon or savory with something like soy sauce. You might consider adding a little protein with an egg or two.