What You Should Know About Food And Long Distance Running

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When it comes to the question of what you should eat before a long race, typically, it’s nothing that you have not eaten before other long races. The danger in eating foods you have not eaten before is that they can cause gastrointestinal distress on race day. Your stomach will most likely be nervous anyway (butterflies) on race day, you don’t need a digestive system in distress from something you ate that morning or the day before to go along with it.

What Should You Eat the Day Before a Long Race?

Outside of different foods, there are some eating “strategies” that seasoned runners practice when getting ready for a long race. Some swear by eating a healthy serving of protein, usually either chicken or fish, along with some complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, rice, pasta, breads or legumes. The main thing is to keep it fresh and healthy. That eliminates most boxed and processed foods. If you make it yourself, at least you know the ingredients that went into it.

If you know how dairy will react in you, then some milk can round out your pre-race day menu. If unsure, skip the dairy as it can cause GI issues in some people.

A common question asked, especially by new runners, is how many carbs should they eat. At this point in your training program, 85 to 95 percent of your calories should be coming from carbs. For example, a 150-pound runner should consume 600 grams of carbs per day, each of the two to three days before a race. Do the math and you see it is 2,400 calories. Because you are not running that many miles preceding a race, the carbs are getting converted and stored as glycogen in your muscles, so that you will be “pumped” for race day.

Most seasoned runners also tend to avoid high fat foods, such creamy sauces, cheese, butter and oils. They fill you up faster, which means you won’t take in as many carbs that you’ll need for the next day.

If you are one that doesn’t sleep well the night before a big race, then your carb-load meal should be two nights before race day. You don’t want to start a race with a partially digested meal in your stomach. However, if you sleep well, the night before is perfectly fine for carb-loading.

In case you don’t know, carb-loading fills up your muscles to the brim with glycogen – the fuel your body will use on race day to get you to the finish line. By carb loading properly, you’ll stall off hitting the wall – running out of glycogen – until you are far into the race. Your body will then burn fat as energy, but because it does so at a slower rate, your speed will slow some. You would feat rather hit the wall at 22 miles verses at 18 miles.

What to eat the day before a race is as much science as anything else. The only way you really know what will work the best for you is to experiment.

How to Practice Your Long Run Nutrition & Hydration

Unfortunately, every runner is different and because of this, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to nutrition and hydration during long runs. The key is finding out what works for you in training.

This article presents some basic guidelines to give you a starting point; from there adjust as necessary to find what works best for you. And the time to work out your best nutrition and hydration strategy is during your train-up. Then you can hit race day confident in knowing your plan has been tested and will work.

Less is best

Research shows us that a 165-pound athlete does best when consuming around 240 to 280 calories per hour while running. That same person most likely is burning anywhere from 400 to 800 calories per hour, which means the ingestion of those calories will not replace all that are consumed, but will help supplement and therefore stall “hitting the wall” for as long as possible. Consuming too many calories, however, can cause one to feel sick.

Make only one small change at a time

If your nutrition and hydration strategy is not working and you feel changes should be made, only change one thing at a time and then test the change on a couple of long runs. By changing two or more things, you’ll not know what, if any, worked, nor will you know which one could be further tweaked.

Our body naturally stores about 90 minutes of glycogen (at a half marathon pace) or 2 hours at full marathon speed. So unless you have about a two-hour pace on your marathon time, you are going to run out of glycogen in the later part of the race. And while your body can switch over to burning fat, it takes longer to process, thus slowing you down.

To supplement energy, many runners today use carbohydrate energy gel packs to get their nutrition literally “on the run”. The trick is properly timing their consumption.

Again, not everyone is the same. While you may feel the energy boost three minutes after consumption, others may take up to 15 minutes. It all has to do with how fast your body digests it. For some runners, their stomach efficiency slows down when running, because the blood is being diverted to the legs, while in others, it will almost stop.

To figure out when to take an energy gel, do a long run, but only drink water. At which mile did you hit the wall? On your next long run, take a gel two miles before that point and see if that helps. Test your new strategy on a couple more long runs. Adjust if necessary and test again. Eventually you will find the best point to take in some nutrition.

Always take a gel with water. It helps dilute it so that it can be ingested quicker. Don’t take with liquids already having sugar, like sport drinks, as you may get too much sugar.

By testing and perfecting your nutrition and hydration strategy, the only unknown variable that can affect your performance is your nervousness on race day. Over time, and by running a number of races, you can get that under control too.

8 Easy Recovery Meals After a Long Run

During a prolonged exercise event – like a long run – stored glycogen will be depleted. To speed the recovery process, there are two variables to be aware of: when you eat and what you eat.

When you eat

After a long run, your body will be craving calories. Science has shown there are two optimal “windows of opportunity” as far as eating after a long run. The first one is during the first 30 minutes post-run. If you have a sensitive stomach, then you may want to eat closer to the end of the window verses at the beginning. This will give your stomach time to adjust. If you don’t typically experience queasiness after a prolonged run, eat towards the beginning of the window. The second window opens one to three hours post-run.

What you eat

During the first window, strive to eat around 100 to 300 calories. Look for foods giving you a 4:1 carbohydrates to protein ratio. The additional carbs will help restore the glycogen depleted from your muscles and liver, while the protein will help with synthesize glycogen. The protein also provides the amino acids and hormones necessary to start repairing muscle damage.

But the caution is to not eat too much protein. Sometimes the thought process is if a little is good, more should be better. It is not. Too much protein can inhibit the glycogen absorption process.

Focus on whole foods you can keep in your race bag:

  • A banana or apple with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • ½ cup of plain yogurt with a cup of mixed fruit
  • If close to home, fry up an egg with one cup of spinach and pair it with a serving of fresh fruit

Energy drinks, or nutrition bars made for recovery, are also good if you have a favorite or two. If choosing for the first time, read the label to be sure it contains what you need for recovery – carbs and protein.

During the second window, strive to eat at least 150 calories. While this food should contain around the same higher carb-to-protein ratio, it should also include some healthy fats.

Foods for the second window include:

  • A protein shake with a salad with olive oil dressing
  • Grilled chicken and salad topped with avocado
  • A salad topped with steak
  • A vegetable omelet and fresh fruit
  • Or as strange as it may seem, a bowl of chili – a surprisingly well balanced post-run meal.

Proper timing as far as what and when you eat helps decrease inflammation, rebuild glycogen stores and start the muscle rebuilding process.

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