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Race Morning Fuel: 4 hours and counting

By Monique Ryan

You have awakened four hours before the start of your long-distance race (marathon, long-course triathlon or Ironman-distance event). Over the past few days, your race taper and carbohydrate rich meals and snacks have pushed your muscle glycogen stores fuel gauge past full. Your pre-race nutrition plan is almost complete. All that is left is a pre-race meal. Research shows that eating in the hours before a race, as opposed to exercising in the fasted state, does improve performance.

foodHitting your race morning carbohydrate targets can set the stage for achieving a PR or walking the last few miles to the finish line. In the early morning hours, the fuel focus shifts from muscle glycogen to liver glycogen, which maxes out at 100 g of carbohydrate or 400 calories. It is a good start to a race that can burn 2,600 calories or more.

Despite all the past few days of carbo-loading, overnight, your liver glycogen breaks down to supply and maintain blood glucose levels and keep your body humming. After eight hours or more of not eating your liver carbohydrate fuel gauge is at half full or even less. Blood glucose is a very important fuel source during the marathon, working in tandem with muscle glycogen at all points during the race eventually taking over as the main carbohydrate supply. Skipping this pre-race meal depletes liver glycogen stores even further from half full to one-fourth full and can hurt the runner’s performance during the marathon which relies heavily on blood glucose, particularly towards the end of the race at the three and four hour points when muscle glycogen is depleted. Your pre-race meal primes the system so that blood glucose does not drop before the start and early on in the race.

Upon awakening we often crave carbs, and race morning is no different, except that every bit of fuel is needed for the pending race with a double-digit mile run. Fortunately pre-race fueling guidelines are straight forward, but each athlete needs to translate this into their own personal food and fluid tolerances and timing points as the morning starts with a wide open digestion time window that slowly closes leading up to the start.   

Research shows that 3-4 hours before the start a carbohydrate target of 1.5 grams per pound of body weight improves performance. For a 165 lb. runner that translates to 250 g of carbohydrate — admittedly a high carbohydrate dose. It would be the rare runner who did not contemplate stomach or bathroom issues before the race, so you can divide this amount between different timing points leading to the start. Have at least half of it, or 125 to 150 g, 3-4 hours prior as this allows plenty of digestion time.

The early meal should be mainly carbohydrate as it is digested most rapidly, and can include small amounts of protein. Limit or avoid fat which take the longest to digest. While fiber is healthy to consume on a daily basis, limit it before a race as it can cause bloating and gastrointestinal upset, so stick with lower fiber cereals and save the granola for later, similar to carbo-loading strategies. Bagels and bananas are also a popular choice. The higher the amount the more you stock up on liver glycogen stores and raise and maintain blood glucose levels. It also prevents hunger in the hours before the race.

Liquid carbohydrate sources like juice, lemonade, a liquid meal replacement, or concentrated sports carbohydrate beverages empty easily from your stomach and also provide hydration. If you emphasize solid foods, drink 12 to 20 ounces of water or a sports beverage 3 to 4 hour before the start. This will optimize hydration and give you plenty of time to hit the port-a-potty.  

In the two hours to the start, fuel carefully and effectively. While solid foods may not be ideal, other choices can range from semi-solid, to gooey, squishy, to shot like in a variety of flavors. Think of it as a carbohydrate consistency and flavor smorgasbord- just really easy on the stomach. A target of 50-75 grams may be comfortable, and can even come from 24 ounces of a sports drink providing 50 g of carbohydrate and sodium, and fluid. Many marathoners and other long-distance athletes top off their pre-race plan right before the start. Liquid shots, blocks, and chews also work in the 30 minutes before the start.

The key to the pre-race meal is practice. The number one rule is don’t do anything new on race morning! Consume the exact same thing race morning that you practiced with and tolerated in training. You may want to pack favorite foods and research food availability ahead if travelling to a race.

You can experiment in training with the sample meals below.

3 hours before aim for 150 g carbohydrate or more, and 12 to 20 ounces fluid

- 1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tbsp. honey, 6 ounces yogurt, 1 large banana, 2 tbsp. raisins, 4 ounces juice-140 g carbohydrate

- 4 ounce bagel, 2 tbsp. Peanut butter, 3 tbsp. jam, 12 ounces juice- 155 g carbohydrate

- High carbohydrate sports supplement (40 to 80 g serving), 2 slices toast, 3 tbsp. jam- 100 to 140 g carbohydrate

90 minutes to 2 hours aim for 50-75 g carbohydrate and 12 ounces fluid2
            4 ounces sports drink and 1 gel- 75 g 

30-60 minute before: 20-30 g carbohydrate 8-12 ounces fluid
            1 serving of a gel, liquid shot, or blocks          

Data from product and food labels and Foodworks nutrient analysis.

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN is the leading endurance sports nutritionist. Her nearly 30 years of professional experience working with Olympic (consultant to USAT and USA Cycling), elite and age-group endurance athletes and professional sports teams make her one of the most experienced and qualified sports nutritionists in the U.S. Ryan is founder of Chicago based Personal Nutrition Designs, LLC and the best-selling author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes (3rd edition, VeloPress) and three other sports nutrition books. PND, LLC provides detailed nutrition plans for triathletes across North America competing in all race distances, with programs at www.moniqueryan.com.  Ryan is a Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist and a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.

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