Eating on race day comes down to knowing what type of fuel your body needs to sustain itself during the race, whatever the distance. Training runs are typically the best way to figure this out, as with most things in running you never want to try new things on race day. More elaborate discussions can be held for what to eat days leading up to the race, carb-loading for example, but I will save that for another time.
Eating before a run is a lot about balance and what your stomach can handle. Your body needs calories and thus fuel for any type of physical fitness. How much food, type of food, and when you can consume your food depends on your body.
For me, a peanut butter sandwich an hour before my run is the perfect amount of fuel and it will not mess up my stomach. But if I eat a normal sized lunch, say maybe a deli sandwich, chips and a granola bar, I need at least 4 hours before my run. With that being said I prefer running in the mornings for various reasons, but one main reason is I can easily manage what is in my stomach.
If I run in the evening after work, I have lunch and maybe an afternoon snack I have to take into account. I do not consider myself to have a cast iron stomach, but I have found what works for me is pretty consistent with other runners.
Getting Started on Training Days
Start off by testing your stomach to see what works best. Once you have a steady routine of running, pick a shorter run as a test in case things do not work out well for you.
Start off by eating a banana, or some other fruit, with peanut butter an hour before your training run. This combo adds up to about 100-200 calories depending on the amount of peanut butter and which type of fruit you try.
If you find this does not sit well, take out the peanut butter and just eat a banana. This puts the calorie count around 100 calories and means you may need to stick around lighter foods before the training run. Other foods may include a small granola bar, handful of pretzels, or even a packet of oatmeal. Another option would be testing out gel, gummy bears and various other substances that are not solid foods but can provide nutrients quickly. I will focus more on these race day foods later on in the post.
Eating only 100 calories pre-run will not sustain you for long runs, but if you are beginning your training with 2/3 miles or 15/20 minute runs, this will get you started. You may also be able to eat these foods closer to your run, instead of the previously recommended 1-hour timeframe.
If you were really hungry and/or felt depleted you should step up to denser more filling fuel such as a Cliff Bars, Power Bars or a peanut butter sandwich. These denser foods typically hover around 200-250 calories.
Peanut butter crackers, Nutri-grain bars, granola bars, a bagel or a large handful of trail mix can also provide a decent amount of calories pre-run.
I would not eat much beyond that calorie level, especially if you are just starting out. Down the road, longer runs may require more food while faster workouts may require you to eat lighter again.
Pre-run food can make or break your race, no matter how much training you have completed leading up to the event. At the time of the race, you should know how much you could eat and how long before your run you need to eat.
You may also want to try re-creating race conditions on your own to test your pre-race food. This test is especially helpful for longer races such as a half or full marathon.
If you are running shorter distances such as a 5k or 10k you should aim to eat around the 200-250 calorie mark an hour before the race. If you are rushed or have determined you need to eat light before run, go for the 100-150 calorie range.
For longer races such as a half or full marathon, you should be stacking your pre-race foods. Eating the higher calorie meal an hour or so before the race, then eating the lighter quick burning food just before the race typically works best. If you cannot eat the higher calorie food within the hour, eat it a 1.5/2 hours before the race.
Advanced Race Day Nutrients
I am calling this advanced, because most beginning runners running a 5k/10k do not need to eat these items for race day. However these race day items can help if you are one of those runners who can barely put anything in their stomach before running.
Race day fuel items include, but are not limited to: gel, gummy blocks, chews, and yes, even jelly beans. If running a longer race, testing these items out before race day would be very helpful.
Gels such as Gu, Clif Shots, PowerGel, & Honey Stinger are basically pre-digested foods that provide quick burning and readily available calories.
Directions are generally easy to follow if you can get past the consistency and taste of most gels. I am a big fan of the Honey Stinger brand since honey is a primary ingredient and that helps make it easier to get down.
Consuming gel about 15-20 minutes before a long race is ideal and then eating another one every 45 minutes during your race is also recommended.
Clif Bloks, which are basically really dense gummy bears, are another popular option. Runners can eat two blocks before the run, stash the rest in a key pocket, then eat more as the race progresses. If you have a sweet tooth, you should try SportBean Jelly Beans. Other options include Honey Stinger waffles and various other company’s chews/bites.
Remembering which options work best for you and occasionally trying new combinations seem to be the best approach. Keep in mind that eating the proper food can make or break your run and when finally dialed in, you will be amazed by the results.