The Best (and Worst) Meals to Eat Before Your Big Race
I feel like this entry should be subtitled, “If you’re driving I-5 south the day before a full in San Diego, pack a few PB&Js and resist the urge to do the Double Double, Animal Style. Your body will thank you on mile one, three, twelve, seventeen and twenty-four.”
I think everyone who’s ever laced ‘em up has their go-to race day gastro-disaster story. It’s easy to see why. Nerves, plus travel, plus unfamiliar surrounds, plus lack of sleep, plus...coffee usually add up to some literal gut-wrenching moments before, during and after gun time.
Those who dare tread pre-race in the murky waters of spicy foods or take a chance with a huge overcompensation meal beforehand often find themselves experiencing a morning that will live in infamy around the post-race campfire.
The 3 Dietary Constants of a Runner
When it comes to pre-race meal time, there are three irrefutable dietary constants all runners should abide:
- Do NOT introduce anything new to your diet on race eve or race day eve. And keep it on the light and bland side of the menu in the lead-up.
- Write this down and tack it to your wall: Beer, wine, fatty foods, fiber, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and preservatives can all lead to GI problems on the course. Save the sins for the spoils.
- Protein, protein, protein and keep it natural.
The Best Pre-Race Meals Fit the Following Criteria:
- High in protein.
- Light and on the bland side, something your stomach is used to.
- Low in fat and fiber.
- Should not include beer, wine, caffeine, artificial sweeteners or preservatives.
Now, I’m no saint and bending (not breaking) these rules is bound to happen especially if you’re doing a destination race and aren’t able to pack all your meals on your carryon.
Anecdotally, my best full performance to date happened at Big Sur in ‘07 when it was just too tempting not to throw the hammer down on a Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale to pair with my Fettuccine Alfredo and Caesar salad the night before. It was a relaxing meal amongst good friends that put my mind and tensions at ease, enabled me to get six straight hours of sleep pre-race (about double what I usually expect) and packed me with enough calories and energy to negative split.
But venture there at your own risk. For all the times I’ve tried to get away with a slightly rich or more substantial meal, it’s backfired—in every sense of the word—all but once.
Healthy Training Foods - The Basics
To me it’s about not straying from the staples:
rice or other whole grains
nuts (unsalted, unsweetened)
whole wheat toast
These aren’t just race-day foods either. Training healthy with these go-tos—all of which can use a little maple syrup kick if you’re feelin’ it—is the only way to fuel. Keeping your fare spare also takes away the guesswork of what your body will crave on race day. Overall, you’ll become what you eat—leaner, more efficient, and best of all, faster.
The key to intake in training and especially the morning of is splitting those meals up. For decades the big spaghetti feed the night before was a runners’ rite of passage, but unless you’re doing Western States and need 3,500 calories of egg and flour lining the walls of your stomach and lower intestine like sheet rock, it’s good to divide those pre-race meals into sub-500-calorie snack-worthy snippets.
The Morning Of - What to Eat on Race Day?
The morning of race day eve, I like to break out the Tupperware and fill it with about a half-dozen substantial snacks each intake 90 minutes apart. Grilled chicken, rice, raw vegetables, whole wheat pasta, a pb&j, dried fruit and/or an apple and banana, egg on a tortilla with a little cheese all are qualifiers. The key to running a race is not feeling heavy and not feeling heavy comes from keeping that metabolism on its toes the day before.
On the morning of, it’s nice to squeeze in a pair of mini-meals before approaching the start corral. I like a bagel with peanut butter and banana as soon as I kick off the covers and follow that up with oatmeal and an apple about an hour before start.
Most importantly, I try to follow this feeding plan in the weeks leading up. That way my body knows what to expect and when. Once it’s fueled and ready to go, the race seems more a contest of how fast my stomach can get to that post-race IPA, tri-tip sandwich and basket of rings.
Hey, we all have our weaknesses. Just make sure you expose your body to them after you break the tape.