Q&A: How to Fuel for an Evening Race

Question: I'm training for the Las Vegas Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in December, which starts at 5 p.m. I've never run an evening race before and have no idea how to eat that day. I'd love information about how to fuel for an evening race—breakfast, lunch, pre- and post-race nutrition. Thanks! –Kimberly, Santa Maria, California


Answer: Because each runner has differing abilities to tolerate foods and fluids before, during and after a running event of any distance, offering one-size-fits-all sports nutrition advice is difficult. That's why you need to figure out what eating pattern will work best for your body during your long training runs.

I highly recommend you plan to do several long training runs at the same time as the race (around 5 p.m.). That will give you the opportunity to practice your fueling strategies. Those training runs, however, will not evoke the same gut-troubling level of stress and anxiety that you may have on the day of the event. Hence, your first evening half marathon will really be your "practice" one.

The week before the half-marathon, you will want to:

  • Taper your training, so your muscles have time to heal and get fully fueled with carbohydrates.
  • Enjoy carb-based meals to provide the fuel needed to carbo-load your muscles. Protein builds and heals muscles, but fruits, vegetables, and grains are best to fuel your muscles.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, so you enter into the event well-hydrated.

On the day of a 5 p.m. event, if you are afraid you might be too nervous to eat close to race-time, plan to enjoy a hearty carbohydrate-based brunch (pancakes, French toast, or tried-and-true cereal-banana-bagels-fruit) at 10 or 11 a.m. At 3 p.m., have a lighter snack (energy bar, banana, pretzels, bagel, sports drink) or what ever seems like it would settle well and digest easily.

If you are less fearful of intestinal problems, enjoy your standard breakfast, a hefty carb-based meal such as pasta at noon, and then a bagel (with peanut butter) or turkey sandwich at 3 to 4 p.m. to curb pre-event hunger.

If you will be running more than 90 minutes, you will want to fuel during the half marathon, targeting about 150 to 250 calories per hour; start after the first hour (or sooner, if you have been unable to eat for several hours pre-event). How many calories you need will depend on your body size (bigger runners need more fuel). Drink enough sports drink or water and sports foods to quench your thirst, but stop drinking if your stomach is "sloshing."

After the half marathon, enjoy a nice recovery meal that suits your cravings. Preferably, it should be carb-based, to refuel your muscles, with a side of protein to repair your muscles. Some people like burgers or steak, as a change from carbs. If that's your case, just be sure to enjoy some potato, rolls, veggies and other carb-based foods alongside the protein.

Because you will unlikely be running again the next day, you need not fret about recovery; your muscles will have plenty of time to refuel before your next training session. But a proper carb-based diet with a side of protein plus extra fluids will optimize recovery so you feel great sooner than later.

Have fun!

For more detailed information, please refer to my Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions

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Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels casual and competitive athletes at her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist's Food Guide and  are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for information about her online workshop.



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