04 July 2022
Guest post by Max Roger
The number one principle when you look at your nutrition for races is not to do anything new on race day: Trial things out beforehand. Now, when it comes to trial and error there will clearly be errors, but without this process in training the error will be during your race and that’s the last thing that you want.
In your general week-to-week training, protein is important throughout your day to preserve and promote the recovery of your muscles. During a run/race that’s not the case. What you need then is energy. Getting energy from protein is a very inefficient process. Getting it from fats is a bit better but by far the quickest and most efficient way is through carbohydrates. The protein comes in after your race. That’s when you need to make sure you get a good-quality protein source in to help with your recovery.
Focusing on those carbohydrates let’s simplify it into two types: slow-acting and quick-acting. Slow-acting is the energy you’ll get from things like oats (think porridge), or pasta. Quick-acting is the sugary stuff – energy gels, jelly babies, etc.
Both have a place in your nutrition plan. If you have a meal including slow-acting carbohydrates the evening before your race, and then a breakfast that does too then your muscles will be full of the energy that they require for the race. We know this as muscle glycogen. As it depletes throughout a race you’ll want to top it up. If these levels drop too low that’s the main reason that people often ‘hit the wall’. It takes too long and too much effort for your body to digest the slow-acting carbohydrate sources during a race, so this is when you switch to the quick-acting ones.
Start early in your race with these quick-acting carbohydrates. If you wait until you feel really tired, it’s too late! This is where most of the trial and error is. If you eat too much, you’ll have digestive issues. If you eat too little you’ll not have enough energy to perform at the level that you were planning for. There are guides as to how much you should be having, but at the end of the day everyone has different comfort/tolerance levels.
Roughly, in a long race like a Marathon you should aim for an energy gel (or equivalent) about every 5km, or 25mins. This is a rough guide as a starting point. Doing this in your longer training runs will give you an idea of what feels right for you. For your shorter races, like a 10km, you might just want a gel halfway around as by the time your body has digested it and needs more you’re almost at the end of the race. If you find that you start the race feeling like you have a lack of energy that’s likely down to poor nutrition (such as not enough slow-acting carbohydrates) in the days leading up to the race.
Use your training runs to practice your race-day nutrition. It’s best to start with slightly less fuel (the carbohydrates) than you think you might need, and build up over your runs as you require. If you start with too much then you’ll likely run into digestive issues on a few runs.