Almost every runner has had the unfortunate experience of battling stomach issues on the morning of a race.
After all the hard work and training you’ve done, there’s nothing more frustrating than having a dreadful case of runner’s trots on race day morning, or worse, side stitches or stomach cramps during your race.
Your pre-race breakfast can potentially make or break how you feel during your race. For this reason, many runners aren’t sure what to eat before a race.
They know they want their pre-race snack or meal to provide sustained energy for the race without causing a blood sugar crash or premature bonking, yet they don’t want to eat too much, such that they feel bloated, overfull, nauseous, or crampy.
Although what might work best for pre-race food for any two runners is likely different, we’ve put together some ideas of what to eat before a race when you’re looking to nail a PR.
In this guide, we will look at:
- What Should I Eat Before a Race?
- What To Eat Before A Race: 10 Pre-Race Ideas
Let’s get started!
What Should I Eat Before a Race?
If you ask any five runners what they eat before a race, you are likely to get a mix of answers.
You might hear responses such as “a bagel,” “toast with jam,” “just a banana with peanut butter,” “oatmeal,” and “an energy bar.”
Although the exact responses that you get will vary, this is meant to demonstrate that every runner may have his or her own unique preferences in terms of what to eat before a race that won’t upset the stomach.
With that said, as can be seen by the example responses, the general theme in pre-race nutrition is to focus on carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for the muscles during exercise, as they can be broken down quickly to create cellular energy, ATP. This allows you to run at a high intensity while meeting your energy needs.
On the other hand, it takes longer to yield usable energy from fats via the aerobic metabolic pathways.
This is why you can experience the dreaded “hitting the wall“ experience in a marathon or other endurance race.
When the body runs out of available muscle and liver glycogen (you only can store about 1,500-2,000 calories worth of glycogen, which is the storage form or carbohydrates), your muscles have to shift to oxidizing fat for fuel.
Each turn of the energy-generating metabolic pathways that convert stored body fat into usable energy in the form of ATP takes much longer than it does when utilizing carbohydrates as a substrate.
As a result, your body forces you to slow down your running pace because your muscles are unable to keep up with the energy demand since it takes longer to oxidize fat.
For this reason, runners who will be racing distances such as the half marathon or marathon should be especially mindful of having a high-carbohydrate pre-race meal in order to fully top off their glycogen stores.
Most of your liver glycogen, and some muscle glycogen, is naturally used up overnight as you sleep since you are not eating.
Another reason that carbohydrates are the focus in most pre-race meals and snacks is because they are digested quicker and more easily than fat and protein.
You don’t want to step on the starting line with a full stomach.
Once you start exercising, digestion slows significantly, basically to the point of stopping unless you are running at a very low intensity (which is likely not the case during a race!).
The body shunts blood away from the digestive tract and diverted towards the working muscles in order to ensure they have the oxygen and nutrients they need to support your activity.
As a result, any undigested food sitting in the stomach or intestines will remain undigested, waiting for gastrointestinal intestinal blood flow to resume after exercise.
If you eat a pre-race meal that takes a while to digest, you’ll be stuck with a full stomach when you’re trying to race.
This can lead to nausea, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, gas, and simply feeling sluggish and heavy, weighed down by all of your food.
Moreover, if your pre-race breakfast hasn’t been fully digested, you won’t have all of the nutrients and energy available during your run.
In other words, your fueling won’t be available; it’s stuck in a holding pattern rather than circulating in the blood to be used by the muscles for energy generation.
Gastric emptying rate is also slower for meals that are high in fat, protein, and/or fiber.
For this reason, when you are thinking about what to eat before a race, narrow down your options by focusing on simple and complex carbohydrates, but not too much fiber nor fat or protein.
The only exception to this would be if you are doing an ultramarathon where you plan to run quite slowly but for a long time. In this case, your muscles may be relying more heavily on fat for fuel; plus, if you’re running rather slowly, you’ll still be able to digest a bit more effectively.
It’s important to note that it also takes longer to fully digest a high-calorie meal, so you don’t want to overdo it in terms of pre-race calories.
Have enough energy to support your race distance, but not so much that it’s an enormous pre-race meal.
As mentioned, the body stores about 1,500-2,000 calories in the form of glycogen and even if you are very lean, you probably have tens of thousands of calories of energy available as body fat.
Depending on your race distance and how many hours before you are running you eat your pre-race meal, you may need anywhere from 300-800 calories.
The closer it is before your race, the more important it becomes to eat just simple carbohydrates that digest quickly and easily.
For example, if you are having your pre-race breakfast 2-3 hours before you race, you can aim for a more substantial meal with complex carbohydrates and a little bit of protein and fat, whereas if you only have an hour or so until the gun goes off, focus on simple carbohydrates like a banana and sports drink.
In both cases, again, it’s a good idea to limit fiber because it slows digestion and can cause digestive distress while running.
Although foods like vegetables, legumes, and high-fiber whole-grain cereals are ideal for everyday nutrition, before a race you want low-fiber carbohydrates like fruit, oatmeal, or bagels.
What To Eat Before A Race: 10 Pre-Race Ideas
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, let’s look at some ideas for what to eat before a race:
Oatmeal, or porridge, is one of the most common go-tos for what to eat before a race.
It is satisfying pre-race breakfast and strikes the perfect balance of having the right type of carbohydrates without too much fiber.
You can doctor it up with fruit, nuts, seeds, and plant-based milk, but don’t go overboard with toppings that might upset your stomach.
The longer your race, the more you may want to add some nuts, seeds, or coconut so that the oatmeal is filling for longer.
#2: Hot Cereals
Cream of wheat and grits are also good hot cereals to eat before a race.
#3: Cereal and Milk
Cold cereal with milk, or plant-based milk, can also be a good pre-race breakfast.
Low-sugar whole-grain cereals that don’t have tons of fiber are ideal.
If you only have 30-60 minutes before your race, dry, plain cereal like Cheerios, Chex, or Kix can be good.
#4: Fruit and Nut Butter
Some runners who have a very sensitive stomach and are only doing a short race like a 5k might choose to just have a simple piece of fruit such as a banana or orange.
Plain fruit is also a great pre-race snack when you have less than an hour or before you run.
However, in most cases, having some nut butter, such as peanut butter or almond butter (or seed butter like sunflower seed butter) with the fruit will help you feel fuller for longer.
Since nut butter contains fat, make sure you have at least 90 minutes to 2 hours before you race to digest the food.
#5: Toast or Bagel With Nut Butter
Any sort of combination of a whole-grain with a nut butter or fruit/jam can be a great example of what to eat before a race.
Examples include a bagel with peanut butter, toast with sliced banana and almond butter, whole-grain crackers with jelly and peanut butter, or an English muffin with butter and jam.
The more time you have to digest your meal and the longer your race, the more calories/fat you should aim for.
#6: Energy Bar
An energy bar makes a great pre-race snack because it should digest quickly and is portable, which is good if you’re driving to the race start.
#7: Fig Newtons
Fig newtons are energy-dense and digest fairly easily.
#8: Dried Fruit
If you don’t like the feeling of having anything heavy in your stomach, you can try dried fruit before your race. You will still get lots of carbohydrates, but won’t have to deal with the bulkiness of fresh food.
Raisins, craisins, dried apples, dried pineapple, dates, dried apricots, and figs all work well for many runners.
Fruit smoothies with bananas, almond milk or coconut water, berries, and yogurt (as long as you aren’t sensitive to dairy) is a good way to get your hydration and fueling in at once.
#10: Whole-Grain Waffles
Whole-grain waffles or pancakes can also provide the energy-sustaining carbohydrates you need without tons of fiber, fat, or protein.
What do you like to eat before a race?
For healthy nutrition in general, check out our nutrition guides for runners!