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Eating strategies for endurance racing

By H.K. Jones

Endurance athletics are tough. Those who compete in long-distance events such as marathons, triathlons, and double-century bike rides must be disciplined, determined, and diligent just to finish a race, let alone win one. Reaching the finish line requires hard work and a solid plan, of which good nutrition is a critical element.

Wise men treat food as fuel; they feed their engines before, during, and after exercise. As an endurance athlete you can use food not only to provide energy to support your physical needs, but also to maintain a healthy immune system, prevent deficiencies, and greatly improve your training and race results.

Food as Fuel
When training for an endurance event, you need to pay close attention to what you eat every day, and in particular in the week leading up to your race. You demand more from your body than even average fitness buffs, and you have to compensate with the right foods to keep your performance at its peak.

When your big event is just a week away, you need to concentrate on carbohydrates. Carbs are stored in the muscles as a reserve source of energy known as glycogen. These stored reserves will become the most important source of fuel during your event—studies show that glycogen depletion leads to fatigue, increased risk of injury, and reduced performance.

"A glycogen-depleted state means that there is less fuel for the working muscles, hence the onset of physical and mental fatigue," says Bob Seebohar, director of sports nutrition at the University of Florida Athletic Association. "Whenever an athlete is fatigued, performance suffers greatly, as does coordination, balance, and focus, and the incidence of injury is higher because the athlete is in a non-stimulated, somewhat tired state."

Your primary eating goal during the week before your race should be to fill your glycogen stores, giving you a full tank of gas on which to run. That means consuming carbs, carbs, and then more carbs. You should eat approximately 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight in the final days leading up to your race. The best sources are grain products—preferably whole grains—such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, cereal, and pasta, as well as fruits and vegetables. Remember to stick with your tried-and-true carbohydrate sources during this time, as changing your food choices suddenly could lead to intestinal problems, and your end goal is to run—not to get the runs. This is also not the time to cut calories or try to diet off extra weight to lighten your load, as it is absolutely essential in your final week of training to provide your body with sufficient fuel to function at its full potential. In other words, you need to eat to compete.

Likewise, you need to drink or you'll sink. About two days before an event, start loading up on fluids. Sports drinks provide carbohydrates and fluids, killing two birds with one stone. Also be sure to limit your consumption of fats; they may taste great, but they will only fill up your stomach, not your glycogen stores. Finally, be sure to include lean protein in your diet. While carbohydrates are important as a source of fuel, protein will help repair muscle tissue and prevent muscle breakdown.

To operate your best on the big day, Seebohar suggests you have your "largest carbohydrate meal two nights before the race, focusing on low-fat and high-carbohydrate foods."

Eating Right Two Days Before the Race
By the time you're two days out from your race, you should already have been eating plenty of high-quality carbohydrates and have already increased your glycogen stores significantly. At two days out you need a push to fill them close to the top; follow this eating plan below two days before the race to maximize your body's stores of glycogen.

Eight ounces orange juice
One cup oatmeal
One piece of fruit
Eight ounces low-fat milk
Two slices whole-wheat toast
One tablespoon jam

Two ounces sliced turkey
One ounce low-fat cheese
Two slices whole-wheat bread
One cup vegetables
Eight ounces orange juice
Eight ounces low-fat milk
One piece of fruit

Three cups whole-wheat pasta
One cup tomato sauce with two cups vegetables
Two tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Four slices whole-wheat bread
One cup fruit salad

16 ounces orange juice
Six fig cookies

Race Day Eating
A pre-race meal three to four hours before your event allows for optimal digestion and energy supply, and is absolutely essential for topping off your muscle glycogen levels. Most authorities recommend small pre-race meals that provide 500 to 1,000 calories. The meal should be high in (you guessed it!) carbohydrates and low in fat.

Sample Menu One
Eight ounces low-fat milk
Two ounces lean meat
1/2 cup oatmeal
One piece of fruit
One piece of bread

Sample Menu Two
Eight ounces low-fat milk
Two ounces lean meat
One piece of fruit
One cup pasta or one baked potato
1/2 cup vegetables

Race Eating
During your race, be sure to eat between 30 to 75 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Sports gels and sports bars are good choices, as they are portable, easy to digest, and won't overfill your stomach. Be sure to eat food sources you are used to while competing, as attempting to introduce new foods during a race can lead to disastrous intestinal issues. You should also consume 20 to 40 ounces of fluid such as a sports drink or water per hour.

Recovery Eating
While most athletes know of the importance of the pre-race meal, many are unaware that what you eat following an endurance event can be just as important. The post-event meal is critical to recovery and improves your ability to train consistently. The most current research suggests that combining protein with carbohydrates in the two hours after an event results in optimal stored glycogen. The ideal carbohydrate-to-protein ratio for this effect is four grams of carbohydrate for every one gram of protein.

H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.