Anyone training for a race understands the importance of the many details: training plan; gear, shoes and apparel; familiarity with the course and weather conditions; a sound nutrition and hydration regimen; and taking care of the body with adequate sleep and supplementary treatments, such as massage or chiropractic as necessary. Whether it’s a 5K or marathon, triathlon or Tough Mudder, the same concerns apply, albeit to varying degrees.
Obviously, a healthy, strong, well-trained body is the key to successful race performance. While putting in the miles is critical, how you take care of your body outside of physical training is also very influential on your ultimate success on race day. Proper nutrition and hydration can make a significant difference in how you manage the rigors of training, the stress of race day and post-event recovery. Don’t overlook this important component and potentially sacrifice some of your competitive edge.
We realize that there is a plethora of information available on what to eat before and after working out and racing, and it can be overwhelming and confusing to know what’s best. Here, we’ve done some homework, pulling from several sources to share the best foods to eat for race prep and training. While this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list, it’s a great start, and you can’t go wrong with these foods and beverages. Good luck this racing season!
A Few Ground Rules
Keep in mind that these are general recommendations for optimal health and energy, and that bodies may respond differently to different foods, and people will have individual preferences, so it’s OK to be flexible. Sometimes competitors get so committed to the meal plan that they end up dreading many of their diet choices, which isn’t good. You should enjoy your food! In planning your personal best foods for race prep and training, consider:
- Don’t indulge freely in high-fat and high sugar foods or overeat at will, justifying your choices because you are “training” and therefore exercising regularly. These will ultimately add too many calories and slow you down.
- That said, enjoy a few favorite items – from pizza, to chocolate, to wine – in moderation. Don’t restrict yourself so much that you end up miserable. Life’s too short!
- The 80/20 rule works for many. Eat smart, nutritious choices about 80 percent of the time, and allow yourself some freedom for a few treats 20 percent. If you eat 21 meals/week, that is about 4 meals – or a combo of some snacks with a few meals – of less restriction.
- Carbohydrates are your friend when training for races, because they provide energy – and should be about 50-65 percent of your diet, or about 5 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Protein provides the building blocks of muscle, and can constitute about 15-20 percent of your daily intake, or about one gram per kilogram of body weight. And fat is necessary for endurance, and should be 20-30 percent of your diet.
- To stay fueled, it’s smart to eat three meals per day, and allow for perhaps two snacks as necessary – in mid-morning or afternoon, or after dinner. Use your judgment here – don’t eat a snack if you don’t want it and your training isn’t suffering. Some days you might need a snack, and others, maybe not.
- Experiment with different foods and combinations, and evaluate how you feel during training and throughout the day. Obviously, eliminate foods that aren’t working for you. If you’re not feeling your best, you may want to see a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist to provide a custom plan.
- Lots of estimates exist on timing of when you eat – for early morning runs, for long sessions, when you need a snack before a workout – but these are not written in stone. Generally, it’s a good idea to have some food before a workout – but not a big meal and not 10 minutes before you exercise. Then again, some people swear that they cannot eat before a 6 a.m. workout or they get sick. So, figure out what works best for you.
Best Foods for Race Prep and Training
- Bananas – portable, good source of carbs and potassium, and easy and quick to eat anywhere
- Plain yogurt – an ideal balance of carbs and protein, along with a healthy dose of calcium and probiotics
- Oatmeal – high-fiber carbs provide lasting energy
- Chicken breast – low-fat, high protein source of selenium and niacin – plus, it’s ultra-versatile
- Broccoli – this cruciferous vegetable is loaded with vitamins C and K, calcium and folic acid to strengthen bones
- Peanut butter – delivers protein, vitamin E and sodium
- Whole grain pasta and breads – known for their carbo-loading properties, whole grain pasta and breads help replenish glycogen stores, giving you more reserve during training and keeping you full longer
- Almonds or walnuts – portable, tasty source of vitamin E
- Eggs – one egg has about 10 percent of your daily protein needs, plus vitamin K and choline; hard-boil them and eat anytime on their own or in a salad
- Brown rice, barley, quinoa – another form of whole grains that serve as superfuel
- Oranges – all that vitamin C can help reduce muscle soreness
- Sweet potatoes – loaded with vitamins A and C, potassium and iron, manganese and copper
- Black beans – a super source of protein, fiber, folate and antioxidants
- Kale or spinach – delivers vitamins A, K and B6, plus calcium, iron and antioxidants
- Salmon – delivers high-quality protein and important omega-3 fats
- Other veggies – no surprise here; vegetables are great nutrient sources and are naturally low-fat and low-calorie
- Berries – fresh or frozen – blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, along with cherries, are rich in antioxidants, which help with muscle repair
- Edamame – provides protein and antioxidants
- Chia seeds – powerhouse of fiber, protein, antioxidants, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids
- Lean meats – for protein and iron – and for variety, when you get bored with chicken!
Adequate hydration is just as important as nutrition, as dehydration can lead to cramping, fatigue, headaches and performance declines. What you drink is just as important as the quantity. Beverages like coffee, tea, caffeinated soda and beer are diuretics, so they aren’t ideal rehydrators. Instead, choose:
- Water – Nothing beats plain water in its ability to rehydrate the body. Add some lemon if you need more flavor, but drink before, during and after training so that your urine is light colored or clear.
- Sports drinks – These really only are necessary for prolonged training sessions or races more than one-two hours. They essentially are water with flavoring, carbohydrates, sodium and potassium – so they encourage you to drink more and replace valuable electrolytes.
- Chocolate milk – Maybe not your first choice during an event, but this is a great carbohydrate-protein replenisher, and some athletes swear by it as a recovery drink to rebuild muscle.
- Green tea – As a rehydrator, green tea has powerful antioxidants, helps with fat oxidation and has been shown to increase endurance.
- Beet juice and pickle juice – Sounds strange, but some runners swear by their performance-enhancing properties before races. They contain antioxidants and electrolytes, and beet juice contributes to blood vessel dilation for increased blood flow.