For some runners, trying to find the perfect race day breakfast can be a nightmare. I’m definitely one of these runners! The problem with racing cross country is that the start times can vary from 9am to 3pm, and this inevitably leaves athletes in confusion about when to eat, what to eat, and how much they should eat. It’s a strange problem though because during training this plays such a small part in each session, but on race day it suddenly becomes really important (definitely more of a mental thing!). I’m sure that quite a lot of you will have worried about whether you’ve eaten too much/ too little on race day…and may have even reached the start line and realised that you’re really thirsty so will have to run the entire race with that awful dry mouth. And so hopefully this blog will help!
It’s all down to experience. The only way to tackle this problem is to keep trialling and tweaking until you’ve got it absolutely perfect. Every runner’s preferences are completely different so what I’ll be doing in this post is listing some ideas and general points about different methods of race day fuelling. This is mainly for race distances that I’ve experienced (anything up to 10km really), so this probably isn’t as relevant to the longer races. Really, the only way you’re going to find the routine that works every single time is through trial and error. And when you find it, stick to it!
Nutrition for morning races
I personally find morning races SO much easier to plan for! I’ll quickly list my preferences below and then suggest other possible options.
Most will suggest eating breakfast 3-4 hours before you actually race which is perfect for those 11 am starts, however if that’s unrealistic (say you’ll be queuing up on the start line for a Parkrun), a smaller breakfast at least 2 hours before should suffice. Giving your body this length of time is important in making sure that all nutrients are digested and absorbed (and also helps reduce the threat of an awful stitch caused by running on a full stomach!).
7am- bagel with marmite, then an apple. Coffee, glass of orange juice, and then sips of water in the car.
Post run- slice of toast with a protein shake, maybe with a banana mixed in. Lots of water (well I think black current squash counts as water!).
Carbohydrates should be the main component of any race day breakfast because they are both digested quickly and are the body’s main fuel source. This breakfast is actually much smaller than my normal every day breakfast, but I’m one of those people who really struggles with tummy upset and stitches when I’m nervous so I like to keep it really simple and plain. Parkruns are also short and fast, so this is all I really need to perform well.
I know that many people like to run Parkrun on an empty stomach because it’s so early- but that’s really not an option for me! I wake up quite early anyway and am always hungry the moment I wake up! Other options for breakfast could be a small bowl of cereal (if this sits well with you); one of those microwaveable porridge pots; an energy-packed smoothie; or even a high carb energy bar.
Post run nutrition is also really important for recovery so try to find a source of carbohydrate and protein within 30 minutes of finishing. Remember to keep hydrated too.
This is my favourite race time. It allows me to fully digest a high energy breakfast and be fully awake for the start. I get so nervous on race day that I find myself burning so much energy just being at the course so I’m always hungry! If you do suffer from stomach problems, it’s suggested that you reduce caffeine, artificial sweeteners and fibre consumption, but I think I perform so much better after a hit of caffeine in the morning. The most important thing for me is choosing foods that are easy to digest- I really do have to limit fibre because I always end up visiting the portaloos waaaay too much anyway. So sometimes it may actually be beneficial to choose white bread over brown. Here’s my standard schedule:
7am- 2 eggs, 2 toast with a banana. Coffee, glass of juice, water.
10am- after walking the course, sometimes I’ll have something sweet and energising before warming up properly. This might be half an energy bar. I mainly drink water and sometimes a little sports drink.
10.30am– if feeling sluggish I’ll have a couple of sweets, but normally I’ll just stick to sports drink.
Post race- what ever I fancy. If possible I’ll try and have something with protein and carbs, but usually I’ll just eat anything I fancy. I also drink lots of water. We tend to pick up some kind of fast food on the way home anyway because it’s much easier than taking a packed lunch. It takes me about an hour to feel properly hungry after working so hard!
Many studies suggest that adding small amounts of protein to your pre race breakfast will keep you fuller for longer so I always try to do this- whether it be adding the eggs to my toast or peanut butter to a bagel. It’s also advisable to limit fat intake on race morning because it takes longer to digest, although of course this doesn’t mean you have to completely eradicate it.
Having something sweet before my race really perks me up and prepares me for that rush at the start. It’s always best not to eat anything too big though and consequently have do deal with it blobbing around in your stomach mid-race. When I return to racing I’m going to try energy gels (which you can also buy with caffeine included) which I think will really improve my performance.
Nutrition for afternoon races
Afternoon races are great for people who take a little longer to come around in the morning. They also allow you to fuel up properly during the day so that you have more energy during the race. If the race is around 2.30pm let’s say, I try to have a later breakfast around 9am which is slightly bigger than my usual size with lots and lots of nutrients. This keeps me really full until past lunch time, but at around 12.30pm I’ll make sure to eat an energy bar or something similar. I prefer not to eat a proper lunch before races because I’ve had too many experiences trying to run my fastest whilst tasting ham sandwiches in the back of my throat (gross).
9am- huge bowl of Readybrek (2 cups worth before adding milk), accompanied by nut butter and some kind of fruit. Coffee, juice and water. Readybrek contains the same ingredients as porridge (oats!) but is much smoother making it easily digestible. I also find that it’s much more filling than toast.
12.30pm- Clif bar and sports drink
2pm- sweets if needed
Post race- same as for morning race!
Here’s a throwback to a bad pre-race breakfast experience:
An alternative way of planning for this race time could be to have an early breakfast and early lunch, but really it’s all down to personal preference.
Below I’ve made two lists that might be useful if you’re stuck for ideas!
(These don’t include drinks!).
Porridge or Readybrek. Topping options: banana, nut butter, any other fruit, chocolate chips, honey, maple syrup. If staying in a hotel you could bring the porridge pots which only need you to add boiling water.
Eggs on toast- scrambled/poached/boiled. Possibly with some fruit.
Toast and jam.
Smoothie filled with fruit and possibly a small scoop of protein powder if you’re used to it. You could also add some oats in there too.
Bagel with peanut butter and a banana.
Healthy cereal (not too sugary!) with milk and fruit. EG Weetabix.
Plain tortilla wraps with accompaniment of your choice.
Some people like to have plain rice and then something sweeter like fruit!
Yoghurt bowl with granola and fruit.
Healthy muffins (like Shalane Flanagan’s superhero muffins).
Energy chews, jels and bars (I really like Cliff Bars)
Soreen malt loaf
Small jam sandwich (white bread)
Flapjack (really good for giving you energy that lasts quite a while)
Those small pancakes (another favourite snack!)
And that’s just about everything I can think of! I recommend that you trial something new before a training session and then if it works, try it before a race. I haven’t competed in exactly a year now so this post has definitely made me desperate to get back out there again.
Of course, you just need to remember that I’m not a trained nutritionist and this blog post only contains suggestions and past experiences of my own!