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What and how much should you eat and drink for your pre-race breakfast?

If you’re like most runners, you spend the final days before your half or full marathon feasting on high-carbohydrate foods. But a good nutrition plan doesn’t end with that last plate of pasta the night before your race. Just as important is your pre-race breakfast, which helps restock the liver glycogen (or stored energy) that was depleted overnight. “Liver glycogen keeps your blood-sugar level steady during exercise,” says Jackie Berning, PhD, registered dietician and a university sports nutrition and metabolism professor. Your morning meal provides fuel for your brain, helping to sustain motivation and concentration during a long race. But just how much should you eat on race morning to optimize your performance? Probably more than you think.

What and how much should you eat and drink for your pre-race breakfast?

What and how much should you eat and drink for your pre-race breakfast?

The right stuff

The best pre-race breakfast consist mainly of carbohydrates, since they’re digested most rapidly and are your body’s preferred fuel source, says Penny Wilson, PhD, a registered dietician who works with endurance athletes. Small amounts of protein will help stave off hunger during the later kilometers. Limit or avoid fat and fiber; the former takes too long to digest, while the latter can cause bloating and GI problems. “I recommend foods like a white roll and peanut butter, oats with milk and dried fruit, or yoghurt and toast,” says Wilson. Other good options include a banana and high-carb energy bar, pancakes with syrup and strawberries, or even a bowl or rice.

For runners who tend to feel queasy on race morning, sticking with liquid carbs can help prevent GI problems while still providing energy and hydration. Smoothies, juices, and sports drinks all pack quick-digesting carbs that empty easily from your stomach, says Wilson.

Toasts with peanut butter provides carbs and protein to fuel you up

Toasts with peanut butter provides carbs and protein to fuel you up

Getting enough

While your usual toast and banana might power you through a morning of meetings, they’re not enough to fuel you through a half or full marathon. Research shows that consuming 3.3 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight is ideal for improving performance, says Berning. For a 680kilogram runner, that translates to 225 to 270 grams of carbohydrate or about 4 200 kilojoules, which may sound like a lot just before a hard effort. The key is to get that meal in earl – three to four hours pre-race, to be exact, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That gives you enough time to digest, so your stomach will be fairly empty and your muscles and liver totally fuelled. If you’re not sure you can stomach 4 200 kilojoules at once, you can divide them up into two smaller meals, says Berning. In that case, eat 850 to 1700 kilojoules four hours before the start, along with 350 to 600 millilitres of water or sports drink (giving you plenty of time to hit the porta-loo). Between 90 minutes and two hours before the start, eat most of the remaining carbs again, choosing easy to digest options.

Since many races start at 7am or earlier, you’ll have to set you alarm for a very early wake-up to hit that four-hour window. If that’s not realistic, you may choose to eat your entire pre-race meal just two hours before the start. But because you’ll have less time to digest, eat only 2grams or so of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (around 150 grams, or 2500 kilojoules, for a 68-kilogram runner) – sticking with foods and liquids you know are easy on your stomach. Since you’re consuming less, you do risk running out of liver glycogen, which will cause your blood sugar to plummet and may mean you hit the wall. So be vigilant about fuelling early in the race (consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour) to keep your energy levels high.

Between 90 minutes and two hours before the start, eat most of the remaining carbs again, choosing easy to digest options

Between 90 minutes and two hours before the start, eat most of the remaining carbs again, choosing easy to digest options

Finally, have you last 25 to 30 grams of carbs 30 to 60 minutes prior to the start. This could be an energy gel or chews (with 350 to 500 milliliters of water), or 500 milliliters of sports drink. “This provides the last shot of fuel to hold you over until you get into the rhythm of fuelling mid-race,” says Berning.

Berning also stresses that every runner has different food and fluid tolerances, which means a plan that works for one runner might spell GI disaster for another. That’s why it’s key that you practice your pre-race meal strategy during training. “The stomach and gut need to be trained to handle food before a long run,” says Berning. She suggests trying different combinations to find the one that works best for you. And once you find the perfect mix, stick with it. “Eat the exact same meal on race morning that you practiced with in training,” says Wilson, “and you’ll be set.”

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