You trained hard for months, worked on your mental toughness, and tapered appropriately. The only thing that remains is race day itself. As all runners know, race day is not just simply showing up at the start line and then crossing the finish line. A successful, enjoyable marathon or half marathon requires having strategies for pacing, coping with discomfort, and nutrition. A smart, individualized nutrition strategy can set up you for a strong race; the lack of one can lead to bonking at the end. Over the years, I’ve coached dozens of runners on their race day fueling strategies – and these are my top nutrition tips for marathons and half marathoners.
Carb Loading Can Be Effective – When Done Properly
Carb loading does not equate to stuffing yourself with pasta the night before your race (unless that is what actually works for you!). One big heavy meal the night before a race can lead to stomach upset the next morning.
But carb loading is effective when done properly. Effective carb loading can improve your marathon performance and minimize your chance of hitting the wall. Effective carb loading includes two to three days of increasing the ratio of carbohydrates in your normal diet – you can read more in this detailed post. For the half marathon, you don’t need to carb load as much. However, consciously eating blander, more carb-rich foods the day before a half can provide an advantage. Whether you are racing a marathon or half, spread your carbs out throughout the day, rather than concentrating them into one meal.
Race High (On Carbs)
For many runners, the goal on race day is to run faster than you do on a normal long run. The faster you run, the more carbohydrates you burn, whether you are racing a marathon or half marathon. Even if you aren’t racing, you need more carbs if you are running a marathon. Hitting the wall is often due to low glycogen levels, so taking in more calories during the race reduces the likelihood of bonking. If poor fueling has sabotaged your marathon before, this is one of the most effective ways to improve your race day nutrition.
On race day, take in more calories/carbohydrates than you do on a normal training run. For example, if you normally take a gel every 45-50 minutes during a long run, try every 30-40 minutes during the race. If you are nervous about how your stomach will handle the extra volume, practice this during a couple of key long runs during the peak weeks of training. Gut training will minimize the chances of GI upset when taking in enough fuel for performance.
Certain Supplements Can Boost Performance
Several of the supplements on the market are not worth the money. For example, BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) do not improve performance in the marathon nor do they delay mid-race muscle damage (see this 2014 study). However, there are a couple supplements with enough research to support their usage on race day: beet juice and caffeine.
Several research studies support the usage of beet juice to improve your race times. In most studies, athletes ran faster when they consumed beet juice before their event. More highly trained athletes may require beet-juice loading for several days before an event, but the benefits still exist.
Whether you take it in the form of coffee, tea, or a sports nutrition product, caffeine does improve athletic performance in endurance sports for most people. Individual genetic variance affects caffeine response, so some people see no affect, while others actually experience diminished performance (see this 2018 study). It’s important to try caffeine before workouts and long runs before using it on race day. But for most people, caffeine helps you run faster in the marathon or half marathon. And no, you don’t need to do a caffeine fast to benefit from caffeine before your race – especially if it makes you miserable or anxious leading up to race day.
Gels Aren’t the Only Option
If gels work for you, there is absolutely no need to change your fueling. However, some runners hate the texture of gels, while others can’t stomach gels. Thankfully, gels are not the only option. Alternatives to gels such as chews, drinks such as Tailwind or Generation UCan, and whole foods provide calories and carbohydrates to keep you energized throughout the entire race.
Whole foods might sound intimidating (especially the chewing aspect!). However, they are often gentler on the stomach and more palatable than gels. Whole food options include anything from potatoes to dried fruit to homemade bites. Here’s how to use whole foods for race day fueling. As always, you want to experiment with any new fuel before race day, not on race day itself.
Ultimately, the best fueling strategy is the one that works optimally for you and for that particular race. While there are basic physiological principles (you probably don’t want to run a marathon with absolutely no calories in your system), your individual needs will dictate exactly what you need. And, your individual fueling needs will evolve over time. What worked for you in your second marathon may not work for you in your fifth marathon. Practice your fueling in training, be willing to adapt it, and experiment until you find what helps you run your best race, both in terms of performance and how you feel.
What have you done in the past to optimize your race day nutrition?
Do you use caffeine or beet juice for racing?