For most people, the word “runner” conjures images of three things: short shorts, skinny legs, and lots of pasta. While it is true that runners need carbohydrates in order to properly fuel their muscles for long runs and races, the reality is that many runners fuel improperly. As a rule of thumb, any run or race lasting longer than 75 minutes requires fueling ahead of time, as well as along the way. By maintaining a steady stream of carbohydrates in the correct manner, the proverbial “wall” can be avoided and runners can finish the run or race having sustained less damage to their bodies.
DO begin to carbo-load 2-3 days in advance. The body cannot absorb all of the carbohydrates it needs from one entree, so multiple meals are required to receive the full effect of glycogen storage.
DO keep meals light. Instead of 3 large meals, consider having 3 medium-sized meals and 3 high-carb snacks, such as pieces of fruit. The body inefficiently stores glycogen when meals are greater than approximately 800 calories, so smaller meals with frequent snacking is a better option.
DON’T assume that since you are carbo-loading that you can eat anything and everything in sight. Complex carbohydrates are most important, such as from grains like rice or quinoa. Avoid loading up on too many simple carbohydrates such as cookies and cakes.
DO keep your meals simple the night before the race. Many runners suffer from pre-race anxiety, which can cause stomach distress. If possible, avoid carbs that are high in fiber. For instance, instead of brown rice the night before a race, opt for white rice instead.
DON’T consume too much fat in the days leading up to the race. Avoid high-fat entrees such as fettuccine alfredo or cheese ravioli. Too much fat can limit the body’s ability to recruit glycogen from muscles and cause fat to be used for fuel instead, which is a much less efficient process.
DO approach carbo-loading as a science, rather than a (delicious) art. Runners should aim to consume 8 – 10 grams of carbs/kg body weight for the 2-3 days leading up to the race.
DO continue to carbo-load on race morning. A high-carb breakfast, such as pancakes, a bagel, or oatmeal, should be consumed approximately three hours before race time to ensure an optimal amount of glycogen storage.
DON’T be concerned about weight gain. For every gram of carbohydrate you consume, your body will retain 3 grams of water. The additional water weight will help you maintain hydration during the race without slowing you down.
DO continue to consume carbohydrates throughout the race. Generally speaking, runners should aim to take in 20 – 60 grams of carbs per hour spent running.
DO see a sports nutritionist if finding that proper fueling is difficult. Although many runners assume that nutritionists are reserved for elite athletes, the truth is that everyone can benefit from seeing a specialist.
DO experiment during long runs. Carbohydrates are available in a number of forms, from gels to gummies. Some runners even swear by flat soda for optimal fueling!