Coach Culpepper: Race-Day Nutrition Is Crucial

Grabbing a cup of water at aid stations is only part of a proper race-day nutrition plan. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Make sure you have a race-day nutrition plan, and practice it during your workouts.

There have been many significant advancements in the endurance sports industry over the last four decades: footwear technology has improved, apparel and technical fibers are better than ever, and training philosophy is continually being refined. Even things like socks have changed tremendously! But perhaps nothing has changed as much as how we think about nutrition for endurance athletes.

There is a wealth of information on what the body needs before, during and after aerobic activity, and there are hundreds of products available to take you as far as you want to go. Even with all the knowledge available, I have noticed that many age-group athletes struggle with race-day marathon nutrition. It’s either overemphasized or approached whimsically without a clear, targeted plan.

Race-day nutrition should really be thought of in two categories: hydration and fuel. Both are critical to having a successful experience. As complicated as it can be to fully adopt and comprehend what is needed on a day-to-day basis to optimize your nutrition when training and recovering, when it comes to racing nutrition it’s really quite simple. We all need electrolytes and glycogen, or in even simpler terms, we need sodium and sugar. Not to say that potassium, magnesium and other minerals aren’t important, but there are bigger issues at play.

Sodium is found in various amounts in all sports drinks, as is sugar in some form or another. There seems to be science to back whichever hypothesis you prescribe to, but in reality everyone is different and no one single product is best for everyone. Water is always the standard, and to their credit Gatorade has proven that a 6 percent carbohydrate concentration is the highest you can ingest while still emptying the stomach at the same rate as water.

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That said, some people absorb fluids while exercising quicker than others and can withstand a higher amount of sugar concentrate. More importantly, every athlete stores different amounts of glycogen (fuel) in the muscle, and burns that stored glycogen at different rates. Also, everyone loses sodium in different amounts. It’s clear that electrolyte and fuel needs are different for everyone during a marathon.

The key to a successful race-day fueling and hydration strategy is finding what is right for you and planning accordingly. The good news is that it’s hard to take in too many electrolytes while running a marathon. On the contrary, too much fuel can prove detrimental and result in an upset stomach or lack of gastric emptying, which leads to a lack of desire to drink. During my first marathon, I took in a product that was very high in fuel and it led to my stomach not absorbing the calories properly.

Due to the working muscles requiring more of the body’s overall blood volume, the gut gets very little help when working close to threshold effort. I would get to the designated water stations and have no desire or inclination to drink because my stomach still felt full from what I took in three miles earlier. Inevitably, I ran low on electrolytes, slowed over the last few miles and suffered from severe muscle tightness after the race. In my subsequent marathon, I swayed too far in the opposite direction and focused only on taking in electrolytes and not enough on fuel. In the end, I did not find the proper balance. Although I saw positive results in the marathon, I don’t believe I used a race-day nutrition strategy to my ultimate benefit.

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Executing A Solid Race-Day Nutrition Plan

- Practice taking the product you plan to use on race day, whether you carry it with you or use what’s provided on the course by race organizers.

- Take a close look at the course details to see where the aid stations will be located. Sports drinks are not always offered at every station, so be sure to have a plan for when you will take in sports drink.

- Drink in practice. You need to get your system used to taking in fluids while you are exercising so that during the event you are efficiently absorbing the fluids. If you don’t drink in practice, not only will you be limiting your training potential for those longer runs, be also won’t be efficient at absorbing electrolytes and fuel during the race, nor you will not recover as quickly afterward.

- Don’t be afraid to carry additional fluids during the race to ensure you are taking in enough. There are so many great hydration systems available today that carrying your own fluids during a race is common.

- Eat a light meal on race morning, such as a bagel, oatmeal, a few pancakes, toast with jelly or a little bit of fruit, three to four hours before race time.

- Drink throughout the morning. Pounding large amounts of water is never recommended and could prove dangerous. Instead, nurse fluids for several hours leading up to the race. Taking in something with some electrolytes is a safe bet just to top off all your energy stores.

- Be aware of how much fluid you are actually taking in during the race. One or two cups of water isn’t much if you spill half of each cup down your shirt. Three to four cups over the course of the race should be the standard.

- Be aware not to overload on gels, chomps, blocks or beans. Take these at a predetermined time. It is best to take these products just prior to a water station so that water can be taken immediately afterward to help aid digestion. Taking in a sports drink in addition to a fueling product is not recommended. A good rule of thumb is 100 calories about every 35-45 minutes.

This piece first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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About The Author:

Two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper helps runners of all abilities through www.culpeppercoaching.com.

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