The start of your race is eight hours away, you can’t sleep and it has nothing to do with pre-race nerves keeping you up at night. This is the reality of race morning when there’s an evening start time involved. Night races are easily out-numbered by their early morning counterparts, and while the only obvious difference is getting started at the opposite end of the day, racing at night presents a unique set of challenges—the biggest of which, for most runners, involves nutrition. “How (and what) should I eat on race day to optimize my performance without upsetting my stomach?” is a question many night racers ponder in the days prior to dashing through the darkness.
Use these three tips and step up to the starting line ready to run fast.
1. Work Backward
Everyone’s nutritional preferences and tolerances are different, but planning your meals by working backward from the sound of the starter’s horn is a good way to ensure that you keep your stomach happy on race day.
Two hours before the race:
Eat a light snack (200-300 calories tops) consisting mostly of easily digestible carbohydrates to top off your gas tank. A slice of toast with almond butter and a banana, or an equivalent alternative depending on your individual needs, should do the trick. If you’re still feeling hungry, carry some energy chews or gels with you to nibble on before the gun goes off.
Four hours before the race:
This should be your second biggest meal of the day. If you’re typically an evening runner, eat a scaled down version of your standard lunch, such as half a sandwich, some pretzels and maybe a piece of fruit. There is no need to go all out here. At most, you’ll need no more than 500 or so calories four hours before the race starts to top off your glycogen stores. Eat a meal that’s easily digestible (make sure you’ve experimented with this in training), low in fiber and made up of mostly carbohydrates. Read: Leafy greens are likely a no-no.
Six hours before the race:
You should still be feeling fairly full from breakfast, so a light snack such as fruit, almonds, pretzels or jerky should be more than enough to hold you over until lunch.
Eight hours before the race:
It’s important to eat a good-sized breakfast about 8 hours before the start—especially for a longer race such as a half or full marathon—and taper off your intake with each feeding as you get closer to go time. This will give you plenty of time to digest your food and still be able to use some of that energy during the race. A couple small pancakes or a waffle with two slices of bacon and a scrambled egg or two has worked well for me in the past. Protein and fat are OK to include with your breakfast, but avoid foods that are overly greasy and slow to digest.
2. Drink Throughout The Day
Keep a water bottle at arm’s length throughout the day and sip from it regularly—but set the tone first thing in the morning on race day. In her book Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, nutritionist Monique Ryan recommends drinking 16 ounces of fluid prior to bed the night before a race. So, for a race with an evening start time, cover your bases and aim to drink 16 ounces of water in the hour or so after getting out of bed in the morning. In the 2-3 hours before the starter’s gun goes off, Ryan says to aim for 16-24 ounces of fluid in the form of water, sports drink or juice. This will ensure that you’ve topped off your tank prior to the event while giving your kidneys plenty of time to process fluids.
What about coffee? If you typically have a cup or two with breakfast, by all means enjoy your regular morning cup of joe. But if you’re not accustomed to afternoon caffeine intake, especially before running, avoid it in the 2-4 hours before the race.
And alcohol? It should seem obvious, but save that cold frosty one for celebrating after you’ve crossed the finish line!
3. Avoid Bored And/Or Nervous Eating
When you’ve got 8-10 hours from the time you get out of bed in the morning until the time you start the race, it can be easy to fall into the trap of bored and/or nervous eating. Avoid the temptation to snack uncontrollably throughout the day by sticking to your pre-planned meal schedule (see above), which can—and should—include some snacking between meals. Laying in your hotel room bed and polishing off a large bag of Swedish fish or eating too many M&Ms, however, has pre- or mid-race disaster written all over it.
Remember, pre-race nerves will get you nowhere. Rather than sitting too idly, worrying and eating the day away, try to take your mind off the race and keep it occupied with a book, a mindless movie or some other non-running related activity. Wake up and go for a calming 5-10 minute shakeout jog, take a walk after lunch, meditate before heading over to the start line or do whatever it is you need to do to offset any pent-up pre-race energy anxiety—just don’t end up overeating because you’re bored or nervous!