Fueling correctly before a race makes all the difference in finishing strong or feeling depleted on the course. After coaching hundreds of athletes and racing for over 28 years, I’ve learned what foods work for before different races and what foods don’t. Although nutritional needs are very individual, here are some suggestions for your next event. Test these in training before using them in a race to be sure they work for you.

What to eat before a 5K, 10K, or Sprint Distance Triathlon

Most runners do better with less in their stomachs during these shorter, faster races; especially if it’s an early morning event. I eat a very light breakfast of 125–250 calories of easily digested carbohydrates, like part of a flour tortilla, granola bar, or banana a few hours before the race start. I’m a 5’4”, 120–125 pound athlete, so if you’re larger you may need more calories, but still go light. A rule of thumb is .3–1 gram of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Be careful not to consume too much or your body will shunt blood away from your muscles to your stomach to digest and slow your pace. Drink water or a watered-down electrolyte beverage with your breakfast, but don’t overdrink or you’ll have to use the bathroom excessively. Avoid anything high in fat or fiber or foods containing dairy, artificial sweeteners, or fructose, which can cause gastric upset. Usually very little food or water is needed during these shorter distance events, but be sure to go into the race well hydrated.

What to eat before a Half Marathon, Marathon, or Olympic Distance Triathlon

For longer events, more fuel is needed during the event. Go into it with an easily digested carbohydrate product one or two hours beforehand like at a 5K or 10K. Fifteen minutes prior to the race start, eat a few additional chews, a bite or two of a peanut butter and honey sandwich, or part of a gel. Consume one gel packet or chews every 30–45 minutes during the race with electrolyte water. It’s best to be well hydrated at the cellular level beforehand for peak performance. Again, avoid high-fat or fiber foods.

What to eat before a Half Ironman or Ironman Triathlon Event

Events longer than a standard marathon event require more pre-race noshing, including protein. Start your pre-race nutrition routine the day before by eating small amounts of high-carbohydrate, low-fiber foods throughout the day and sip on electrolyte water to make sure your muscles are saturated. On race day, consume 250–350 calories of an easily digested low-fiber carbohydrate rich foods (ratio: 1 gram protein to 4 grams of carbs) with some protein beginning four or five hours beforehand and continuing every hour on the hour until an hour or two before the race. Yes, you will have to set your alarm and get up extra early; it’s worth it. If you’re nervous it may be hard to eat, but it’s important to eat anyway. Keep it simple with a bagel, rice, peanut butter and honey sandwich, banana, small amount of salted nuts, pasta, toast, granola bar, sweet potato, juice, protein drink, or Ensure (a popular choice for Ironman athletes). Wash foods down with a little electrolyte water. Consume a gel or chews every 30–45 minutes during the race to stay fueled. Proper timing and cellular hydration during the event is key to avoid bonking.

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