Sports nutrition tips for runners

September 12, 2023 4 min read

The more unnatural the colour of a drink, the more energy it provides. © James Vincent

The more unnatural the colour of a drink, the more energy it provides. © James Vincent

Ultra-distance athlete and coach Robbie Britton runs through some essential race-day nutrition tips. For more where these came from, you can buy Robbie's book HERE with 30% off.

Race day. The Big Dance. Or parkrun. It's that exhilarating moment when all your training comes to fruition. Whether you're toeing the line of your first 5K or preparing for a marathon or ultra, nailing your race day nutrition is helpful.

So, my fellow flight-footed adventurers, let's dive into the essential elements of race-day fuelling, including the coveted art of carb loading.

The Countdown: Pre-Race Nutrition

Before we jump into the race-day specifics, let's rewind a bit. The days leading up to the big event are when you lay the foundation for success. Carb loading can be your not-so-secret road to success.

Carb Loading: A Runner's Dream Come True

Carb loading isn't just about having a mountain of pasta (although that is la bella vita). It's a strategic way to stockpile energy in your muscles, ensuring you have enough in the tank to power through your race.

Many will carb load the day before the race, but I prefer to fill the tank in the twenty-four to thirty-six hours before that. So if you’re racing on Saturday, Wednesday evening and all day Thursday is the window. Then a normal diet the day before the race will help avoid feeling bloated and sluggish on race morning.

This doesn’t mean just stuffing as many carbohydrates into your face as you can, but strategically taking on board a higher percentage of your daily intake via carbs. Remember you’re tapering too, so burning less energy and your normal diet (without as much running) might be near perfect for loading up, with the addition of a few carb rich snacks.

Live to eat or eat to live? Maybe it's just 'eat to run hundreds of miles in one go'. © James Vincent
Live to eat or eat to live? Maybe it's just 'eat to run hundreds of miles in one go'. © James Vincent

Race Morning: The Breakfast of Champions

Race day has arrived! Your nerves are buzzing, and your adrenaline is pumping and that’s just for the toilet queue. First it’s time for breakfast. But don't reach for that full English just yet.

Opt for a light, easily digestible meal about two to three hours before the race. Think oatmeal with a drizzle of honey, a banana or a couple slices of toast with jam. You want something that will provide a steady stream of energy without making your stomach feel like a concrete mixer.

Practice your race day breakfast before race day. Every long run is a chance to go through the motions. The bowel motions that is.

Hydration: Don't Drown, but Don't Dehydrate Either

Proper hydration is key, but don't overdo it on race morning. My advice is to sip an electrolyte drink the morning of the race and drink to thirst. The day before the same will help, as you want to hit the start line hydrated, but not busting for a pee at mile six.

The serious trail runner always makes sure their kit matches. Paul Radford always matches. © Robbie Britton

The serious trail runner always makes sure their kit matches. Paul Radford always matches. © Robbie Britton

During the Race: Fuelling on the Go

Now, let's talk about what to do when the race is in full swing. Depending on the length of your event, you may need to refuel on the go.

Short Races (5Ks and 10Ks): For these nippy wee events, your pre-race meal should provide enough fuel. A small sip of water at aid stations will suffice. A gel before the start-line could be useful if you know you flag a little towards the end of your 10k. 

Half Marathons (one to two hours): For these consider taking on energy gels or chews (or some sweets). These compact, easily digestible snacks will provide a quick boost to keep you going strong. Just topping up what you are using from your energy stores already on board and aiming for 30-60g of carbs per hour should get you through.

Marathons and Beyond (two hours +): If you're tackling a marathon or ultra-marathon, fuelling becomes rather important. Plan your nutrition strategy well in advance. Practice in every long run. Energy gels, chews, and even solid snacks like a jam sandwich can be your allies.

Trying to hit 60-90g of carbs an hour will help you push all the way to the finish line, but how much you can tolerate is individual. The good news is that you can train the gut (and the mind) to take on more fuel during your racing so practice and keep at it.

Running will introduce you to brilliant people who share the same spirit of adventure. © James Vincent

Post-Race Celebration: You've Earned It

Crossing the finish line is always an achievement worth celebrating, but don't forget that your body worked hard to get you there. Post-race recovery is as vital as your pre-race fuelling.

Immediately After the Race: Grab a recovery snack or drink that combines carbs and protein to kickstart muscle repair. Chocolate milk or a protein bar are good choices, but there are plenty of options. 

Within a Few Hours: Once the euphoria of finishing settles, enjoy a balanced meal (with or without your fellow celebrating runners). This meal will continue replenishing your depleted energy stores and support recovery.

In Conclusion: Run, Eat, Repeat

Race-day nutrition can make or break your performance, but with the right plan, you'll conquer those miles with style, or at least without having to crawl the last few metres.

Remember to carb load when appropriate, choose a pre-race breakfast that won't reappear at mile seven and fuel strategically during the race. Whatever your plan for racing, practice, practice, practice. Train your mind and your gut as well as you train your legs and your lungs.