Exactly What To Do And What To Eat Before (And On) Race Day
Here are some tips on what to eat before an endurance race to fuel yourself properly, help avoid cramps and finish strong! These tried and tested methods, plus tips from experts will see you through your race day.
The biggest — and most important — nutrition rule to follow in the build-up to and on race day: do not try anything new. Especially for endurance events, like Cape Town Cycle Tour, which is just around the corner. Practise your nutrition plan on your training runs and rides so you know what your stomach can handle and what fuels you adequately.
What to eat the day before Race Day
Some simple hacks to follow:
Eat enough carbohydrates. Your body accesses the energy from carbohydrates much more efficiently than any other source (ie: fats). If you’re going to head out for a long ride or run, make sure your levels of glycogen are optimal.
“The ability of athletes to train day after day depends in large part on adequate restoration of muscle glycogen stores, a process that requires the consumption of sufficient dietary carbohydrates and ample time.” Read more here from the extract: “Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes.” You can focus your carbohydrate intake two to three days before race day even (this is not the time to be cutting down *wink).
My pre-race dinner: Because my stomach can be sensitive, I always make sure my pre-race dinner the night before is a simple dish of veg and carbs. And no complicated veggies! Something like a tomato pasta or basil-pesto pasta (with gluten-free pasta).
Hydrate adequately. Not just with water, but with electrolytes. To make sure your body is in optimal condition to race, you want to make sure that your levels of magnesium, potassium and sodium are up to scratch. “Start drinking enough liquids — two to three litres, excluding liquids from training — and electrolytes three days leading up to the race,” suggests dietician and triathlete, Mariella Sawyer.
And don’t forget to get enough sleep. One of the best tips I ever got from my IRONMAN coach, Steve Atwell from Embark, was: “Don’t stress about how much — or how little — you sleep the night before. It’s two nights before that really counts.”
What to eat on the morning of Race Day
What time should you eat before racing? “You should try eat two to three hours before you start racing” — this was the advice given to me at a recent talk I went to at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. The focus of the talk was on how to improve at endurance sports, with a particular focus on cycling. This is definitely something I need to work on more. I struggle to eat when I just wake up, but again, it’s training the body.
Pro mountain biker and endurance athlete Sarah Hill — who is also a coach — said to me once at a race that she eats at least two hours before she races. For her it’s important that her body has enough time to do its thing before racing begins. And that should be true for all of us.
So what to eat? Again, it’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different and that you should test what works for you. Ideally you want a slow-release (ie: low GI) breakfast. The classic? A bowl of oats. Sometimes the sticky texture gets a bit much for me, in which case I have some toast with nut butter and a banana. (Side note: 100% rye toast will feel heavier in the tummy.)
What to eat to help prevent cramps
What causes cramps? Cramps can be caused by a few different things, but what stands out: dehydration, lack of electrolytes and, for some people, they’re just prone to them. Practising the distance you will be taking on come race day and building up your fitness (and time on legs/time in the saddle) will certainly help prepare your body for the conditions which may present themselves. With Cape Town Cycle Tour, many people begin to experience cramp going up Suikerbossie, which is really the last tough climb of the race. By this time it’s hot and riders are often a bit dehydrated.
What happens if you get them? If you start experiencing a cramp on race day, here’s what you need to do. Having a cramp is terrible and painful and will often mean you need to stop riding or change what you’re doing, which can be tricky in a road cycling race environment with riders close around you. If you know you suffer from cramping and you’re about to hit Suikerbossie, perhaps give yourself a little room.
If you can, pull to the side and stop and stretch out. Try get a massage if you’re near one of the tents en route or massage your muscles yourself. Carry some emergency stuff with you. I used CrampNot at one of my previous mountain biking stage race events and found it helpful. I’ve heard of marathon runners and endurance athletes taking all sorts of goodies, from drinking pickle juice to munching Rennies and salt tabs. Watch this quick video below from Dr Darren Green on the Cape Town Cycle Tour insta page.
What to eat or drink during your race
According to the experts at The Sports Science Institute of South Africa, you will need to drink about 600ml per hour of your bottle solution. In other words: have 60-90g/hour of a 10% glucose polymer or glucose polymer + fructose drink. And mouth-rinsing helps too!
During your training you would have tested and practised different forms of hydration. There are many different products out there offering a mix of electrolytes, caffeine, glucose (carbs or energy) and other amino acids. Think about what you need to keep yourself going.
Currently I use a product called Cytogen Race Mix for high energy performance during my endurance races.
I also always carry a banana in my back pocket in case I need a boost. I often don’t have it, especially if I’m racing for less than three hours. But if I’m going to be out for more than three hours, I’ll smash it. If your stomach handles GUs, then those are an easy way to boost your system so you can continue racing. Try these Biogen Energy Gels (made with real fruit).
Just watch that you don’t overdo the sugar…
What to eat on Race Day if you’re vegan
As a recipe developer, this is a question I get asked often. Even though I am not 100% plant-based (I’m flexitarian), my pre-race meals are all vegan. As mentioned above, my breakfast will consist of things like toast with nut butter and banana or a big bowl of oats (probably with a sprinkle of coconut sugar).
My dinner the night before will be a fairly simple pasta with a vegan sauce. Try an arrabiata (but not too spicy) or a pesto pasta. I make everything from scratch so that I know exactly what I’m putting in my tum. Sometimes I even have a glass of wine or beer to calm the nerves and add to to carbo-loading.
Other vegan dinner ideas could be:
- Large baked sweet potato with simple salsa and avo.
- A vegan burger (mushroom or aubergine patty) and chips.
- Vegan pizza with simple toppings (most restaurants offer options now, like Col’cacchio — or simply leave the cheese off).
- A stir-fry with tofu, carrots, red pepper and courgettes with steamed rice.
Best of luck!