Posted by: thehungryrunner | May 6, 2010

From unripe bananas to instant cup-o-soup: Tales of my race nutrition hits and misses

Whether you’re an experienced runner with a race repertoire to match, or you’re a new runner preparing to conquer your first 5K, chances are you’ve had some questions along the way about your nutrition surrounding a race.  Do you “carb it up” the night before?  What do you eat the morning of?  Should you drink water or Gatorade during the race?  And what do you chomp down on after your victorious charge across the finish line (especially when there are tables and tables of free snackies to grab and gulp)?

And although there’s an abundance of articles and books on the subject, you still may find yourself, as I did, scratching your head even after exhaustive research.  It may be sound advice, but it’s often still too generalized for me to connect the dots around my own quirks (and oh my do I have my quirks).  I have thus often done well by augmenting my readings with examples from actual runners — what they’ve done, ideas they’ve put to action successfully for themselves — and by watching fellow runners at races, to help me zero in on my own choices.  And interestingly, quite often these real-life reports and observations turn out to be quite different from the more slick and scientific strategies put out by (well-intended, I’m sure) nutrition experts.  For example, I still remember, at my first (of many) Mackinac Bridge races, that during the short bus ride across the bridge to starting line, a fellow runner was happily chatting it up with friends while wolfing a large banana.  Understand, it was 5:30am, we’d be running on the bridge in about 5 or 10 minutes.  By contrast, I sat there, quietly deep-breathing to find my Zen, hoping by then to have fully digested and assimilated the careful mixture of lowfat yogurt and whatever else I had aportioned for my Official Pre-Race Meal, having consumed this breakfast in dainty, thoroughly “chewed” spoonfuls almost 2 hours prior.  The notion of eating anything, even a banana (and so seemingly haphazardly) so close to race time, astonished me!  To my inexperienced runner mind, this was akin to breaching a basic sport nutrition commandment!  Yet this guy appeared to be doing just that, with neither personal concern nor any Race God lightening zaps coming down from the heavens to teach him a lesson.  True, I can’t know how this choice of pre-race kibble actually played out once he was striding across the bridge, but my inclination is to assume all went fine.

It was my first reality check in running nutrition:  that although it’s important, it need not be such a serious, over-planned endeavor.  And that everyone is different, so the rules I’d been devouring with the same gusto as that runner enjoyed his banana….aren’t rules, they’re guidelines.  In fact, they’re not even guidelines.  They’re starting points to give you some ideas as to what is more likely to be a good choice, and what is more likely to be a not-so-good choice on race day for you.  The final choice….will need to come from you:  knowing your body, your preferences, experimenting with what works during your training runs, and being willing to do what your body seems happiest about, even if it’s kinda weird and at times a bit annoying.

So…..It is for this reason I offer you some examples of my various experiments of the last 5 years, ever since I first began running and racing in 2005.  I hope this helps get your creative juices flowing for your own racetime eats!

Side note:  Keep in mind that I have not run a marathon, so I speak from the perspective of 5K’s, 10K’s, 10-milers, and Half Marathon in terms of my nutrition experiences.


What has worked:

  • Couscous:  This has become my go-to meal the night before a race.  It’s easy on the stomach, it’s tasty, it’s got a good amount of carbs and even some protein, it’s simple, and (although I prefer to cook it on the stove) easy to prepare even in a hotel room.  All you need is a microwave, a large bowl, and a mixing spoon.  I’m not keen on the spicier flavors the night before a race, so it’s usually either the chicken or parmesan flavors for me.
  • Canned soup:  Maybe it’s the pre-measured portion (I typically eat the entire can for my meal), maybe it’s the comfort of spooning up a hot bowl of soup, or maybe it’s the fact that the ingredients have been cooked to death and therefore near the scale of baby food in terms of digestability, but there’s something about canned soup that just works for me.  I typically avoid overtly rich selections, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for a creamy “chicken and dumplings” style, saturated fats and all.
  • Instant Cup of Soup:  If all that’s available in terms of food preparation is hot water, a packet or two of instant cup of soup can be a godsend.  I’m one that often needs some kind of “hot” food as part of my meal, and this does the trick without causing any stomach or intestinal acrobatics.  One suggestion:  If possible, make sure the water is VERY hot (careful not to burn yourself).  There’s something about lukewarmish water that, never mind the unsatisfying taste (who wants tepid soup?), doesn’t seem to “cook” the ingredients as well for good digestion.
  • Lowfat (or even full-fat) cottage cheese with canned fruit:  I know, boring boring boring.  But in a pinch, when I’ve made the mistake of having to depend on whatever we could find at the mini-mart near the hotel, these two foods have been a nourishing life-saver in giving my body a solid, but not too filling, meal for the night before a race.
  • Sugar-free Jello cup:  Hey, you eat it when you have the flu, so why not when you have butterflies in your stomach the night before a race?
  • No-sugar-added applesauce cup:  Comforting, sweet, easy on the stomach, and light.  Yay, yay, yay, and yay.
  • Tuna Kit:  The kind you mix yourself, with a packet of crackers and (if I’m lucky) a mint (I love mint candy).  A little bit of everything and not too much of anything!
  • Peppermint tea:  My “secret weapon” against any chance of gas or bloating.  A hot cup just before bed and my intestines are happy.  And when the intestines are happy….OK, I’ll say it, EVERYONE is happy, yes?

What has not worked:

  • Eating a large dinner and/or eating too late at night:  Yikes, you would think this would have been common sense, but during one running season, I had become accustomed to eating a large dinner (which I still prefer), without a whole lot of concern about how late I was eating.  This worked just fine for my training runs — because most of them took place in the afternoon.  But at Mile 5 of a morning 10K (7:30am start), I was hit with the worst stitch I’ve ever had.  I have many tricks to assuage a cramp, but none of them even began to dent it.  It was sheer will that propeled me to stagger-jog that final mile and across the finish line.  I had been pacing at about 8:50, but that final mile probably took around 13 minutes.  I was confounded, until I thought about my dinner the night before.  DUH!
  • Anything different from my usual foods:  Some people have digestive constitutions that aren’t just cast-iron…they could DIGEST cast iron.  Not me.  I have learned that the best way to invite unwanted bloating and other gastro-intestinal distress to my next race is to go ahead and happily munch on “whatever” the night before.  The more boring and predictable the food, the better the choice, at least if my goal is to have a comfortable tummy as I grit through that final hill.
  • Most pastas:  Isn’t pasta supposed to be the surefire runner’s pre-race meal?  Well, my body didn’t get that memo.  There are some pastas that have worked out ok — like, the ones that just happen to be in a can of soup.  But other than that, forget about it.  Or at least, forget about it until after the race.
  • Carbonated beverages:  Ideally, avoid them entirely the day before and the day of the race.  Better safe than sorry (and I know what “sorry” feels like — yet another one for the live-and-learn pile).


What has worked:

  • Chicken noodle soup:  Are you surprised?  I sure was!  But I have found that this is just about the most reliable choice for my pre-race meal.  It doesn’t seem to matter which brand of chicken noodle soup I try, but the two I have used most often are Progresso (both the regular and the light) and (my favorite) good ol’ fashioned Campbell’s.  Portion-wise, I don’t usually eat the entire can; rather, it’s usually about a cup or so, depending on how I feel.
  • Lowfat (flavored) yogurt, usually Yoplait:  Another extremely reliable choice for me.  It works better than nonfat or “light” yogurts, even though those are the ones I usually eat in my regular diet.  There’s something about the slightly creamier, more subtantial lowfat varieties that seems to hit the spot and give me good energy.  I don’t always eat the entire cup, and yes, I still eat small spoonfuls at a time to encourage better digestion (and to slow my ever-racing mind down).
  • Lowfat cottage cheese (plain):  Similar to the above, it gives me good energy, and as long as I eat it at least an hour before the race, don’t seem to have any problems digesting it.
  • Plain, 5-minute (not instant) oatmeal:  I have sometimes had good luck preparing a bowl of plain, 5-minute oatmeal, probably about 1/2 to 3/4 cup.  The one caveat is that I need to be eating it on a regular basis; I wouldn’t try this one if it’s been a while since my last bowl of oatmeal.
  • A cup of coffee:  True confessions here, before most of my 5K’s, I find a cup of coffee to be more than sufficient (that’s assuming the race is in the morning).  If anything, eating anything, even something light, before a 5K only seemed to bother me, so….pffffft.  Unless I truly feel the need, I’ll wait and eat afterward.

What has not worked:

  • Nonfat or “light” yogurt:  I’ll turn to it if it’s my only safe option, but the lack of fat seems to leave my tank empty for the race effort.
  • Sports nutrition bars (or gels, or cookies, or shakes, etc.):  I wish they work for me, I really do, as they’re tasty!  But….nyet.  There are a couple of exceptions — certain Power Bars that seem OK sometimes, but it’s just not a reliable choice.  I would categorize this one under Only Under Unusual Circumstances.
  • Cereal snack packs:  Great for travel and camping snacks, not so much before a race.
  • Banana:  The horror!  It’s just too much of a roll of the dice for me.  Sometimes I do well with it (either alone or with some other food), sometimes I don’t.  So….it’s off the list, at least before the race.


What has worked:

  • Water:  Probably my most common race is the 10K, which is probably why water has worked just fine for the vast majority of my races.  For me, I find the possibility of digestive crankiness more unappealing than whatever momentary fuel a Gatorade or other sport beverage might provide me when all I can think of is keeping my legs’ rhythm and breathing.
  • Sport chews:  If I REALLY think I’ll need some mid-race nutrition (a hot 10-miler or half marathon come to mind), I have found my best choice is to stick with the water at the water stations….and pack my own sport chews (I find the Cliff ones work well for me) in my wrist pouch — after, of course, testing this out in my training runs.  It’s a bit of a pain, but worth it as I don’t have to worry about how my body will handle it.
  • Watered-down Gatorade:  If sport chews are not an option or I feel I’ll do better with liquid replenishment, I will heavily dilute some Gatorade in water, and carry the water with me.  How?  I use one of those teeny water bottles they sell in 24-packs, and carry it in my hand.  I know, sounds crazy (and maybe it is), but once I’m done drinking, I can toss it in the next trash can I encounter, usually at the next water stop.  Done!

What has not worked:

  • Gatorade at the water stops:  For me, it’s just not certain as to whether my body will handle it.  Best to plan ahead and take care of my own nutrition if I expect to need it.
  • Goo’s, gels, etc.:  I just can’t do it.  I can’t.  It’s a texture thing for me.
  • Sport beans:  I can chew the “chews” while running….anything else, not so much.


What has worked:

  • Zip, zero, zilch:  Trust me, I don’t prefer this.  I love bagels enough that if I were stranded on a desert island, I could live quite happily off of them alone.  So a ginormous bagel table following a race is like a candy store at the finish line for me.  But….after many culinary trips, stumbles and falls over the years, I have learned that it’s generally best I stick with just water, and skip out on whatever generous offerings the race organizers are serving up for hungry runners (hey!).  After 20-30 minutes have passed, and I have stretched out, walked off the “buzz,” cooled down a bit, basked in the high….THEN I can decide if my body is ready for some food.  I can then make a better a decision as to what.
  • A few orange wedges or Gatorade:  The above only applies if I’m feeling pretty comfortable upon crossing the finish.  But should I feel any sign of distress — lightheaded, shaky, nauseated, excessively hot, etc. — obviously nutrition (and hydration) become a priority.  If available, I have found orange wedges to be a life-saver in such circumstances.  If not, I’ll have some Gatorade, now that I no longer need be concerned about whether it will interfere with my body’s comfort while running!
  • Sport chews:  Not a common occurrence, but if it’s a longer-duration race or one that’s taking place in hot/humid weather, I’ll bring sport chews to have available for immediately after the race.
  • Packing my food in a cooler (i.e. in the car):  This may not fall within the 30-45 minute mark (though most of the time it does), but it’s true that one shouldn’t hold off for too long after a race before replenishing the body with at least some nourishing food.  So, I typically pack some safe bets, typically the same foods that are on my pre-race meal list, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, maybe a pack of raisins….or a banana.  A RIPE banana — see below for explanation.

What has not worked:

  • Unripe banana:  OK, I’m a banana lover, to the point where I might even call myself a banana connoisseur, and I’m here to tell you that it is a mortal SIN to eat a banana that is anything but ripe (yellow peel, absolutely no green at ALL) or very ripe (yellow peel with some brown flecks).  There is no comparison in the taste!  But never mind that.  Sadly, I have also learned that a stomach that’s just flip-flopped through 6 hilly miles is ill-prepared for the daunting starchiness of the unripe banana.  Talk about instant owie.  Lesson learned!
  • Bagels:  WHY do even the most ordinary bagels, ones I’d normally wave my hand at and say, “Meh,” suddenly look so darn good after a race?  But once again, I’ve learned the hard way that this is not a good idea.  Having just run as fast as I can for the last 30, 60 or 90+ minutes, I’m very likely to eat just as quickly, gobbling up the bagel before it even has a chance to register in the taste centers of my brain.  So now I’m left with a stomach that’s saying — if I’m to be blunt — WTF?, a lack of satiety from eating so fast and mindlessly….and now a dose of carbs that will send my blood sugar on its own race while stoking a serious craving for more carbs.  Not the way to celebrate the end of a great running effort!
  • Most other foods:  See above.  It’s just more sane for me to give myself some breathing time, let my natural appetite return after the initial excitement abates a bit, and THEN attend to post-race treats.


What has worked:

  • The bagel I wanted right after the race:  Guilty as charged, if I really feel a hankering for a bagel, I’ll take one, but save it for later, after I’ve had the chance to come back down to earth and maybe eat something a tad more nutritious first.
  • A RIPE banana, with some protein on the side:  The banana alone doesn’t seem to cut it, but add a cup of yogurt or a couple of sticks of string cheese or even a small container or roasted sunflower seeds and I’m good to go for a while.  Unless I’m really ravenous, in which case…..
  • Eating a big salad before anything else.  While my appetite may be a bit moody right after the race, it typically comes back with a vengeance shortly thereafter.  I find that even if I’m planning to have an indulgent meal — pizza, hamburger, pasta, whatever, I’ll do better for myself by starting out with either a vegetable or fruit salad, to slow down my eating and fill me up before digging in to the fun stuff.  Otherwise, I’m likely to nibble my way long past the amount I would want to eat.  Yes, I realize that my body has expended a great deal and needs to refuel, but those multiple handfuls of trail mix add up quickly!
  • Enjoying a nice meal or treat, GUILT-FREE!:  After all the planning, preparation, pondering and packing…’s a joy to be able to just relax and enjoy good food, in the company of good friends!

What has not worked:

  • Trying to be too strict OR being too indulgent:  Everything in balance.  Life is about enjoying the treats but knowing when you need to give your body what it needs and not always what you want at that moment.  But then….you probably already know that!

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