Nutrition Game Plan: Shorter Endurance Events
Disclaimer: this information is for educational and information purposes only. This information is not intended to replace medical advice or personalized coaching. Consult with a licensed medical professional when making any decisions regarding your health.
Nutritionist Note: these recommendations are race-specific, not training-specific. I do not and will not recommend one diet strategy but instead give a variety of options and allow you to explore what works best for you. However, these recommendations are not for those that race in a carb-depleted state. While many athletes successfully train with low-carb diets, I have found that most race best in with a least a moderate amount of carbohydrates the day before or morning of the race.
There’s a lot of focus in sports nutrition on fueling marathons, century rides, and Ironman triathlons. But what about the shorter endurance events? The event may be short enough that you just drink water or sports drink during the race. However, a well-constructed nutrition game plan is still very much a part of success in these events. That includes how to fuel before, during, and after the event. This post will cover general guidelines for endurance events under 3 hours including:
- Running: events under 2 hours, including 5K – 10 mile road races, these distances as a leg of a relay, or shorter trail races
- Dualthlon/triathlon: sprint and Olympic distance (depending on pace)
- Cycling: road races and time trials under 3 hours or mountain bike races under 2 hours
- Adventure racing: under 3 hours
- Hiking/trekking/fastpacking: under 4 hours
- Cross-country skiing: under 90 minutes
A few assumptions I made in these recommendations:
- You have trained specifically for your event
- You have a solid diet already (if not, let’s talk!)
- You tested the foods, drinks and fuels you plan to use before and during your race during training
- You are okay with doing a little bit of math to figure out your carbohydrate needs (I know, I know. I kept it pretty minimal and I avoided some of the hydration formulas that require a scale before and after you race because who has room for that in their race bag)
- The amount of carbohydrates listed for foods are estimates. Actual amount will vary based on the size of the food, ripeness of fruit, and method of cooking
Before the Event
Your nutrition goals before a race are to hydrate appropriately, top off glycogen stores and avoid GI issues.
One to two days before the event, eat foods that you are familiar with. If you are traveling for a race, that may mean bringing food or looking up menus ahead of time to ensure you aren’t introducing a food or spice that could GI distress during your race. Nobody wants a case of the runner trots. Have a drink, preferably water, with each meal. Drink to thirst. For shorter endurance events, you do not need to worry about carbo-loading or superloading your muscles with carbohydrate. Regular, balanced meals and snacks will top off your glycogen stores just fine. So sorry, but you really don’t need that second plate of spaghetti. A chicken, rice and green bean platter will work great! I will caveat here that athletes on low carbohydrate diets, in a caloric deficit, or without adequate rest will need to take extra steps to top off glycogen stores. This can be accomplished through moderate carbohydrate intake at meals two days before the event, and I would recommend consulting with a nutritionist/dietitian if you are in one of these situations.
I know many athletes have a preferred meal before a race. It can be a good to have a routine; however, if you will be traveling for your race, going in search of that particular meal can definitely add some unnecessary stress. I recommend having a variety of foods that you are comfortable with before your race to avoid a minor panic the night beforehand.
If you have GI issues, I recommend avoiding fibrous vegetables and beans the night before the race.
The night before the race, pack any foods and snacks that you will eat before and during the race, such as bananas, sports drinks, gels or bars. Check all your equipment. Fill your hydration system so you can just grab it in the morning.
The morning of the event, eat breakfast. I will say this again because it is so important. Eat breakfast! Do not race fasted. Eating breakfast serves two purposes: it tops off your glycogen stores and helps settle anxious stomachs. Again, stick with foods you know and used during training. Breakfast can be anything from peanut butter toast to a banana to a glass of juice. The closer you get to your race, the easier to digest food should be, like liquids or gels, and the smaller of a meal you should eat. Think a meal if you are eating 3-4 hours before your race, a snack if 1-2 hours before, and a sports drink, gel or gummy less than an hour beforehand. Studies have shown a broad range of carbohydrate amounts that work well before a race. A broad rule of thumb is to eat 1.5-2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight if you are eating 4 hours before the race and 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight if you are eating 1 hour before the race. If you tend to eat lower carb, you may need slightly less. A sweet potato with breakfast will likely be enough. A few options include:
- Whole wheat bagel with honey and peanut butter (75 grams of carbohydrates)
- Scrambled eggs, home fries and a banana (65 grams carbohydrate)
- A cup of oatmeal with almond butter, coconut milk and mango (83 grams carbohydrate)
If you are used to having caffeine in the morning, like coffee or tea, do not skip it unless of course you found during training it interfered with your performance.
Continue drinking fluids up to two hours before the race starts, which will give you enough time to use the bathroom as needed. Drink another cup of water 5-15 minutes before the race starts.
During the Event
Your nutrition goal during the event is to monitor your fluid needs. While very elite competitors will often not drink during shorter races like 5Ks and time trials, most athletes benefit greatly from drinking during shorter endurance events. Because the events are shorter in duration, once you get behind your fluid needs you just don’t have the time to catch up. Particularly if you are a heavy sweater, undertrained, or are competing in a hot, humid environment or at altitude, the benefits of hydrating outweigh the small amount of time lost.
If your event is under an hour, plain water is generally adequate. Some studies do show benefits from carbohydrate rinsing, where you take a gulp of a sports drink then spit it out. I recommend trying this during a hard training run to see if this strategy works for you.
For events over an hour, supplemental carbohydrate in the form of sports drinks, gels, chews, blocks, energy bars, or solid foods is recommended. If you tend to get GI distress during races, try a mix of sources, such as a handful of raisins + a few sips of sports drink. Sports drinks lower in sugar, such as Nuun, Skratch Labs, and Osmo Nutrition can also help.
For events between 1-3 hours, a general guideline is 30-60 grams of carbohydrate every hour after the first hour.
For most adults, 1 gulp equals 1 ounce of fluid. Most adults need somewhere between one to several ounces of water every 10-20 minutes. Do not be afraid to slow down, walk or even stop in order to hydrate. It is far better to stop and hydrate rather than drop out of the race because you feel like poop.
Triathletes may want to prioritize replenishing carbohydrates while on the bike.
Keep in mind that if you are racing in the cold, tubes in hydration systems freeze more readily than old-fashioned water bottles.
After the Event
You crossed the finish line but you aren’t done! Your nutrition goals are to rehydrate, replenish and jumpstart the recovery process.
Aim to get 2-4 cups of liquid with 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight within 30 minutes of finishing. If possible, have a small amount of protein, 10-15 grams, as well. For a 140-pound person, a 20-ounce Gatorade (36 grams carbohydrate) and a banana (30 grams carbohydrate) would fit the bill. Other options include:
- 1-ounce of pretzels (25 grams carbohydrate)
- Peanut butter sandwich (30 grams carbohydrate)
- 1 cup of applesauce (45 grams carbohydrate)
Eat a full meal within 2 hours after your race and continue drinking fluids. The meal should be a balanced meal with moderate amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fat.
While many races have alcohol afterwards, it can slowdown the recovery process because it interferes with your body’s ability to replenish glycogen stores. Prioritize water and other nonalcoholic fluids over alcohol.
Have a race coming up and want to go over a strategy? I can help! Set up a free 15-minute virtual meet and greet to learn more.