Miami's ING Marathon is only four days away. I'm counting because I'm running it. These last few days before a race find many athletes stressing out about food. The truth is, no matter how hard you've trained, poor timing and choices in your eating style can sabotage your run. I've experienced this a few times. During a 9-mile trail run in Reading, Pennsylvania, I spent my entire jaunt bent over, my stomach threatening at every turn to yuke up the three bowls of oatmeal I'd eaten at 1 a.m. the night before. And, though I exceeded my expectations during the Philadelphia Marathon in 2010 time-wise, I had to make three porto-potty stops along the way as a result of guzzling about a gallon of Gatorade before starting. Won't do that again.
There is so much mythology around the foods that boost performance, I decided to compile a list of the ones that really will help you out on the long road this weekend (along with those to avoid), and some tips on when to eat them.
1. Start carb-loading three days before race day.
Tomorrow is the day to start flipping the ratio of your protein, fat, and carb consumption on its head. The idea is to build up glycogen stores in your blood, which are your body's easiest-to-access energy sources. If you're set to run a 13.1- or 26.2- mile race, you're not going to be able to build up enough of these energy stores in a single meal, which is why it's important to start stockpiling a few days in advance. (Don't start full-on carb-loading any earlier than three days before; some sources say that too-prolonged carb-loading can have adverse effects on your run because it can cause excess water weight gain --- and every pound you gain translates to an additional two seconds per mile on your race time.)
2. Replace proteins and fats with carbs.
Basically, to carb-load properly, you're not just going to add a lot more carbohydrates to your typical diet. You're going to eat almost nothing but carbohydrates for a few days straight. That means about 90 percent of your calories should come from carbs, according to Runner's World Magazine.
3. Choose lower-fiber carbohydrate sources.
Typically, I would never recommend that anyone cut down on his or her fiber intake. But before a marathon or half-marathon, it's a good idea --- especially the day before your race. Again, I've learned the hard way that fiber-loaded superfoods foods like kale may prevent disease and prolong your life, but eating half a bushel before a double-digit-mile-run will destroy you. The energy used by your guts trying to break down high-fiber foods will drain the blood supply your legs, heart, and lungs need to help you have your best run ever. Bananas, sweet potatoes with no skin, pancakes, waffles (I like Van's vegan and gluten-free varieties), lower-fat granola, bagels, and of course pastas are all good choices. During this time, you've even got a free pass to eat non-whole grain bread and pasta varieties.
4. Watch your condiments.
Be sure not to load your bagels, waffles, and pastas with butter, cheese, or other high-fat choices. Fat takes longer to digest and is harder for your body to access and burn, making it an inferior race day fuel as compared to carbohydrates. Choose fruit spreads (try fruit juice-sweetened jams and jellies if you're a white sugar-phobe like me), honey, maple syrup, and tomato sauce for your rice and pasta.
5. Don't eat a ridiculous number of calories.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that carb-loading means eating twice or three times as much as usual. In reality, since you're not running many miles leading up to race day, you don't need to eat all that much to start storing away carbs. You're just going to be eating a much more significant portion of your calories from carbohydrates. According to various sources, including The New York Times and Runner's World Magazine, the proper formula is about three to four grams of carbohydrates for every pound the runner weighs. So a 160-pound runner would eat about 640 grams of carbs, which amounts to 2,560 calories, purely from carbohydrates, per day.
6. Be prepared to gain a few pounds.
Eating concentrated carbohydrate sources, like juices, rice, and candy, will minimize the bulk you have to eat to achieve the carb-based calorie account you need to perform well. But carb loading still usually causes temporary water weight gain. Don't freak out --- again, it's just temporary, and if you're following a sensible carbohydrate loading plan, your long-burning energy stores will compensate for the small weight gain during your run.
7. Don't over-do it the night before.
Eat a moderate-sized meal the night before. Yes, a few bowls of white pasta with tomato sauce are a good, if cliche, option. Since Miami's ING starts in the wee hours of the morning, it's a good idea to finish dinner around 7 p.m. or earlier the night before so that you have plenty of time to digest; one of the worst things you can do is start your marathon with a full stomach or colon. Yuck.
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8. Race day breakfast: Eat and go back to bed.
It's ideal to eat breakfast about three hours before your endurance race. Since the ING starts at about 6 a.m., you may want to wake up at 3 in the morning, eat your bagel, Clif bar, or cereal, and then go back to bed for an hour and a half.
9. Eat and drink during your run.
When you're running for hours on end, it's important to complement the energy supplied by your glycogen stores with additional easy-access fuel. If you're like me and you typically steer clear of high glycemic index foods, you'll find Gu gels and all-natural, plant-based power gels like Vega Sport's options, to be the equivalent of rocket fuel during your long-ass run. Seriously, these gels are so effective, they feel to me like cheating. The wisdom on when to take these varies; some say to slurp the goo down at mile six, 12, and 18, while others recommend doing so every hour. I think the latter advice sounds excessive. My basic plan is to take one each time I get even a hint of an energy dip.
10. Recover with nutrient-dense foods.
During your days of carb-loading, you've had to skimp on vegetables and other nutrient-dense plant foods, as well as protein. Post-race, you'll want to give your body plenty of the stuff it needs to repair the damage that is inherent to what is essentially a wasting exercise. Many sports nutritionists and scientists recommend drinking tart cherry juice because of its proven and potent anti-inflammatory properties. Dark leafy greens, berries, mushrooms, broccoli, bok choy, beets, carrots, and Brussels sprouts; teas like white, green, and oolong; and spices like ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon are among the anti-inflammatory foods recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil.