What you should be eating leading up to your race
So you’ve done all the hard yards, the taper is underway and now you need to think about building up to the big day. But what do you eat and how much? When do you start to ‘carbo load’ and how much?
You don’t need to eat as much
The first thing to bear in mind is that your mileage is going to diminish and as a result, you don’t need to take on quite as many calories as you did before. Using the formula that a mile (1.6km) is the equivalent of burning 100 calories (418 kilojoules), you can work out from your reduced mileage what your reduced calorie intake should be. That said you do need to build up your glycogen stores, especially if you’re running a half or full marathon, and your body will need to recover from months of hard training. Muscle fibres will need time and energy to repair and your levels of enzymes, hormones and antioxidants, which were diminished after months of training, will need to return to their normal levels during the taper. Plus, your immune system will get stronger again too and all of this will be achieved without losing any of your aerobic fitness.
Putting on weight
Don’t be at all surprised if you gain a little weight – it isn’t the end of the world. A lot of coaches recommend not bothering to weigh yourself at all during this period as your weight will fluctuate and probably increase slightly as you store water and carbohydrate. If you feel a little fuller here and there, don’t panic. As long as you aren’t over-eating you’ll be fine.
Your aim throughout this period is to maintain a healthy balanced diet, with plenty of carbohydrate, protein, unsaturated fat and fruit and vegetables. You’re looking for around 60-percent of your diet to come from carbs, around 20 percent from protein and around 20 percent from fats.
Choose complex carbohydrates
Focus on consuming complex carbohydrates like grains, noodles, rice, pasta, potatoes and bread and look to hit the ratio of 3:1 per meal in terms of carbs to anything else. Try to incorporate protein in every meal, as well as some fat. Fruit is also a great idea at this stage. You need to support your immune system on its return to pre-training levels, because you really don’t want to catch a cold or flu at this late stage.
Avoid empty calories
Be aware that there can be a temptation to eat what are known as empty calories. That is carbohydrate rich food that is packed with sugar. Cookies, cakes and biscuits, might well appeal after all those weeks on the move, which is fair enough. And yes there are carbs in them, but no – don’t over-indulge. Those foods also have plenty of sugary junk in them too. Even though you continue to earn the right to linger by the dessert trolley, remember to think moderation in all things, especially puddings and treats.
This can be a particular danger in the latter stages of the taper when you can feel a little sluggish and bloated. This is a result of water retention and carbohydrate storage, so you tend to feel heavy-legged and tired. It’s a natural instinct to comfort eat at this time, but try to avoid that if you can. Stick to your tried and trusted healthy diet and you will feel great come race day.
It’s important to stay hydrated through this time. You’ll still be running, albeit not to the level of previous weeks, but you do still need to take care of how much you drink and when. A lot of runners cut out alcohol altogether now and that is an option for you too. But if you enjoy the occasional glass of wine, then have it. There are some health benefits to a nice fruity glass of red wine, so make the most of them. And seeing as this can be a stressful time for runners who are anxious about not running the volume they have become used to, and terrified of picking up an injury, a glass of something alcoholic can work wonders. But do try to avoid excessive levels of caffeine and fizzy drinks and drink plenty of water instead.
Reduce your fibre
When it gets close to race day, it’s a good idea to cut back on your fibre intake. Fibre is great on the whole for keeping your bowels operating regularly, but you don’t want to take any kind of stomach issues with you on race day. If you aim to cut back around two days out from your race, you should be able to avoid the dreaded onset of runner’s tummy.
In terms of carbo loading the perceived wisdom used to be that you had to stuff yourself with carbohydrates the night before a big race. Nowadays the science tells us that if we do that, the carbs won’t be converted into glycogen until the race is practically over and it could leave you feeling full and bloated on race day morning. Ideally you should start to crank up the carbs three days out from your race, by adding a little more carb content than you regularly do.
And why not make your lunch the day before the race your bigger meal? That way your body will have a chance to digest it properly before the start line and convert it usefully for you during the race. As before though, make those calories count. Don’t opt for sugary junk, stick to healthy carbs like rice, noodles and pasta, as well as a portion of lean protein and fruit and vegetables. You won’t go far wrong if you eat well, but remember don’t experiment with food at this late stage. Have meals that your tummy is comfortable with and can easily digest.