The Pre-Race Meal

Edition 7, 2005
By Steve Born

OK, This is one area regarding the connection of proper fueling and performance that I didn’t screw up. To be honest, most of the time I’ve been an athlete I followed the guidelines that make up this article. I wish I could say I did so consciously, but the truth is that I did it out of habit rather than really knowing why it was the right thing to do. With all the athletes I’ve worked with, this specific area in sports nutrition seems to be the one most of them are least willing to accept… that is, until they try it and notice how much better their performances are.

How many times have you had a bite (or more) from an energy bar, taken a swig (or more) from an energy drink, or eaten a meal just an hour or two before taking your position at the starting line? Big mistake! Eating this soon before exercise is actually counterproductive and will hurt your performance. In the sometimes confusing world of sports supplementation and fueling, the pre-race meal generates arguably the greatest confusion, and many athletes have paid a hefty performance price for their misinformation. But really, there’s no insider secret to the pre-race meal, just some wise strategies and guidelines. You need to know what to eat, how much, and, most importantly, when. You also need to know a bit about glycogen storage, depletion, and resupply, and you do need to know how to use that knowledge at the practical level. This article supplies all the information you need, and I’ve also included some suggested meals, equally appropriate for workouts as well as competition.

The Pre-Race Meal Goal

Assuming your race starts in the morning, the purpose of your pre-race meal is to top off liver glycogen stores, which your body has expended during your night of sleep. Muscle glycogen, the first fuel recruited when exercise commences, remains intact overnight. If you had a proper recovery meal after your last workout, you’ll have a full load of muscle glycogen on board, which constitutes about 80% of your total glycogen stores. If you didn’t resupply with complex carbs and protein after your last workout, there’s nothing you can do about it now; in fact, you’ll only hurt yourself by trying. To repeat: during sleep, your liver-stored glycogen maintains proper blood glucose level; you expend nary a calorie of your muscle glycogen. You might wake up feeling hungry, and I’ll discuss that issue later, but you’ll have a full supply of muscle-stored glycogen, your body’s first used and main energy source. Your stomach might be saying, “I’m hungry,” but your muscles are saying, “Hey, we’re good to go!”

With only your liver-stored glycogen to top off, you want a light pre-race nutrition meal. Sports nutrition expert Bill Misner, Ph.D., advises that a pre-race meal should be “an easily digested high complex carbohydrate meal of between 200-400 calories with a minimum of fiber, simple sugar, and fat.” According to Dr. Misner, fat slows digestion and has no positive influence on fuels metabolized during an event. He further states that a high fiber pre-race meal may “create the call for an unscheduled and undesirable bathroom break in the middle or near the end of the event.”

Complex Carbs and Protein

One study suggests that athletes who drank a pre-race meal consisting of both carbohydrates and a small amount of protein had better performances than when they consumed only an all-carbohydrate sports drink. This would make a pre-race meal of Sustained Energy (which contains both complex carbohydrates and soy protein), or a combination of Sustained Energy and Hammer Gel or HEED highly effective—as well as being incredibly quick and easy. If you do feel the need for solid food, choose high starch foods such as skinless potatoes, bananas, rice, pasta, plain bagels, low-fat active culture yogurt, tapioca, and low-fiber hot cereals. You can find a few pre-race meal recipes at the end of this article that use these products.

Allow Three Hours or More!

Equally as important as what you eat is when you eat your pre-race meal. Authorities such as Dr. Misner, Dr. Michael Colgan, and Dr. David Costill all agree that the pre-race meal should be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the event. Dr. Misner suggests the athlete “leave three hours minimum to digest foods eaten at breakfast. After breakfast, drink 10-12 ounces fluid each hour up to 30 minutes prior to the start (24-30 ounces total fluid intake).”

Three hours allows enough time for your body to fully process the meal. Colgan says it’s the time necessary for digestion to avoid intestinal distress. Costill’s landmark study [Costill DL. Carbohydrates for exercise. Dietary demand for optimal performance. Int J Sports 1988;9:1-18] shows that complex carbohydrates taken 3-4 hours prior to exercise raise blood glucose and improve performance. But it’s Dr. Misner’s argument that has proved most compelling to me.

Dr. Misner’s Rationale—It’s All In The Timing

If you consume high glycemic carbohydrates such as simple sugars (or even the preferred complex carbohydrates such as starches and maltodextrins) within three hours of exercise, you can expect the following, with possible negative effects on performance:

  1. Rapidly elevated blood sugar, which in turn causes excess insulin release, leading to hypoglycemia, an abnormally low level of glucose in the blood.
  2. The high insulin level inhibits lipid mobilization during aerobic exercise, which means reduced fats-to-fuels conversion capabilities. Our ability to utilize stored fatty acids as energy largely determines our performance, which is why we can continue to exercise on so seemingly few ingested carbohydrates during exercise. You definitely don’t want to jeopardize this aspect of your energy cycle.
  3. The high insulin level also induces a blood sugar influx into muscle cells, which increases the rate of carbohydrate metabolism, hence rapid carbohydrate fuel depletion. In simple terms: high insulin means faster muscle glycogen depletion.

You must complete your pre-race fueling three or more hours prior to the start because the insulin-induced blood sugar level “disruption” from a pre-race meal lasts about three hours before hormonal balance is restored. Hormonal imbalance negatively affects utilization of existing muscle glycogen, carbohydrates consumed during exercise, and fatty acids. In other words, eating within three hours of a race promotes faster release/depletion of both liver and muscle glycogen stores and inhibits optimal fat-utilization capabilities. The combination of accelerated glycogen depletion and disruption of your primary long-distance fuel availability can devastate your performance.

But I’m Hungry!

Recall that I mentioned earlier that muscle glycogen, the main fuel recruited for the first 60-90 minutes of exercise, remains unaffected by a nightlong fast. When you awaken in morning, you haven’t lost your primary fuel supply, and can’t add to it by eating within an hour or two or of exercise. That’s absolutely correct, and believe it or not, being hungry before an event is okay and it won't inhibit performance.

However, hard-training athletes often do wake up very hungry and feel they need to eat something before their workout or race. This is especially true for half and full iron-distance triathletes, who start very early in the morning in the water, swimming for up to an hour or more, where consuming food is not possible.

What to do? Try either of the following suggestions to help with this problem:

  1. Just start anyway, realizing that hunger is not a performance inhibitor, and begin fueling shortly after you start, when you get into a comfortable rhythm. The hunger sensation will diminish almost as soon as you begin to exercise and you’ll actually be benefiting, not hurting, your performance by following this procedure. You can safely use Sustained Energy, Perpetuem, HEED or Hammer Gel, or any combination thereof, as soon as you want after exercise commences, but make sure you consume appropriate amounts. For details regarding that, please refer to the “Proper Caloric Intake During Endurance Events.”
  2. If you feel you absolutely must eat, consume 100-200 calories about five minutes before start time. By the time these calories are digested and blood sugar levels are elevated, you’ll be well into your race and glycogen depletion rates will not be negatively affected. In this regard, good choices are one or two servings of Hammer Gel or a generous drink from a premixed bottle of Sustained Energy or Perpetuem. This strategy is especially appropriate for triathletes who will hit the water first and not have a chance to eat right away. Small amounts of nutrient-dense fuels such as those named above go a long way to stanching hunger pangs.

Sleep or Eat?

Should you get up during the wee morning hours just to get in a meal three hours before your race or workout? My answer is NO—rest will do you much more good; much restorative physiology occurs during sleep, so don’t sacrifice sleep just to eat. If you’re a fit athlete, one who has been replenishing carbohydrates immediately after each exercise session, you have approximately 60-90 minutes of muscle glycogen, your premium fuel available. As long as you begin fueling shortly after the race begins, perhaps 10-20 minutes after the start, your performance will not be affected negatively. If you start fueling shortly after your race begins, it’s actually OK to start your race a little on the hungry side. Topping off liver glycogen stores is always a good idea, but not at the expense of sacrificing sleep and certainly not at the expense of depleting muscle glycogen stores too quickly (by eating too soon before exercise).

Summary & Pre-Race Meal Suggestions

You work so hard throughout your training, making sure your diet, supplement program, training, and recovery is the best it can be. Follow these steps regarding your pre-race meal to put the final touches on all your hard work, giving you the best advantage for your important race.

  • Take a pre-race meal of 200-400 calories at least three hours before exercise.
  • Focus on complex carbs, starches, and a little protein for your pre-race meal.
  • Avoid high fiber, simple sugars, and high fat in your pre-race meal.
  • If you must, take a small amount of your supplemental fuel (Hammer Gel, etc.) about five minutes before exercise.
  • Make sure you resupply your muscle glycogen by taking a good recovery meal after your workouts.

Any of these pre-race meal suggestions will keep you in the preferred 200-400 calorie range:

  • Three scoops of Sustained Energy
  • Two scoops of Sustained Energy flavored with one serving of Hammer Gel or one scoop of HEED
  • Two to three servings of Hammer Gel or two to three scoops of HEED fortified with one scoop of Sustained Energy
  • Two to two and a half scoops of Perpetuem
  • One white flour bagel and 1/2 cup active yogurt
  • A banana and 1/2 to 1 cup active yogurt
  • Cream of Wheat or Rice, sweetened with a serving of Hammer Gel
  • One soy protein-enhanced pancake, sweetened with a serving of Hammer Gel
  • Half of skinless baked potato topped with 1/2 cup plain active yogurt