3 Keys to Race Day Eats

3 Keys to Race Day Eats

This is for my runners of all ages. No matter what race you’re running – Rumpshaker 5K or Olympic Trials 1 mile, there are 3 keys for race day eats. Besides showing up hydrated, which almost goes without saying.

1) Eat familiar foods. Know what works for you.

2) Eat the right amounts (not too much, not too little).

3) Go easy on protein, fat, and fiber, especially in the hours near the race.

Our goal on competition day is for our food choices to fuel us through the race, without causing GI (tummy) distress. It’s pretty straightforward, and all it takes is a little planning and practice to figure out what works for you.

Repping Troy, with my lucky black bow and pearl earrings (of course.)

Race-day rituals come in all forms – the same warm-up, lucky socks, bows, earrings, etc. Many people like to have coffee on race morning, especially if they do it on the daily anyway. Studies have shown that caffeine does improve athletic performance, but beware – know your tolerance! I have anywhere from a half to one cup every morning, but I’ll skip it if my race is early. This past weekend I raced in the afternoon, so I started my day with a bottle of water and my morning cup of coffee (as always, with a dash of almond milk).

My two favorite race-day breakfasts are oatmeal and CLIF bars. I was out of oatmeal, and wanted to eat something as I was leaving the dorm anyway, so I grabbed a bar. I know they sit well with my stomach, never give me any issues, and will hold me over for about 3 hours. It’s key for me to choose the right flavor, too – some of them, like chocolate mint and chocolate brownie, are too sweet for me, and my stomach doesn’t tolerate the really peanut-y ones as well, so my favorite flavors are the Nuts and Seeds (which I haven’t found in a while), Sierra Trail Mix, Blueberry Muffin, and Chocolate Chip. But lately…


This is just the best. THE best. It’s lower in sugar than the regular bars, and it’s coconut-almond flavored with almond butter in the center. Seriously so good. You need a race day breakfast that makes you excited to get going, and this works great for me. They were also slightly discounted the last time I was at the store! This bar has 27g carb, 11g fat, 7g protein, and 3g fiber. Consider your own body size and needs, but less is more sometimes.

Whatever bfast you choose, these guidelines should help you assure it fuels you well.

  • You’ve eaten it before running hard several times, and it’s gone well.
  • You’ve eaten it recently.
  • It contains carbs, fat, and protein – but mostly carbs. Complex carbs are great, but be careful with too much fiber. Don’t worry about your normal health goals on race day – you can up your fiber and eat omelets with veggies again tomorrow! Protein will be one of our keys for replenishing post-race, so we don’t need to worry too much about it now.
  • Portion size – you want to be comfortably full. Satisfied. Especially if your run is in the morning. If you eat slowly, you should be able to identify what amount this means for you. I’d practice race-day breakfast on a regular morning run day, just to be safe.

If you’re running a morning race, I highly recommend waking up 3 hours before the time you’d start warming up, and getting a small meal like a bowl of oats, a couple pieces of toast with almond butter or fruit spread, or a CLIF bar, in early. Drink at least a couple of bottles of water before you get out there, too – most of us wake up slightly dehydrated each morning after hours of not drinking, so you’ll want to restore your normal function. Even slight dehydration can hinder performance, and keep you from feeling your best!

I’m always afraid to drink too much on the bus, but I’d gotten another bottle in by the time we sat down at the track. And I usually try to bring some minty gum for the ride, because it keeps me feeling alert and fresh.

I snacked on some pretzel chips until lunch came. Salty foods can help ease a nervous stomach! Simple, starchy snacks like pretzels, crackers, or (low-sugar) cereal are great to have on hand for race day, because you never know when you might need something. These won’t affect you negatively unless you eat a ton of them, and are good at keeping hunger (and nerves!) at bay.

Samford University, you are so beautiful!

For lunch, our sweet coaches ordered us sandwiches from Newk’s 🙂

I took off the cheese, tomato, and lettuce, and ate half of the sandwich. They were pretty big, and seriously it was the best bread ever! It definitely depends on your size and food tolerance, but regardless, a small meal about 3 hours before starting warmup is a good bet. I also made sure to drink two more bottles of water before we started warm-up at 3:30.


About 15 minutes before the race, when I was at my bag, I had a sip Powerade. In a study my classmates and I did this semester, even just rinsing the mouth with a carbohydrate-containing drink prior to a maximal bout of exercise improved performance. It really works! You can drink it or spit it out, but either way your mind is tricked into thinking there are carbs on the way, so it will allow you to work just a little bit harder.

pre-race prayer

race day troy

And before you know it, you’re done again! Our lovely trainers brought us water cups as soon as we could breathe. I always let myself chill and rest after the race for at least 20 minutes, and talk to coach, see the family. I’ll watch friends finish their races, hang out, have a little gatorade, etc. It’s important to get a light cool-down in, and then I’ll start thinking about fuel again, but usually not before. Many nutrition experts recommend refueling within 30 minutes to an hour. I’ll usually have some sports drink within 20-30 minutes, and then close to an hour afterward I’ll eat a little something. Usually something that makes me happy 🙂

Like this cookie. Thanks Coach Michelle 🙂

Go slow after the race, but you’ve definitely earned some protein, fat, and carbs. Post-exercise is the best time to refuel muscle glycogen (carb) stores, aka, the best time to enjoy simple carbs like cookies and not have the sugar converted to fat. Take my word for it and stagger your refueling – a cookie here, a sandwich in an hour, another snack later – if I don’t, I often find my stomach cramping up on the bus ride home!

You’ll definitely want some protein on race night, to keep your muscles fed and happy. They just worked really hard, and you might not have had a ton of protein already, so now’s the time. I didn’t even take a picture, but we got Full Moon BBQ, and I had a chicken sandwich with BBQ sauce 🙂 So. good. Not all people avoid veggies post-race, but I feel best if I do (if I raced really hard). Their fibrous nature can just be too much if your stomach is a little on edge. I have, however, been known to tackle a smoothie. Or, more recently…

Cashew milk ice cream. Don’t worry, I had help with this pint. Yum!

Of course, you’ll want to keep re-hydrating like crazy all night, and the next day too (especially if it was hot!) I like to kick start the next day with a really healthy and yummy breakfast, and have a lot of fruit and veggies throughout the day. This sets me on a good track for recovery – our bodies need those nutrients! Especially if we’re doing a long run the next day, which we did.

Fuel your body well, and you’ll make the most of your performance! To sum up performance nutrition for the average person, I’d say this – Go hard on the daily when you’re training. Refuel well with prime produce, lean meats, and healthy fats. Choose good, fresh, fiber and nutrient-filled foods. Then on race day, keep things simple, and enjoy yourself a little afterward (with protein, of course). Your muscles will thank you!

Run fast,


{Remember, I’m not a dietitian yet! All of this is based on what I’ve learned so far in school, and my personal experience. If you want to develop a real race-day plan, you’ll need a real RDN – preferably one with special sports experience and certifications. Don’t take any of this as medical advice – just food for thought!}


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