Race day nutrition matters — a lot. The right foods eaten at the right time can supercharge your performance, decrease bonks (hitting the wall), and lessen gastrointestinal issues. But meal-timing around a race is tricky, so we tapped Spartan Pro Team member and Spartan SGX trainer Kevin Donoghue for the best advice on how to maximize your training diet.
“Whether you’re a pro racer or doing your first open wave, we all require the same basic nutrients to succeed,” says Donoghue. “Nutrition is crucial to performance and recovery, and they actually go hand in hand.
Donoghue also says that getting the most out of your race day nutrition starts well before the date of your event. “You can’t be bad with pre-race nutrition and then expect to recover well, even if your post-race nutrition is on point, and vice versa. So it’s important to plan well and be diligent and consistent in all phases of your diet.”
Race Day Nutrition Guide: Complete Instructions
Your focus for optimal performance lies not only in the 24 hours surrounding the race, but also in the weeks (or even months) leading up to it: The better you eat, the more nutrients you’ll absorb and the better your performance. “Finding your nutritional spirituality the night before the race isn’t enough,” says Donoghue. “Just like studying for a test—you can’t absorb everything you need to know by cramming for a few hours the night before.”
Hydration also plays a crucial role in your prep. “Hydrating in the weeks leading up to a race is vital,” he says. “One product that I swear by in both training and during a race is nuun. It dissolves in your water in seconds and provides all the needed electrolytes. Tastes awesome, contains no sugar, and extremely portable.”
The Night Before the Race
No matter how tempting, resist that cookie, those chili fries, and that event-eve cocktail.
“If you’re looking to cramp, feel nauseous, and generally hate life on race day, then, by all means, wash your pizza and chips down with a glass of wine,” says Donoghue. “Not only will this food make you feel like death, but you put yourself at greater risk for injury and dehydration. Don’t be that person being taken off the course in the medical cart because you celebrated too early.”
Eating an adequate amount of carbs the day before a long race can also improve your performance, according to two studies cited by The New York Times. For every 2.2 pounds of your body weight, try to eat about a quarter-ounce of carbohydrates.
Donoghue recommends fueling up with plant-based starches like sweet potatoes, greens, squash, beets, and lean proteins such as fish and poultry. “Fish contains healthy fats, but you can also add some nuts to your greens to the same effect,” says Donoghue. “I feel energized, lean, and focused after a light clean meal—it gives me lots of sustainable energy, protects me against dehydration, and helps prevent tissue breakdown.”
The Morning of the Race
Timing your meal properly on race day is imperative. “Your blood supply should be going to your muscles when racing, not your digestive system,” says Donoghue. “So don’t eat too close to a race or you’ll experience cramping and vomiting shortly after starting.”
His advice: Eat 90 minutes before race time, and stick to what you would normally eat for breakfast. “Don't try anything new on race day,” says Donoghue. You don’t know how this food will digest, affect your energy, or make you feel.
Research supports Donoghue’s advice to avoid adding new foods to your race day nutrition, especially if you’re prone to stomach issues. In a 2012 study by the American College of Sports Medicine, European researchers found that competitors with a “predisposition and history of gastrointestinal distress (GI)” were more likely to have GI issues during a competition. So to play it safe, eat the foods you know your stomach can handle.
Donoghue knows what works for him. “My favorite race-morning meal is a Boku SuperFoods shake with a little all-natural nut butter and fruit,” he says. “It’s the perfect way for me to supply maximum nutritional value into a very small serving size. If I get a little hungry after that I might have some fruit during warm-ups.”
As for your morning Joe? By all means, partake. “Coffee is a great way to increase blood flow,” says Donoghue. “Just don’t overdo it.”
During the Race
Race length, your physical condition, and race day temperature will determine what you should eat and drink during a competition. “I make sure I grab a cup of water at every water station because those 3 seconds may save me minutes later by keeping me cooler and hydrated,” Donoghue says.
Research published in the journal, Sports Medicine, found that if your race is longer than 90 minutes, is high intensity, or is in a warm climate, it’s best to plan a drinking strategy as part of your race day nutrition. Donoghue recommends carrying your own hydration pack for races that last longer than two hours, or on very hot days. “Keep powdered electrolytes to mix into your water, and have bars or things like Clif Bar Shot Bloks for quick energy boosts on hand. But remember: Whatever you pack you have to carry, so choose wisely.”
Related: Are You Getting Enough Electrolytes?
Right After the Race
Time to head to the beer tent, right? Slow down, says Donoghue. Help your body recover and replenish with some quality nutrients first. “The 30 minutes right after the race are vital and you should be ingesting quickly-absorbed proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.”
Have a small sandwich and some fruit, some chocolate milk, or even a shake to kick-start the recovery process and get your body back into working order before you drink alcohol.
The Evening After the Race
Once you’ve showered off the dust and grime and settled in for the evening, eat a meal of lean fish and tons of greens. “Both of these foods reduce inflammation and aid in recovery,” says Donoghue. “If you’re feeling celebratory, a good milkshake might be just what you’re looking for.”
After your celebration, review your race day nutrition plan. Consider what worked and what didn’t so you can finish your next Spartan Race with even more success.