Anyone who has been involved in sports has either experienced a bonk—where you simply run out of gas mid-race—or the regurgitation, where you revisit undigested food during a competition. Meal timing around a race is tricky stuff, so to give us the lowdown on how to fuel up properly, without a bonk or a barf, we tapped Spartan Pro Team member and Spartan SGX trainer Kevin Donoghue.
“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. 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.” Here are the complete instructions.
The Weeks Before the Race
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.”
Donoghue also notes that hydration is an often overlooked component of pre-race training. “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 it might be, resist that cronut, those chili fries, and that social cocktail the night before your event.
“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.”
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Instead, 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.
“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 bloodflow,” says Donoghue. “Just don’t overdo it.”
During the Race
Race length, athlete conditioning, and temperature will determine what you should eat and drink during a race. “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.
Donoghue recommends carrying your own hydration pack for races that last longer than 2 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,” he says. “But remember: Whatever you pack you have to carry, so choose wisely.”
Right After the Race
Time to head to the beer tent, right? Slow down. Help your body recover and replenish with some quality nutrients before grabbing a brew. “The 30 minutes right after the race are vital and you should be ingesting quickly-absorbed proteins, fats, and carbohydrates,” says Donoghue.
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. Then you can enjoy a brew.
The Evening After the Race
Once you’ve showered off your dust and grime and settled in for the evening, prepare yourself 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.”