Nutrition Q & A: Getting real with pre-event meals

Question: “I understand that my pre-race meal should contain a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, but it’s difficult to find concrete examples to follow. What are some real food examples that I could eat before my race?” 

Answer: Eating a balanced meal or snack about 3-4 hours before your race will allow your body to digest the nutrients and allow the food to move lower in the gastrointestinal tract so as to prevent cramping or abdominal discomfort. Providing your body calories from whole, un-processed carbohydrate sources along with moderate amounts of protein and fat will give your body a steady supply of energy vs. a quick burst of energy. The size of the meal will depend on many factors: your size (weight/height), how much time you have before the event, your hunger level, the duration and intensity of the event, and your tolerance to food before an event.

Here are some quick meal combinations that you can eat 3-4 hours before your race. To add more nutrient-dense calories, add a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of milk if desired.

  • Whole grain cereal like oatmeal, kasha, quinoa or millet, topped with walnuts or mix in nut butter, flax seeds and low fat milk (or soymilk, almond milk, rice milk or hemp milk).  Add fresh or frozen berries for extra flavor, carbohydrates and fiber.
  • Mixed vegetable stir fry over brown rice or quinoa. (Try adding chicken, shrimp, scallops, beef, or seasoned tofu cubes for additional protein). Use frozen vegetable stir-fry mixture for less prep. Brown rice cooks well in a rice cooker or purchase pre-cooked brown rice that boils in a bag or microwave. Quinoa cooks in 10-15 minutes and provides an amazing array of vitamins & minerals.
  • Soup: (homemade/carton/can/dehydrated) vegetable, split pea, black bean, chili, lentil, turkey, wild rice, or chicken soup (add extra vegetables: pre-cut/frozen/pre-washed) Top with sliced avocado and/or shredded cheese and serve with whole grain crackers (Ak-mak) or a hearty whole grain roll.
  • Veggie, tempeh, buffalo or turkey burger on a whole grain bun or whole wheat pita bread with a slice of cheese, spinach or dark green lettuce, red-bell peppers, tomato, sprouts, cheese and/or sliced avocado.
  • Baked potato/sweet potato (eat the skin too) topped with turkey or vegetarian chili, cottage cheese &/or plain yogurt, topped with salsa and low-fat sour cream or avocado (microwave potato). Sweet potatoes are rich in antioxidants!
  • Brown rice and black bean (if using canned beans, rinse and reheat in fresh water) burrito (in a whole wheat tortilla) with salsa, lettuce, avocado, and cheddar cheese.

For 1-2 hours before your race, choose smaller portions of above or try these quick ideas:

  • Whole grain waffles or pancakes (whole grain, frozen available) smothered with tahini (sesame seed butter) or nut butter, all-fruit jam, sliced banana or peaches.
  • Sliced cherry or heirloom tomatoes, dash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper,  chopped fresh basil on toasted whole wheat sourdough bread.  Top with mozzarella, goat cheese &/or avocado.
  • Slice of veggie pizza.  Use whole grain crust/English muffin: top w/tomato sauce or olive oil, spinach leaves, feta cheese, sun- dried tomatoes & artichoke hearts – Use broiler/oven to heat.
  • Turkey or smoked tofu sandwich on whole grain bread w/mustard, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, sprouts and avocado.
  • Fresh fruit, small whole grain muffin (homemade – a bonus) with low fat milk, yogurt or soy milk

Some can’t tolerate any solid foods before their event, so a liquid meal may be best. Make a traditional fruit and yogurt smoothie, but add ¼ – ½ cup dry rolled oats to add some complex carbohydrates. It blends well and will satisfy you much longer than you think!

Others may not tolerate food items like beans, chili, vinegars or dairy before a race, so it’s best to experiment well in advance. Try out these options or your own favorite combinations during training; that way you will know what works best for you before race day.  You’ll find that once you dial in your nutrition routine, your body has a faster reaction time – something you’ll need especially at the end of your race. Your recovery will also speed up due to having ample amino acids and glycogen on board for your body to draw on, versus taking these from your muscle tissues.

Fuel your body right! It deserves it.

Heather D’Eliso Gordon, RD, CSSD