Optimal Performance Series for Endurance Athletes | Part 3

Nov 17, 2017Dairy Council® of Arizona, Optimal Performance Series

Part 3: Race Day

Damon McCune, ABD, MS, RDN, LD, Founder of Allied Performance, LLC, Co-Author of The Vertical Diet

For maximizing your performance on race day, having a structured training program that incorporates as many of the exact components you will use for the race will provide the best information to determine how you will likely feel and perform on the day that counts the most.


Regardless of the nutrition strategy you are following (i.e. high carb or low carb), the most critical component of race day programming is logistics. Be certain that you plan ahead and control as much as possible so there are no surprises when it comes to your nutrition. The last thing you want is a setback because you tried some new brand of gel, drink, or food that resulted in stomach distress. Practice with the exact same products and foods that you plan to use on race day. Additionally, practice the exact timing that you will be consuming these items during your training.

Also important, timing your sleep cycle to match the waking hour of your race day to ensure you are well rested. If you are traveling over several time zones, this could mean arriving to the race location a few days earlier to acclimate or adjusting your sleep routine to match the race’s time zone, if your schedule allows. Some experience digestive issues when their sleep is off schedule, so this will help to reduce the risk.


For the days leading up to race day, the recommendation is that your glycogen stores be at full capacity for optimal performance [1-5]. This can be accomplished by eating a consistent high-carbohydrate diet or by manipulating the last week and utilizing a carb loading protocol. Either strategy can be effective. I would recommend choosing the one that works best for you. How will you know? Because as we mentioned before, you will have incorporated these into your training to see how your body responds to each. If have not run a trial carb load before getting to race week, I would suggest avoiding the load and continuing a consistent intake similar to what you have been using to avoid any digestive distress.

The morning of the race

Ideally, you should be fully fueled and properly hydrated at the start of the race.  Depending on start time, some may do better with a large meal the night before and a small snack prior to the race. The body prefers using carbohydrate for energy as opposed to protein so carbohydrate intake is the priority.

Recommendations for carbohydrate intake are related to the start time of the race. Meaning, if you are eating within 1 hour of the race, the recommendation is to consume 1 g/kg (0.5 g/lb) body weight of carbohydrate; 2 hours – 2g/kg (0.9 g/lb); 3 hours – 3g/kg (1.4 g/lb), etc.

These numbers should be met by choosing foods that have been consistently consumed and digested well during training. For some, a more complex carbohydrate such as oatmeal works well as a pre-race meal, however, including sources of additional fiber such as nuts, seeds, and fruits may cause digestive stress. Other athletes do better with a simple carbohydrate like white rice. By adding some fat or protein, digestion is slowed similar to complex carbohydrates such oatmeal. I always recommend approaching this by consuming the foods that like you, not the other way around. Find out which foods you digest well and go with those.

During the race

Your in-race nutrition strategy needs to include carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluid and should be practiced extensively during training; consuming the exact foods or products that will be used during the race.

The recommended intake of carbohydrate is between 30 – 90 g/hour using a 4% -8% solution.

Recent data suggests that carbohydrate utilization during activity may be increased by combining two carbohydrate sources such as fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (simple sugar) [1, 6-13]. The addition of sodium and a small amount of caffeine (up to 100 mg) may further increase the body’s ability to utilize carbohydrate during activity [1, 6-13].  There is emerging research on incorporating ketone products; however, the data is insufficient at this time to make solid recommendations

Recommended sodium intake is 1 g/hour. Table salt is considered to contain 40% sodium so that would equate to about a teaspoon of salt per hour of activity. It is important to understand that this is not a “more is better” scenario with either of these items. Taking in too much could have devastating results by causing digestive distress or even osmotic diarrhea which will take you out of the race. Again, practice your intake during training to assess what level and source works best for you.

Post Race.

You just completed the race and you killed it!… but you’re exhausted and probably getting hungry. Now you need to replenish what was lost during the race to optimize recovery. The good news is that your body is literally starving for nutrients so the rate of replenishment mechanisms within the body is accelerated.

General recommendations for carbohydrate consumption within the first hour of the race is 1.5 g/kg (0.7g/lb) from a simple carbohydrate source. After the first hour, each hour over the next three hours, 0.75 – 1.5 g/kg (0.4-0.7 g/lb) is recommended [4, 14-19]. For a 150 lb athlete that would be 105 g within the first hour and then 60-105 g each hour for the next three hours with a total range of 285 – 420 g over that four-hour time period.

High quality protein should also be consumed [4, 14-19]. Chocolate milk, known as “nature’s sports drink”, is an excellent, low-cost, practical option since it provides both the high-quality protein as well as simple carbohydrates and electrolytes. The protein composition of milk is 80% casein and 20% whey. The combination of these proteins with the simple carbohydrates in chocolate milk delivers a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein which has been shown to enhance muscle protein response following strenuous exercise [14, 16-18, 20-27].  Chocolate milk can also conveniently contribute to replacing some of the fluid and electrolytes lost.

General fluid replenishment guidelines are ~16 oz for every pound of body weight lost [1, 8, 10-12, 20]. That means that weighing yourself right before and immediately after the race is important since you will also be consuming fluid during the race. You do not want to go overboard with water consumption while neglecting electrolytes. Over consuming water with very little electrolytes can put you at risk for a condition known as hyponatremia which can be fatal.

Bottom line.

It’s hard to see the forest from the trees so don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Every athlete is different so performing nutritional trials during your training is essential for formulating the best strategy for you. I suggest keeping a log and taking notes of the specific items, amount, timing, feeling, and results when training. This will help you develop a more objective sense of what is providing the most benefit.

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Damon McCune, ABD, MS, RDN, LD

Founder of Allied Performance and Co-Author of The Vertical Diet, Damon McCune is a Ph.D. Candidate in Exercise Physiology and Registered Dietitian. Over the last 15 years, Damon has had extensive experience in program development for some of the top athletes in the world in collaboration with leading medical professionals and researchers. Recently, Damon has served in roles as the Director of the Didactic Program in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Coordinator of Performance Nutrition for UNLV Athletics. Damon is also the former President of the Southern Nevada Dietetic Association. In his multifaceted roles, Damon has developed mechanisms to advance exercise science and nutrition education and broaden the reach of that information to optimize health and performance by incorporating simple, sensible, and sustainable training and nutritional techniques into a balanced lifestyle.

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