Fuelling your race, recovery

Be sure to fuel your body with nutritious foods as you prepare for race day.

With race day less than three weeks away, excitement for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM) is palpable. In my office, at least three of us are preparing for the half marathon – it will be my first – and two for the ultra-marathon.

As we take a breather between chasing deadlines or when we’re having lunch, we often talk about our training, our strategies and what we’re doing to keep ourselves focused.

Right now, my focus is on capitalising on our OptiFit training sessions to get stronger and faster, staying injury-free, avoiding getting ill, and eating well. The current OptiFit programme, offered by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), is nine weeks long and scientifically designed to prepare 10km runners for a half marathon.

For this week’s column, I asked registered dietician Shelly Meltzer for some advice on how runners can best fuel their training and recovery.

Fuelling your training

General principles are to match energy needs to training. So, on higher volume days, when you’re doing more than 10km to 15km, and especially when those sessions include intervals and hard uphills, you can increase your calorie/kilojoule intake. The exact amount, make-up and even timing of this extra fuel depend on several factors. It could be one banana for every 10km, or a sandwich, or a fruit or a few fresh dates. Focus on nutritious options, as the quality of all your food and drinks can also impact on your overall recovery and immune function.

Adapting as you approach race day

On your longer runs, practise and try out your race plan. Note how you feel (and how your gut feels) with using different types and amounts of carbohydrates from fluid (different sports drinks), gels and water, or snacks (sports bars, baby potatoes) consumed at different intervals.

If you are already matching your intake (quantity, quality, timing) to your training volume, you should be on track. On rest days, still focus on the quality of your food and drink choices, but cut back on quantity.

Foods to eat – and foods to avoid

The focus should always be on nutrient-rich options, as this gives you the best chance of capitalising on all the effort you have put into training. This becomes even more important if your overall calorie/kilojoule intake is on the lower end of the scale. Fresh and minimally processed foods should take priority – wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats. Also consider your fluid intake as a possible source of nutrients (e.g. milk) or as perhaps counter-productive to your training goals (e.g. alcohol or too much caffeine in the afternoon or evening if it impacts your sleep or recovery).


Carbo-loading is a strategy used to maximise muscle glycogen stores to delay the onset of fatigue when racing at high intensity for more than 90 minutes. More recent carbo-loading protocols involve significantly stepping up carbohydrate intake only in the 24 to 36 hours before a race and combining this with tapering and rest. However, for the 21km, if you are already consuming sufficient carbohydrates, the taper and rest before the race may be sufficient.

What to eat the night before the race

Food that you are used to having, that you have trained on and that you find easy to digest. It could be a meal with pasta or rice, rice noodles or sweet potato with lightly grilled and flavoured fish or chicken and some steamed vegetables, and some fresh or pureed fruit.

Breakfast on race day

Again, the “nothing new rule” applies. If you know you are going to be in a rush to the start-line, prepare your breakfast the night before – something like overnight oats and a banana or a chia-seed pudding with fruit compote. Or, in the morning, scramble some eggs, and have this with toast and fruit juice. Alternatively, a pancake with apple sauce and a coffee. If you have no appetite, have a tried-and-tested smoothie or sports bar with some fluid.

Eating along the route

Carbohydrates may be of benefit (more important if you skipped breakfast). You can also get carbohydrates from fluid if you have the sports drinks or Coke available en route or your own gel with water. If you have trained on carbohydrates, then follow through with this. If you prefer to eat something – a few sweets, nougat, sports bar, fruit flakes or even baby potatoes are options.

Staying hydrated

Thirst is generally well-regulated so all you really need to do is start off normally hydrated in the morning and then, during the race, drink when you are thirsty, having small sips of water (or sports drink or Coke) at regular intervals. If it’s a hot day, have a little more, but you should never put on weight in the run.

Chantel Erfort is the editor of CCN, which publishes this paper and its 14 sister titles. To track her journey, follow @editedeating or #editedeating OMTOM on social media.