Breakfast on race day (and also before big training days) is important. Getting it right means you will be well-fuelled at the start, getting it wrong can mean that you are not well-fuelled and/or have increased the risk of developing stomach problems. Breakfast on race morning is also a struggle for many because it is often very early and it not easy to eat when race anxiety has kicked in. So how do we make sure the breakfast before your big event delivers the energy we need, does not result in GI problems and is practical?
Carbohydrates are king!
Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to have in your race day breakfast (see ‘What is a carbohydrate?’). Why is carbohydrate important? Well, for the vast majority of events it is the most important fuel, yet it is a fuel that has relatively small stores in your body. So, if there is not enough fuel in the tank at the start, chances are you will run out at some point and this will have effects on performance. Carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in the muscle and in the liver. The body can only store a limited amount of glycogen, and overnight liver glycogen stores are substantially reduced (the brain uses liver glycogen as a source of glucose during the night). Therefore, it is important that these stores are fully topped-up before you begin your race in order to maximize performance. The general recommendation is to consume 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kg (g/kg) of body mass in the 1-4 hours before exercise. This is a very large range, and therefore perhaps not so useful. If the breakfast can be 3-4 hours before the start of a long race, I would ingest 3-4g/kg of carbohydrate and if I only had 1-2 hours before a race, I would choose1-2g/kg . I would also consider taking some carbohydrate just before the start (5-10 min before) (read more in: Should I eat or drink in the hour before a race?)
Examples of foods that are high in carbohydrates:
- Scotch pancakes
- Cereal bars
Toast, bagels, pancakes and cereal are very high in carbohydrate, and are great pre-race breakfast options.
Getting a balance…
With many endurance events starting early in the morning, it is important to get a balance between adequate sleep, appropriate fuelling and a comfortable gut. If you often suffer from gastrointestinal stress when eating too close to exercise, then you will probably benefit from eating further away from the race (i.e. 3-4 hours before). However, if you do not find that this is an issue then enjoy those extra couple of hours in bed and have your pre-race breakfast a bit closer to the start time.If you struggle to stomach food before a race even when leaving a significant gap between eating and racing, then try liquid forms of carbohydrate instead. For example, a sports drink or a smoothie. Studies have shown that both solid and liquid forms of carbohydrate similarly promote the resynthesis of glycogen after an overnight fast. This makes them an equally suitable, alternative option. If you find that eating a sufficient amount all in one sitting is an issue, then try having several smaller snacks distributed throughout the morning. For those that struggle with eating prior to a race or training, it is worth considering training your gut to reduce the issues that you experience. More information here
Are there any foods that you should avoid or limit?
Certain foods can increase the likelihood of you experiencing gastrointestinal distress during a race. Specifically, fiber in your pre-race breakfast can cause this. This is because fiber takes longer to digest, which can mean it may still be in your stomach when you are on the start line (see ‘What is fiber?’).. This can lead to bloating and other gastrointestinal disturbances, which could be costly to race day performance. Carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index (GI) are typically higher in fiber. If you are prone to gastrointestinal issues, then try reducing the amount of low GI carbohydrate sources in your pre-race breakfast and see if this alleviates symptoms. What are considered low GI carbohydrate sources?
Low GI carbohydrate sources include wholegrain bread, bran flakes, rolled oats, muesli and rye bread. If you cope well with digesting these foods, then they definitely do not need to be avoided and are great sources of carbohydrate to have in your race day breakfast.
- Whole Grain Bread
- Bran Flakes
- Rolled Oats
- Rye Bread
What about fat intake before a race?
Consuming too much fat pre-race can cause gut issues, too. It significantly slows gastric emptying, which again means that it could still be in your stomach at the start of your race. In addition, your body will be expending a greater proportion of energy on digestion, which could contribute to premature fatigue. High-fat breakfast Items that you can avoid on race day include:
Whilst food intake often contributes to gastrointestinal issues, it is important to note that this is not always the cause. Stress hormones, anxiety, intensity and duration of exercise and hydration can all play a role too.
High-fat breakfast items that you should avoid on race day include bacon, sausage, cheese and pastries.
It is important to practice your race day breakfast before the actual day in terms of both content and timing. “What to eat before a race?” becomes the same question as “What to eat before running?” or “what to eat before riding?” Start practicing well in advance of your big event, during both training sessions of a similar intensity and length, and less important events. This will give you time to perfect your breakfast so that you can have confidence in it when it comes to actual race day. You do not want to be trying anything new or unfamiliar on race day – worst-case scenario is that it could end up costing you the race.
Starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and cereals have an important role in a healthy diet.
What could I incorporate into my pre-race breakfast?
Digestion starts as we chew our food. By chewing we cut up and grind the food into smaller pieces and at the same time the food mixes with saliva that contains enzymes (amylase) that start the breakdown of larger carbohydrates. When the food is swallowed it first enters the stomach and the stomach coordinates the release of the food into the small intestine. This is where the next steps of digestion take place. All carbohydrates have to be broken down to sugars before they can be absorbed.
How are carbohydrates absorbed?
Here are some practical examples that you can mix and match to fit your preferences in order to make up the perfect pre-race breakfast:
- Toast, bagels or crumpets with toppings e.g. jam, peanut butter, Nutella. Choose white bread if you struggle to digest high fibre foods.
- Porridge with toppings e.g. peanut butter, jam, fruit compote, fruit, honey.
- Fruit-based smoothie with oats in.
- Cereal bars – these could be homemade to meet your preferences, or shop bought.
- Overnight oats.
- Bowl of cereal – lower fiber options include Cornflakes, Rice Krispies, Special K, Cheerios.
- Fruit salad.
- Homemade rice cakes, or a bowl of rice with honey.
- Banana with peanut butter.
- Banana pancakes – you can add toppings e.g. honey, yogurt, cinnamon, fruit.
Rothman DL, Magnusson I, Katz LD, Shulman RG, Shulman GI. Quantitation of hepatic glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis in fasting humans with 13C NMR. Science (80). 1991. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 116(3):501–28, 2016. Keizer HA, Kuipers H, van Kranenburg G, Geurten P. Influence of liquid and solid meals on muscle glycogen resynthesis, plasma fuel hormone response, and maximal physical working capacity. Int J Sports Med. 1987; Gentilcore D, Chaikomin R, Jones KL, Russo A, Feinle-Bisset C, Wishart JM, et al. Effects of fat on gastric emptying of and the glycemic, insulin, and incretin responses to a carbohydrate meal in type 2 diabetes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006.