Carbohydrates are crucial for runners, and hitting the wall due to fatigue can happen when a runner runs out of carbohydrates. During marathon week, runners should pay special attention to their carbohydrate intake. Carb loading is the traditional practice of runners eating more carbohydrates in the days leading up to a race to maximize glycogen stores. Runners racing for over 90 minutes should consider carbohydrate loading, as carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles and are the primary source of fuel for muscles during a race. Carb loading can help delay fatigue.
To optimize glycogen stores, research shows that two to three days of carbohydrate loading and rest can help. It’s important to balance your diet by not completely eliminating protein and fat for carbohydrates. Instead, aim for 4.5 to 5.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, and focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and dairy foods. Avoid eating extra food or more calories and keep portions consistent.
The day before the race, eat throughout the day with a focus on carbohydrate-rich foods. Easy carbohydrate options include grains such as rice, oatmeal, quinoa, pasta, baked and roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, bread, buns, toast, pancakes, bagels, tortillas, yogurt, juice, sports drinks, and fruits and vegetables (watch the fiber content). Instead of a heavy pasta dinner, eat a main pre-race meal for lunch and a lighter carbohydrate-rich dinner and a carbohydrate snack before bed.
On the morning of a half or full marathon, wake up three to four hours before the race and eat a meal that contains mostly carbohydrates with moderate protein and fat. Stick with what has worked for you in the past and try to eat one to four grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. The closer you get to the race, the smaller your meal should be.
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For runners participating in a 5K, following the “day before” plan of a marathon runner is a good idea. Nutrition for a 5K isn’t as crucial since the race is shorter and runners won’t be running for over 90 minutes. However, runners should still focus on eating healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, and small meals. Carb loading may not make a significant difference for a 5K, but it won’t hurt to try.