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* Eating Right for Distance and Competition

Eating Right for Distance Training and Competition

Eating Right for Distance Training and Competition


Parents often ask questions regarding when and what to feed their sons and daughters prior to distance runs and competitions.  It’s understandable that parents and athletes might be confused about the appropriate foods to serve and when they should be provided.  There’s a plethora of literature available addressing appropriate diets for health and fitness.  However, while many of these writings target the nutritional aspects of the diet, few take into consideration the pre-workout or pre-competition aspects of the athletes’ diet.

In this writing, I’ll focus more on which foods to eat and which foods to avoid, and when to provide these, in order to optimize performance.  I’ll avoid going down the road of general nutritional advice, assuming that most of our parents have a good handle on what is healthy and what’s unhealthy.  However, I will touch on the “food group” basics to provide a foundation for the discussion to follow.

The difficulty for a distance runner lies in striking the critical balance between ingesting enough of the nutrients required to fuel and generate energy while avoiding the mistake of having too much food in the stomach when approaching an event.  Whether running a workout or running in competition, the athlete is better served having as little food remaining in the digestive tract as possible.  The old saying, “the hungry dog fights best” certainly applies to distance runners.  The problem with having food in the digestive system is two fold; first, the action of running causes a jarring to the body which stirs up food remnants and can lead to gastrointestinal problems.  Second, the process of digesting food diverts blood from the major muscle groups (in order to assist in the digestive process).  This detour of blood robs the muscles of critical oxygen and nutrients required in the generation of energy.  Therefore, the key to optimization lies in finding a means to provide the body with nutrients while at the same time minimizing the amount of food in the digestive tract prior to running.

The Basics

Effective and efficient distance running demands that the body is properly fueled.  The following nutrients are necessary in order for the body to efficiently convert fuel to energy:

Proteins (builds muscle, secondary as a fuel for energy)

Carbohydrates (provides the most efficient fuel)

Minerals (especially magnesium, potassium, sodium)

Vitamins (essential in daily function and assist in conversion of fuel to energy)

Water (important in the cooling process and assist in the conversion of fuel to energy)

Oxygen (basic in sustaining life, but also required in the conversion of fuel to energy)

Fat (needed in limited quantity, secondary as a fuel for energy)

Proteins are important in cell replacement and the building of muscles.  We all need adequate supplies of protein for every day life; athletes need additional protein to repair damaged tissue and build strength.  Proteins can also provide fuel for the generation of energy.  However, the human body prefers carbohydrates and then (secondly) fats for the energy cycle. Using protein to generate fuel is less efficient than burning carbohydrates or fats.  Complex proteins can take up to 48 hours to fully digest and therefore large volumes of these proteins should be avoided as you approach a workout and especially prior to competition.  Therefore, you may want to target dinner as the meal to provide the larger volumes of proteins.  Breakfast can also be used to supply moderate portions of proteins.   Some examples of high protein foods include (but are not limited to); meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, lentils, and legumes.

Carbohydrates provide the primary source of energy for moderate and prolonged exercise.  Of all foods, carbohydrates are the most easily digested and most economically converted to glycogen which is the raw fuel used to power the human engine.  Having glycogen readily available in the bloodstream is key in providing energy for running distances over 300 meters.  Carbohydrates should therefore be considered as an important component of meals leading up to competitions.  In addition, since carbohydrates are easily digested, this is the preferred food group to be consumed as the athlete approaches competition.  Examples of food high in carbohydrates include (but are not limited to); grains, cereals, potatoes, bread, pasta, rice, many vegetables, fruits, cakes, crackers, and cookies, etc)

Water, vitamins and minerals are all extremely important to the athletes’ performance.  Although these do not provide the substance for energy, they facilitate the process.  It’s important that each athlete consume adequate quantities of minerals, vitamins and water.  Special attention should be provided to the intake of water throughout the day, especially in the warmer months.  Athletes need to focus on drinking water often and throughout the day.  Consistent and continual consumption of minerals and vitamins is also important.  While running distances, it’s important that the athlete does not restrict food intake without consulting a doctor or dietician.  Foods are the most effective source of minerals and vitamins.  Rather than restricting food intake, the athlete in training should look at what types of foods to consume and the quality of those food products.

Meals for Training

Ideally, lunch should be light and eaten early enough in the day to allow items to be partially digested.  Attempt to eat foods made up primarily of carbohydrates (pastas, sandwiches, rice).  Some meats are more difficult to digest than others.  Red meats are the most difficult to digest; therefore the athlete should avoid large portions of beef or other red meats.   If meat is to be consumed at lunch, foul is preferred.  Moderate portions of chicken or turkey can be digested easier than heavier meats and are less likely to cause distress.  Avoid spicy dishes and vegetables (onions, peppers, radishes, etc).  Each athlete is different; some runners can eat foods that others couldn’t image eating.  I’ve known runners who could eat fairly large meals up to an hour before exercising.  Use discretion and find a routine that works for an athletes’ individual preference.

Many athletes discover an intolerance for certain foods prior to workouts.  A couple of the foods that a runner is most likely to struggle with include; dairy products, acidic fruit juices.

Some workouts are also more intense than others and the athlete needs to keep this in mind while selecting his or her lunch fare.  On those days where we run interval workouts, the athlete will want to be extra careful not to eat too much and should avoid those meals that are known not to sit well, i.e., Chipotle burritos.  However, athletes who eat a light, early lunch may find themselves getting a little hungry in the early afternoon.  A light snack an hour or so before practice shouldn’t interfere with their ability to perform, assuming that the snack consist of appropriate foods.  Crackers make a perfect pre-workout snack.  Avoid proteins, spicy foods and foods with high sugar content as you approach the workout.

Dinner should be a complete meal addressing all of the runners’ nutritional requirements.  Since proteins are often avoided in the hours leading up to a workout, dinner time is the perfect time to address this need.

Breakfast is another opportunity to provide any of the nutrients that the runner may need or crave.  It strongly advised that the athlete in training eat a substantial, nutritious breakfast, especially on those days where the lunch needs to be light.  Since breakfast is served about nine hours prior to the workout, it’s not as important that the runner avoid specific foods.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply on race day.

Meals Leading Up to Competition

Preparation for competition is very much like preparing for a workout, just slightly exaggerated.  Preparation for a race will begin at least 24 hours ahead of the event.  In preparing the pre-race dinner, it’s not so much what you eat, as it is what you shouldn’t eat.  When preparing for competition the runner should begin limiting the amount of protein consumed during the day prior the race.  An absence of protein assures that the digestive tract will be relatively empty at the time of competition.  In lieu of meats, gear meals towards potatoes, pastas, breads and vegetables.

In the 1970s marathoners began a ritual called “carbohydrate loading”.  This is a process where, in the days proceeding a race, the runner gorges on pastas, breads and other carbohydrates in an effort to load the body with carbohydrates and saturate the bloodstream with glycogen.  Carbohydrate loading has since become an important preparatory routine for marathoners and ultra marathoners.  The technique has additionally been adopted by middle and long distance runners, even though athletes running distances shorter than 10 miles are unlikely to benefit from carbohydrate loading.   What these runners do benefit from is that fact that they’ve consumed meals that are low in protein.   Given this scenario, the blood stream will be loaded with glycogen and an empty digestive tract will limit the likelihood that he or she will suffer from gastrointestinal problems.

Other (day before) dinner foods that runners find to be beneficial include; salads, mild vegetables and fruits (with low acidity).

In preparing the pre-race breakfast, again try to avoid serving proteins.  But don’t go overboard; stay practical.  For instance, a little milk in a bowl of cereal is not likely to cause any problems.  However, carbohydrates are preferred.  Lean towards serving toast, cereals, pancakes, waffles, etc.  Avoid large consumption of milk or highly acidic juices.  Drinks like water, tea, grape juice or sports drinks are safer.

If the athlete is competing in a morning event, strive to serve breakfast at least 3 hours prior to the start of the competition and don’t over eat.

Some people have gained the false impression that if the stomach is empty, then the athlete doesn’t have fuels to aid in competition.  This is absolutely false.  The fuels used in today’s competition were consumed yesterday.

The pre-race lunch should be light and consist of foods that are easily digested and unlikely to cause gastro-intestinal problems.   Avoid steaks and other meats, beans, onions, peppers, curry and vegetables that could cause heartburn.  Seek out potatoes, breads and pastas.  Also avoid milk and acidic juices (like orange and grapefruit).  Tea, some juices and sports drinks are preferred.

As competition nears, some athletes feel uncomfortable with an empty stomach.  A pre-race snack is not necessary and does little to benefit the athlete, other than making them feel less hungry.  But if the athlete feels a pre-race snack is needed, stick to breads, crackers or low sugar cookies.  These digest easily and are less likely to cause problems.

Be careful to limit consumption of sugar over final two hours prior to the start of the race.


Timing is everything.   Essential for the distance runner is the need to feel comfortable while competing or training.  In order to be comfortable, the runner needs to have a reasonably empty stomach.  Therefore, work hard to time meals to meet the needs of the athlete, but optimize performance by minimizing what’s in the stomach at the time of a workout and/or meet.

The distance runner has special needs.  Distance running takes high energy.  Fuels are derived primarily from consumption of carbohydrates.  However if carbohydrates are unavailable the body resorts first to burning fats and then to protein.

Distance training also breaks down and re-builds muscle tissue.  Protein is essential in this process.  Also essential are fluids, vitamins and minerals.  Therefore a distance runner needs to consume enough of the right foods to assure that all of these needs are address.  Supplements such as multiple vitamins, minerals and/sports drinks might also assist in assuring that these needs are addressed.  However, take care that supplements are consumed in moderation.

A balanced diet that provides all of the nutritional elements required by the distance runner is paramount.  Avoid carbonated beverages and foods high in processed sugars and sweeteners.