Nutrition is an important part of race day, including breakfast before your race. Getting your race day breakfast right is important. Too much or the wrong foods can result in stomach problems. Too little and you might prematurely run out of energy. It can be tricky to perfect what to have and when. Science can provide some guidance on carbohydrate intake and intake of other nutrients, but a lot comes down to individual preference. Let's look at several important factors you should consider when planning your race day breakfast...
Carbohydrates are king
Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to have in your race day breakfast because your body will be relying heavily upon these as a fuel source during a race. The body can only store a limited amount of glycogen in the liver, and overnight liver glycogen stores are substantially reduced (1). Therefore, it is important that these stores are fully topped up before you begin your race in order to maximise performance. Some carbohydrate may even end up in the muscle although muscle glycogen loading should be done the day or days before.
Everyone is different when it comes to how much carbohydrate they can tolerate before a race
It is recommended to consume 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kg (g/kg) of body mass in the 1-4 hours before exercise (2). This is quite a large range, which can result in a variety of scenarios. For example, one person could be having 1 g/kg of carbohydrate 4 hours before a race, while another could be having 4 g/kg of carbohydrate 1 hour before a race, and both would be meeting the recommendations. It seems to make sense to consume a larger meal if there is more time before the start and a smaller meal if there is less time available.
Everyone is different when it comes amount and timing of carbohydrate intake before a race, and therefore the recommendations should be tailored to your individual preferences. Foods high in carbohydrate include toast, bagels, porridge, cereal, rice, scotch pancakes, cereal bars, bananas.
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 stomach discomfort when eating too close to exercise, then you will benefit from eating further away from the race (i.e. 3-4 hours before). However, if this is not an issue then enjoy those extra couple of hours in bed and have your pre-race breakfast closer to start time.
It is important to get a balance between adequate sleep, appropriate fuelling and a comfortable gut
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. Both solid and liquid forms of carbohydrate similarly promote the resynthesis of glycogen after an overnight fast, making them equally suitable options (3). If you find that eating a sufficient amount at once is an issue, 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.
Foods to avoid or limit?
Certain foods can increase the likelihood of stomach discomfort during a race, in particular fibre. This is because fibre takes longer to digest, which can mean it may still be sat in your stomach when you are on the start line. Carbohydrates with a lower glycaemic index (GI) are often higher in fibre. Therefore, reducing low GI carbohydrates in your pre-race breakfast may alleviate symptoms (if you are prone to them), e.g. wholegrain bread, bran flakes, rolled oats, muesli, rye bread. If you cope well with digesting these foods, then they definitely do not need to be avoided.
Certain foods can increase the likelihood of stomach discomfort during a race, in particular fibre
Consuming too much fat pre-race can cause gut issues too because it slows the rate at which food is emptied from your stomach (4). Ideally by the time a race starts, the breakfast carbohydrates are stored and not still sitting in the stomach. High-fat breakfast items that you can avoid include bacon, sausages, cheese and pastries. Of course the longer time between breakfast and start, the less important this becomes. On the other hand if a breakfast is consumed shortly before competition, this becomes a very important factor.
Gastro-intestinal issues during exercise
It is often recommended to reduce fibre, fat and also protein content of a pre-race meal. This is because these factors have been linked with gastro-intestinal issues. For some the use of lactose containing products has also been linked to a greater risk of stomach issues. See this blog on gastro-intestinal problems during exercise. Even with no food intake, gastro-intestinal problems may occur. Whilst food intake often contributes to gastrointestinal issues, it is important to note that this is not always the cause. Stress hormones, anxiety, intensity/duration of exercise and hydration can all play a role too.
Eating too close to the start
If you eat close to the start it is possible that hypoglycaemia will develop. Even though we have seen that hypoglycaemia does not seem to affect performance, it is never great to experience the symptoms of hypoglycaemia during the early parts of exercise and it is best avoided. Why hypoglycaemia may occur is explained in this blog on pre-exercise carbohydrate feeding. It is easy to prevent by consuming lower glycemic index carbohydrate, by eating earlier (more than 1.5 h before) or eating just before the start (5 min or at most 10 min before).
Practice is key…
It is important to practice your race day breakfast in terms of both content and timing so that you aren't trying anything new or unfamiliar on race day. Start practicing well in advance of your big race, during key training sessions of a similar intensity and length, and smaller races. This will give you time to perfect your breakfast so that you have confidence in it on race day.
Race day breakfast examples
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 eg jam, peanut butter (smaller amounts), Nutella (smaller amounts). Choose white bread if you struggle to digest high fibre foods.
Porridge with toppings eg peanut butter (smaller amounts), jam, fruit compote, fruit, honey.
Fruit-based smoothie with oats in.
Cereal bars – these could be homemade to meet your preferences, or shop bought.
Bowl of cereal – lower fibre options include Cornflakes, Rice krispies, Special K, Cheerios.
Homemade rice cakes, or a bowl of rice with honey.
Banana with peanut butter.
Banana pancakes – you can add toppings eg honey, yogurt, cinnamon, fruit.
Now to plan your carbohydrate intake during the race. Head here to read about recommendations for carb intake during exercise.
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. 2016;116(3):501–28.
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;