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What Is the Purpose of Race Nutrition?

Don't lose track of why you're fueling during a race.

The purpose of race nutrition is to get you to the finish line quicker. In other words, the purpose of race nutrition is to maximize your performance in competition. It’s pretty simple. If something you put in your mouth during a race helps you reach the finish line faster, it’s good. If it doesn’t, it’s pointless at best, counterproductive at worst.

These days runners are becoming increasingly confused about the true objective of nutrition during races. All kinds of alternative goals are cropping up and distracting runners from the one thing that really matters: performance. I want to save you from these distractions. To that end, let’s have a look at the four most commonly pursued false objectives of race nutrition.

The purpose of race nutrition is not to improve your overall health.

The most performance-enhancing “foods” you can possibly consume during a race are sports drinks and energy gels that contain simple sugars such as sucrose and glucose and not much else. But foods that contain simple sugars and not much else are also among the least beneficial foods for overall health.

The healthiest foods you can eat in everyday meals are things like Brussels sprouts, fish, and cashews. But if you tried to eat any of these foods during a race, you would discover that it had a decidedly negative effect on performance. But these healthy foods are among the worst things you could choose to fuel a race.

In short: nutrition for maximum running performance and nutrition for maximum health do not go together.

No runner in his or her right mind would ever try to eat broccoli during a race, of course, but many runners do try to avoid consuming sugar in competition because of health concerns. The problem with such avoidance is that anything you consume as a healthier alternative to refined sugar during a race will have either a less beneficial effect or an outright negative effect on your performance.

Even fruit, which contains natural fructose sugar but also a lot of other stuff (like fiber), doesn’t measure up. A 2012 study, for example, found that cyclists were able to complete a long time trial significantly faster when they fueled themselves with a sugary sports drink than when they relied on bananas and water

So what should you do? Relax. You can be a healthy person without insisting that every single thing you ever put in your mouth is healthy. A race is one small circumstance where it is best to forget about health and eat/drink for a different purpose: performance.

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The purpose of race nutrition is not to have the yummiest meal of your life.

Recently I worked with a runner who asked me to help him with his race nutrition after he bonked in a marathon. In our initial consultation I learned that he had taken water instead of a sports drink from the aid stations because he didn’t like the flavor of the sports drink. I told him that’s why he had bonked.

Another recent client of mine told me she used energy chews in marathons instead of energy gels because the chews tasted better to her. I informed her that runners need to consume at least 30 grams of carbohydrate (in the form of simple sugars) per hour to maximize their race performance. One packet of energy gel supplies close to that amount. But it takes no fewer than 10 energy chews to reach that threshold.

It’s important to base your race fueling plan on what works best, not on what tastes best. If you can have it both ways, great, but if you have to sacrifice performance or taste, sacrifice taste. The most effective way to get the fluid and carbohydrate needed to maximize performance is to drink the sports drink offered at aid stations and to supplement this with energy gels that you carry on your person. I know that some of these products don’t taste very good, but if you can hold your nose and eat the yucky food that a dinner party host serves you for the sake of politeness, then surely you can gulp down nasty-flavored sports drinks and energy gels in a race for the sake of the performance benefits they offer.

The purpose of race nutrition is not to completely prevent gastrointestinal discomfort.

Lately, runners are becoming more and more concerned about gastrointestinal discomfort during races. It’s gotten to the point where many runners seem more concerned about using (or not using) nutrition to keep their tummy happy in competition than they are about exploiting nutrition for better performance.

Runners are very quick to blame any GI discomfort they experience during races on what they drank or ate, but the true primary cause of such symptoms is an innate individual susceptibility. If you are unfortunate enough to have this susceptibility, you are likely to suffer GI discomfort in competition no matter what you consume, and perhaps even if you don’t consume anything.

That being said, consuming too much carbohydrate or fluid increases every runner’s risk of developing an unhappy tummy. This risk should not cause you to be over-conservative in your race nutrition practices, though. Research has shown that consuming larger amounts of carbohydrate in competition enhances performance even when it does cause mild GI distress. It is normal to feel a little queasy and bloated in the stomach in the late miles of a marathon. This is no cause for panic. The goal of finishing a marathon with a perfectly calm digestive system makes about as much sense as the goal of finishing a marathon without any muscle soreness.

Whether you are susceptible to GI discomfort in races or you have a cast-iron stomach like me, you should aim to drink by thirst and consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. If you can’t manage it, then determine the maximum rates of fluid and carbohydrate consumption you can tolerate and aim for those numbers. But for Pete’s sake, don’t aim any lower in a misguided effort to completely prevent even the mildest GI symptoms!

RELATED: What’s the Deal With GI Distress?

The purpose of race nutrition is not to disappear.

Within the past several years I’ve observed a change in how some endurance athletes boast about their race results. People used to say things like, “I finished fifth in my age group!” Now they say things like, “I finished fifth in my age group and I only took in 40 grams of carbs the whole way!”

Those who say such things have been taught to believe that carbohydrate is needed during races only by athletes who are physiologically “carb-dependent.” Athletes who train themselves to become “fat adapted, on the other hand, are free from this crutch and able to perform optimally with little or no mid-race carb consumption. Fat adaptation is achieved by maintaining a low-carb diet in training and by restricting carb intake during workouts.

This entire doctrine is false. Carbohydrate consumption during races enhances performance regardless of how fat-adapted an athlete is. In fact, the more carbs an athlete—any athlete—consumes, the more pronounced this performance-boosting effect is. Obviously, there is a limit to how much carbohydrate an athlete can absorb in competition, but every athlete performs best when he or she takes in carbs at a rate that falls just shy of this personal limit.

The ability of the muscles to burn fat at high rates during intense exercise is a good thing. But this ability increases automatically as a natural effect of normal training. Athletes should not go out of their way to truly maximize their fat-burning capacity with low-carb diets because research has shown that this cannot be done without a commensurate decline in carbohydrate-burning capacity. And when carb-burning capacity decreases, so does performance. Since the 1960s, 22 peer-reviewed studies have looked at the effects of low-carb diets on endurance performance. Thirteen of these studies have reported a negative effect; only two have reported a positive effect.

Follow the Leaders

The approach to race nutrition that I’ve recommended in this article— relying on sports drinks and energy gels formulated with simple sugars, drinking by thirst, and consuming at least 30 and ideally 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour—is not merely my opinion of the right way to go. Nor is it merely supported by science, although it most certainly is supported by science. It is also the approach to race nutrition that is taken by nearly all elite runners, whose livelihoods depend on their performance. Remember this the next time you’re tempted to try any other approach to race nutrition in pursuit of any goal other than maximum performance.

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