The sun slowly drags itself over the horizon, and hundreds of people are clad in shades of stretchy neon fabrics, numbers pinned to their midsections. A casual glance around the crowd will provide mild entertainment as the people jump up and down in place, perform contortions to limber their muscles, and stand in line at the portable bathrooms. As they are herded to a starting line with pumping music, it’s hard not to wonder what these people ate for breakfast to give them the energy to go the distance.
Next to baseball players, runners are some of the most superstitious athletes you’ll find. One of the most highly ritualized acts they perform is the delicate balance of what is consumed before a race, especially the night before. Once a runner finds out what combination of food, drink and timing works precisely to best fuel their bodies without creating a potential disaster on the race course, it becomes as important to the runner as the gear that they wear or the stretches they perform prior to lining up for the start.
Most runners agree that pre-hydrating and eating carbohydrates — known as carb-loading — the night before is important. Columbia attorney Suzanne Duff, a pavement pounder for nearly five years, runs everything from 5Ks to half marathons, doesn’t put much thought into her food ritual before shorter distances but always goes with the familiar.
“On the morning of, for all distances of races, I have green juice, coffee and peanut butter toast, which is pretty common” she says. “But for a half marathon, I do ultra hydration and carb-loading the day before.”
Carbs with a sugary component are a common theme among runners. The morning of a race, local runner Brie Turner-McGrievy has a small half bagel with almond butter and jam. And of course, coffee can’t be forgotten for the initial boost of caffeination. Turner-McGrievy adds a touch of nostalgia to hers by drinking out of the mug she received for running the Ray Tanner 12K in 2012.
What runners eat and drink the night before a race is just as important as what they eat the morning of.
“I love spaghetti, marinara sauce and veggie meatballs from Trader Joe’s paired with a salad and Italian bread,” Turner-McGrievy says. “I’ll also have a glass of wine to calm the pre-race jitters the night before.”
Beer, she adds, is too hard on her stomach and is something she avoids too close to race time. As an assistant professor in the University’s of South Carolina’s Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior, with a passion for the 10K distance, understanding the behaviors that people put into their health habits is especially fascinating to her.
Sometimes it takes some mistakes to figure out what will and won’t work, as in the case of Julie Culclasure’s experience.
“I learned the hard way that a Big Mac at 3 a.m. will not be properly digested by the start of a 5-mile race at 8 a.m.,” she says. “I still indulge in ‘bad’ foods, but I try to avoid those things days before a run.”
Culclasure, who works at Blue Cactus Café, has also learned that timing is everything, and tries not to eat too late the night before a race, no matter the distance. She likes to go the carb route with a simple pasta dish that includes a bit of protein. Timing on the morning of is just as important, and her breakfast of a bagel with either goat cheese, hummus or peanut butter smeared on top, plus coffee, has to be consumed at least and hour and a half before the start.
“Nothing worse than the feeling of running with a full stomach,” she says.
And as those energetic runners cross the finish line with the sheen of sweat on their forehead and the taste of quickly consumed orange slices on their lips, the calories from last night’s dinner or the morning’s breakfast are all but burned off — and the next thought is, “OK, now what’s for lunch?”
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