How to Eat for Fuel

by Ana Reisdorf

So maybe you’ve decided to challenge yourself and have recently signed up for an athletic event. Whether it is a marathon, triathlon, or another type of competition, you are ready to get moving and start your training. It is easy to find multiple training plans online for almost any type of athletic event, but a lot of people don’t realize the major values and benefits of creating a nutrition plan. 

A solid nutrition plan leading up to the race and a plan for fueling and refueling on race day can make all the difference in your success. Sarah Schlichter, Registered Dietitian of The Bucket List Tummy states, “I find that people often put so much focus on their running plan, but not enough on their nutrition plan. It goes without saying to never go into a marathon or any other race without practicing your nutrition beforehand.” So, how can you maximize your nutrition during training to ensure your success?


The first thing you want to do when training for any athletic event is to make sure you are eating enough to support the increase in activity. Sarah Gold Anzlovar, Registered Dietitian and owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, recommends always eating a quick digesting carb about an hour before you start your workout. This could be a piece of fruit, toast, or a granola bar. The important thing is to give your body something to use for energy. Then you will want to eat a balanced meal that includes carbs, protein, and healthy fats within an hour after your workout to prevent you from getting ‘rungry’ (runner’s hungry) and to help with recovery. A few examples would be salmon with a baked potato or a turkey sandwich with avocado.

In the few weeks before the event, Jaymar Saniatan, Registered Dietitian of Nutrition Phitness stresses the importance of starting to increase your carbohydrates a little at a time. She states, “properly carb loading will have the greatest impact on your endurance performance.” She suggests starting to experiment with carb-loading at least five weeks before your event to see how your body and your performance react to the change in your diet. Slowly add in a few more servings of high carb foods like an extra piece of bread or an additional serving of rice in order to help your body begin storing carbs for energy on race day.

In the five days before the event, aim at least 4.25 grams of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight or make 80 percent of your calories come from high carb foods. So, let’s say you weigh 150 pounds, you will need to eat around 638 grams of carbs in the few days leading up to race day. This will mean eating carb-dense foods like pasta, bread, cereals, and rice at every meal. Real food works great, but you can also try specialized gels, gummies, or bars to help get in some extra carbs. These types of products are not necessary, but are convenient, especially on the go.


Staying properly hydrated is easy to forget about, but targeted hydration is one of the most important factors in making sure you are successful during training and on race day. Dehydration can significantly impact performance.

About 2-3 hours before you start training, drink at least 16 ounces of water and then 15 minutes before drink 8 ounces. During your workout, aim to take in about 4 ounces every 20 minutes or more if you are exercising outside in the heat. It is important to hydrate after also. Aim to replenish with 16 ounces of water for every pound you might have lost during your workout.

Amanda Hibshman, Registered Dietitian, says hydration is not just about water, it is also about the right balance of electrolytes. She says, “while we normally think to limit salt in our foods, the sodium actually helps to retain the water you drink, instead of having it go right through you (which is the last thing you want during a long run). So make sure you are getting enough electrolytes during your long runs.” Alternating water with sports drinks may help you find the balance between adequate hydration and getting enough electrolytes.


Supplements can also help support your training efforts. Here are a few that you may want to consider due to their ability to lower inflammation and increase performance.


A study found that beetroot powder before exercise makes high-intensity exercise feel easier, allowing subjects to workout 14 percent longer. Beets help increase levels of nitric oxide in the body so you are able to use oxygen more efficiently. Add beetroot powder to your pre-workout smoothie, have some beet juice prior to training, or even munch on freeze-dried beets.

Omega-3 Fats

Exercise increases inflammation and during training, you will need something to help keep it at bay.  Omega-3 fats are ideal for helping to lower inflammation levels, reduce soreness, and speed up recovery. When choosing an omega-3, consider a supplement made from algae instead of fish. It will likely be less contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals and will be more concentrated in omega-3 fats.


Caffeine has been shown to boost exercise performance. But the response is dose-related, meaning there is a balance between it helping your performance and making you feel jittery and anxious. The response to caffeine seems to be personalized and based on the individual, so you need to experiment a bit to find the right dose for you. For most people, a cup of coffee about an hour before training is probably enough to give them a performance boost.

For Race Day

You have been training for months and you are totally ready for race day! Is your nutrition plan ready? Schlichter recommends trying different brands of gels, gummies, dried fruit, or other fast-acting carbohydrates before race day and having a nutrition and hydration plan ready in advance. She states, “Looking at the course ahead of time will tell you what products they’ll have available, (important to know if those work for you, otherwise you’ll want to bring your own options) and where the water stations are.”

With a little bit of preparation and a solid training and nutrition plan in place, you can make race day a success by fueling with the right nutritional diet.

NFM Staff
Author: NFM Staff

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