Any pre-race meal should contain an easily digested high complex carbohydrates with a some minimum of fiber, simple sugar, protein and fat. It is never a good idea to deviate from foods familiar to you through your regular lifestyle because of the possibility of stomach upset.
Just as important as what you eat is when you eat it. Generally it is agreed that the pre-race meal should be eaten 2-4 hours prior to the event, in order to have enough time to digest and to avoid intestinal distress.
Complex carbohydrates taken 2-4 hours prior to exercise raise blood glucose and improve performance. Within a few minutes of ingestion of carbohydrates insulin is secreted as a natural reaction from the body. In simple terms, insulin is a type of "sugar-carrier" to the cells. Its function is to aid in transporting glucose from the blood stream into various tissues in the body, mainly the muscles and liver. The most important reason behind having pre-race meal hours prior to the event is to allow all the intricate hormonal functions that are a part of insulin secretion and glucose transporting to return to base levels. In other words, we need this time to allow our bodies to "re-set" themselves. Why is this important? It is because if we do not allow this time for our bodies hormonal functions regarding insulin to return to normal we will cause our carbohydrate metabolism to increase during exercise. Our metabolism becomes less efficient, using/burning more calories on an hourly basis. This causes us to tap into reserves more quickly which will potentially put us in a deficit sooner than optimal performances would allow.
Remember that our bodies can only return 240-280 carbohydrate calories an hour back into the energy cycle even though we are burning many more calories than that. A very important part of our performance is determined by our ability to utilize stored fatty acids as energy, which is why we can continue to exercise on so seemingly few ingested carbohydrates during exercise. However, if our hourly carbohydrate expenditure is increased because of consuming a pre-race meal too soon to the start of the race, we are putting ourselves at a "metabolic disadvantage".
From the practical prospective, you should consider also that early start races can be difficult on the stomachs that won't take kindly to food at 4 am. Same apply to people who know that they can't race on full stomach or with solid food digesting inside. But to the most, the "real" breakfast may work best: eggs, potatoes, pancakes, cereals as a combination of this nutritional pre-race meal. Such meal can provide a comfort of the familiar foods while raising your blood triglycerides early in the day of the race, and minimizing any insulin spike from too much sugar before the race.
Athletes commonly talk about calories and grams consumed, but they rarely know their daily budget for these nutrients. Let's discuss how to calculcate your own personal nutrition budget. Practice using information below, and you will be able to intelligently use the Nutrition Facts on food packages, as well as gain a perspective on diet.
Your calorie budget
Knowing how many calories you need to eat is important information for both food label readers and calorie counters. After all, the only way to determine if "one serving" of breakfast cereal is too much or too little is to determine how it relates to your whole day's calorie needs. Here is a simplified way to determine your calorie budget.
Multiply your weight by 10 calories per pound. This number is an estimate of your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), the amount of fuel you burn simply doing nothing all day but existing: breathing, moving blood and other fluids, growing hair, etc. (example: if you weigh 140 pounds, your RMR is approximately 1,400 calories, 140 lbs x 10 cals/lb).
Add to your RMR about half of your RMR. This accounts for the calories you burn with moderate daily activity apart from your specific exercise/training. (example: a moderately active 140 pound person requires about 1,400 calories for the RMR + 700 more calories (50% x 1,400) for a moderately active lifestyle = 2,100 cals/day. Adjust this calorie estimate lower (or higher) if you are mostly inactive (or very active) during the day.)
Add more calories for your training. At health clubs, the exercise machines may offer a reasonable estimate of how many calories you burn. Runners can estimate about 100 calories per mile (based on a 140 pound person).
In general, you can guess about 400 to 600 calories per hour of aerobic exercise. Hence, a 140 pound person who does 45 minutes of aerobics might burn 300 calories per workout, bringing up daily needs to 2,400 calories per day.
To lose weight, subtract 20% of calories: 2,400 - (20% x 2,400 = about 500 cals) = 1,900 cals for a reducing diet.
Divide your calories evenly through the day: 2,400 daily calories = 800 calories for breakfast/a.m. snack, 800 for lunch/afternoon snack, and 800 for dinner/p.m. snack. The 1,900 calorie reducing diet translates into 600/700/600 calories.
Using these numbers and the calorie information on food labels, you can compare your intake to your needs. For example, "one serving" of cereal for 100 calories will leave you hungry if you deserve to eat 600 to 800 calories!
Your fat budget
For most active people, up to 25 percent of their calories can come from fat. This invests in your heart health, as well as allows for more carbohydrates to fuel the muscles. (example: 25% x 2,400 cals = 600 cals fat = 66 gms fat/day. Note: 1 gram fat = 9 calories)
If you have a family history of heart disease and your blood tests indicate your cholesterol is high (>200 mg/dl, and HDL is <50), you might want a lower fat diet with 20% of the calories from fat. (20 percent x 2,400 cals = 480 cals = 53g fat)
If you have been avoiding foods with more than 5 grams of fat, think again. A low fat diet differs from a no fat diet - and allows for a little fat at each meal. Preferably, you will choose a health-protective fat (olive oil, nuts, tofu, salmon, fish).
Your protein budget
In contrast to many popular diets which recommend 30 percent of the calories from protein, you should calculate your protein needs based on your body weight, not on your calorie intake. The following example shows the problems associated with calculating protein on percentage of calories. (example: 30 percent x 1,000 cals = 300 protein cals = 75g Protein; or 30 percent x 2,400 cals = 720 protein cals = 180g Protein)
For most athletes, 0.5 to 0.75 grams protein per pound of (appropriate) body weight is plenty. This means, a 140 pound person needs about 70 to 105 grams of protein per day. By reading the canned tuna label, for example, you can learn the whole can has 40 grams of protein and is a strong start to meeting your needs.
Calorie calculator models vs. your own stomach
Seriously consider implications of not consuming as many calories each and every hour during the race as your estimates would tell you. Mathematical models do not take in consideration the reality of forcing calories in during the state of fatigue, heat, upset stomach, etc... Trying to ingest and digest 500-plus calories every hour is maybe too much for a regular human being during the ultra event, and is going to potentially overburden your digestion system. Trying to take in as many calories as you will burn is a losing prospect; it is hard if not impossible to achieve. It is a common mistake ultra athletes make and something that should be considered to alter slightly. I am not telling anyone to change caloric intake protocol if you have found one that works for you. But you should be willing to alter it if needed. When it is scorching hot outside, taking in 500-plus calories is going to be taxing on your systems, and trying to accomplish this, while not allowing for any compromise in your race plan, can end up negatively affecting your physical and mental state.
Race performance will always suffer when athletes are not willing to alter or restructure their programs or goals, sticking to it too rigidly. So be flexible enough to recognize need for and to deal with it - no pressure to maintain religious hour after hour intake schedule. Do not feel that if, no matter how lousy you may have been feeling at any given time and unable to keep up your feeding schedule, you are "blowing it". Do not feel compelled to take in desired amount of calories hour after hour - listen to your body and do not force things. Be willing to compromise.
Race meals dosage
During the event try to get a lot of carbohydrate in very small doses. Again, to avoid an insulin spike, stay away from large amounts of simple sugar intake and take frequent small installments of a complex carbohydrates-based sportsdrinks/nutrition (complex carbos release their glucose slowly), or rotate your intake of sugary and complex carbos.
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