*The guidelines below for pre-workout nutrition were created utilizing my current knowledge of nutrition (M.S. Clinical Nutrition), and various credible scientific articles on sports nutrition. No hype, real nutrition education, and science. The focus of this blog is nutrition for optimal ultra-marathon performance. That being said, most of the information contained within this blog could be applied to any extended-duration endurance sport.
This is Part 2 of a 5 part series.
Pre-Workout Nutrition for Ultra-Runners
First of all, when I talk about “pre-workout” nutrition, I am not solely referring to the time immediately before a workout session. I am talking about the 2-3 hours leading up to the session, whether it be a workout session or a race. If you are trying to fuel optimally, pre-workout nutrition for workouts will look similar, if not the same, as races. Often, this amounts to breakfast and then whatever is taken in immediately before the session. This blog aims to answer some common questions associated with pre-workout nutrition for ultra-running training sessions and ultra-marathon performance. Keep in mind what we are talking about in this blog is optimally fueling your session for the best performance possible. We aren’t trying to manipulate fat oxidation for some physiological effect down the road or anything like that. I am speaking purely from a perspective focused on performance for the upcoming session. So let’s dive in.
Optimal Pre-race & Pre-workout Nutrition – Breakfast (3 hrs to 1.5 hrs prior to session)
How long prior to a workout or race should my last meal be?
Ideally, 2-3 hours. Yes, I realize this might not be ideal for those workouts or races at 6:00 AM (or earlier), but don’t shoot the messenger! Studies have suggested that carbohydrates consumed one hour before events cause a more significant drop in blood sugar during the event compared to carbs ingested 2-3 hours prior (Ormsbee et al., 2014). The theory is that decreasing this drop in blood sugar could help preserve glycogen, lead to more sustained energy, and prevent a “crash” that could be detrimental to performance. On the other hand, some studies have shown that a proper warm-up can negate this crash. Either way, this can be prevented by consuming breakfast at least 2 hours from activity. I personally don’t feel 100% unless I eat breakfast at least 2.5 hours before I run. My recommendation is to aim for 2-3 hours.
What should my pre-workout or pre-race meal consist of?
The meal should be primarily low in fiber and utilize higher glycemic carbohydrates. Fiber will slow digestion, which is excellent (and healthy), just not before, during, or immediately after strenuous or prolonged activity. Some fiber for breakfast is fine, just don’t overdo it. Think whole-grain toast, oatmeal, bananas, and berries rather than beans and vegetables. Moderate protein is great, but too much can slow digestion. Don’t go overboard on fat because it will slow digestion as well. NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE MORNING! What you eat the morning of a race should be a “tried and true” breakfast that you have utilized numerous times before training runs. Studies suggest 1-4g/kg of carbohydrate 1-4 hours before an activity is beneficial to endurance performance (Kerksick et al., 2017). Some examples of an excellent pre-workout meal include:
- Peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread (or toast) – around 400 calories – for those who need fewer calories cut out one piece of bread, the banana, or the jelly.
- Oatmeal with fruit – ½ cup oatmeal + ½ cup blueberries – around 350 calories
- Granola with yogurt – ½ cup granola + ½ cup yogurt – around 375 calories
- Overnight oats or Picky Oats – I love the Picky Oats, and they’ve been my “go-to” breakfast for a couple of years now prior to long training runs and ultra-marathons. They’re easy, convenient, and about the perfect amount for me to eat 2-2.5 hours before activity. I like them as overnight oats. My wife prefers them hot. You can also make your own overnight oats with minimal effort. There are a plethora of recipes on the net to choose from!
- Scramble on whole-grain toast – 2 eggs or 4 oz tofu scramble on 2 pieces of whole-wheat toast – around 300 calories – substitute toast with a whole wheat tortilla or an English muffin.
But aren’t high glycemic carbohydrates bad for me?
This is an entire blog in itself. The short, drastically oversimplified answer is – not if used correctly. Consuming high glycemic carbohydrates is beneficial to performance when consumed before, during, and immediately following exercise. High glycemic carbs are immediately utilized for glycogen replenishment or as an immediate fuel source in these three scenarios. As a result, adverse health consequences are mitigated. Outside of these three scenarios, yes, you should primarily shoot for lower glycemic carbohydrate foods to avoid large blood sugar swings that can damage health. This will be talked about more in the daily nutrition blog. Right now, let’s stay focused on pre-workout nutrition!
How large should the meal be?
250-400 kcal depending on personal tolerance. Start in the 250-300 range and see how you feel at the start of your session. If you feel a little heavy or full, cut back a little. If you feel nice and light, you could try increasing it by 50 kcal next time. Do this until you find your sweet spot. Notice the examples above are all in this range. You can easily adjust any of these meals to suit your needs.
Why do I need a pre-race/workout meal? If I go into a session fasted will it hurt my performance?
The performance benefit associated with a pre-workout meal is likely due to increased glycogen storage or “topping off” your glycogen following an overnight fast. Glycogen stores are significantly reduced following an overnight fast – some studies suggest as much as 80% reduction (Asker & Michael, 2018)! Eating carbohydrates in the hours before a session as opposed to fasting has been shown to increase time to exhaustion, increase muscle glycogen, and improve overall exercise performance (Ormsbee et al., 2014). Therefore, the answer is yes; you should eat before an endurance session for optimal performance.
Optimal Pre-race & Pre-workout Nutrition – Immediately prior to session (1 hour – 5 minutes prior to session)
Should I “top-off” carbohydrates immediately prior to a session?
Topping off refers to taking in carbohydrates a short time before a workout session or a race in an effort to spare glycogen stores. This topic is a little more controversial and confusing. I’ll try to keep this as simple and straightforward as possible so I don’t bore you to death. Some studies on high-intensity endurance exercise imply a benefit from topping off immediately before a session (Galloway et al., 2014). Then, there are studies (although dated) that suggest that ingesting CHO within 60 minutes can lead to rebound hypoglycemia and negatively impact performance (Foster et al., 1979). Finally, other studies have surmised that by essentially topping off DURING a proper warm-up and reducing CHO intake to within 15 minutes before exercise, this rebound hypoglycemia can be avoided (Moseley et al., 2003). However, many ultra-marathoners don’t do much “warming up” as they typically start at a relatively low intensity. See? Confusing and, ultimately, inconclusive. Here are my recommendations based on my interpretation of the data. If you’re going to “top-off” do so within 15 minutes and during a warm-up to be safe. A CHO beverage is likely the ideal candidate for this strategy as “real food” might feel too heavy this close to exercise. If you don’t warm up or simply don’t want to “top-off,” then that’s fine as it will likely have a negligible impact on performance, if any.
Proxima C Endurance Fuel would be the perfect carbohydrate beverage to top off carbs prior to a race. Proxima C is made with primarily low glycemic carbohydrates which would signficantly reduce the chances of rebound hypoglycemia. Additionally, due to Proxima C’s super-fast gastric emptying time and it’s negligible effect on the G.I. system, you can rest assured it won’t leave you feeling bloated right before your big event.
BUT, just to be clear, whether choosing to “top off” or not, it should never be utilized IN PLACE of the pre-workout meal 2-3 hours prior.
Should ultra-runners take a pre-workout supplement?
There are several supplements that research indicates are beneficial when taken consistently. Many don’t necessarily need to be taken immediately before a workout; they just need to be taken consistently. When looking at helpful supplements for endurance athletes, it would seem that consistency is more important than timing, in most cases. That being said, some supplements DO work best when taken before a workout, so it is a good practice to do so on workout days.
What should an ultra-runner look for in a pre-workout supplement?
To better answer this question, we need to know what supplements are beneficial for endurance athletes. After that, depending on what aspect of performance is benefited allows us to determine what supplements are most helpful for ultra-athletes. It’s not too surprising that the supplements are similar for the most part; after all, there are many similarities when comparing ultra-endurance vs. conventional endurance. However, there are variables in ultra-running that are not present in conventional endurance sports. Some of these include extreme durations, mental fatigue, tremendous muscle damage, sleep deprivation, and increased nutritional needs. These unique, ultra-endurance-specific characteristics shouldn’t be overlooked when determining the best supplements for ultra-runners and other ultra-athletes.
In my research, the list below contains the most relevant and potentially beneficial pre-workout/daily endurance supplements for ultra-runners and the like.
Keep in mind that other beneficial supplements are better suited for recovery or during activity – another blog! Also, some supplements may be necessary to prevent certain deficiencies (choline, zinc, electrolytes, etc.) rather than directly improve performance. Click on the supplements to learn all about how each can impact your ultra-running performance. If a supplement isn’t clickable, we will have a blog for these soon!
For a pre-workout/daily endurance supplement specifically designed for ultra-runners check out T-30. It really is THE ULTRA-endurance supplement!.
SUMMARY – PRE-WORKOUT NUTRITION AND PRE-RACE NUTRITION FOR ULTRA-RUNNERS
Whether it’s in the hours before an everyday training session or the morning of an ultramarathon you’ve been waiting years to run, pre-workout nutrition is one of the many pieces to the performance puzzle. Get it wrong, and it could cost you dearly. Remember, gastrointestinal issues are the #1 reason people give for dropping out of an ultramarathon. Pre-workout nutrition for ultra-runners doesn’t have to be complicated and can be something you can easily check off your list by remembering a few key points.
KEY POINTS FOR PRE-WORKOUT NUTRITION FOR ULTRA-RUNNERS
- Eat a high carbohydrate meal (1-4g/kg) 2-3 hours before your race or activity. Try to avoid high-fiber foods like beans and vegetables.
- Keep protein and fat in moderation.
- Find your sweet spot with kcal. Start in the 250 kcal range, and adjust from there.
- You don’t need to worry about topping off immediately before activity. However, if you choose to top off, do so within 15 minutes of activity AND during a warm-up to prevent any chances of rebound hypoglycemia.
- Come race day, go with a tried and true breakfast you’ve eaten many times in training.
- Never try anything new on race morning.
- If you choose to utilize a pre-workout, choose T-30. There’s simply nothing else that compares for ultra-runners and ultramarathon performance.