What to eat when you’re training for a big race

By Kelly Schreuder – Registered Dietician & Private Chef

  1. You will spend many hours per week training, but many more hours simply living. Fuel your training with appropriate foods, but don’t forget about your long-term health when you eat your meals. Training is technically an added stress to your body and increases your requirements for many nutrients. Getting plenty of variety, anti-inflammatory nutrients, essential fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre in most of your meals is just as important as getting enough energy and protein to support your training. Eat at least 2 cups of vegetables every day. Eat oily fish twice a week, or take a good quality omega 3 fatty acid supplement that provides about 500mg EPA and DHA. Eat whole grains, legumes, fruit and starchy vegetables to get enough energy, carbohydrates and fibre. Eat some protein with all your meals. Eat enough dairy (2-3 servings per day) or calcium-fortified substitutes.

  1. If you are exercising more than you are used to, you might need to eat a bit more than you are used to eating. That applies to overall energy intake, as well as specific increases in requirements for carbohydrate and protein. Adjust your intake slightly around your training plan. Many training plans start out with strong increases, then taper off in intensity towards race day. Adjust your intake accordingly. Fueling and recovery around training sessions is often required over and above your usual requirements. If you are not eating enough, it might not be obvious to you in ways you’d expect e.g. weight loss, and it might come across in more subtle signs, like general fatigue, lack of enthusiasm for training sessions, slow recovery or injury.


  1. Sports nutrition goals often seem very contrary to good nutrition advice. When you are in the middle of a race, working at high intensity, you are in a relatively extreme state of physical stress. In order to sustain that, our bodies need fuel. Our fuel stores can last up to 90 minutes, but after that, we need a way to sustain that fuel availability without delay, and without excessive strain on our digestive systems. High-fibre, slow digesting foods that are good choices when we are not actively exercising just don’t work as well when you are racing. The goal totally shifts from optimum health to basic fuel and survival. I will cover more specific race day nutrition strategies that you can practice over the next few months, but in the meantime, here are some basic examples of what healthy people can aim to eat when they are training for a race.


The “active man” plan is designed around the theoretical requirements of a 75kg, 1.8m, 35-year-old man – a recreational athlete, training for about 7 hours a week (even if most of those are over a weekend).


The “active woman” plan is designed around the theoretical requirements of a 60kg, 1.6m, 35-year-old woman – a recreational athlete training for about 7 hours a week (even if most of those are over a weekend).


These examples are obviously not designed to suit all individuals, so please consider them a guide, not a prescription. If you have any medical concerns, or if you are currently pregnant or breastfeeding, then these guidelines are not appropriate and you should get more specific assistance from a professional. Go to www.adsa.org.za to find a dietitian in your area and ask if they work with sports nutrition.

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