What to Eat When Training for a Race

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By Chelsea France (as interviewed by Na'Tasha Jones)

When training for distance races, what you eat is going to dictate how you feel during your training, during your race and, most importantly, during your recovery process. Knowing what to eat for optimal performance, however, is something that even very experienced runners don’t always understand.

Chelsea France, USATF Level 1 Country/Track & Field Coach at the University of Pennsylvania and certified nutritionist, weighed in with RUNGRL to discuss how what you eat can have a big effect on your training and how to choose the right foods for your own race prep.

RUNGRL: Why does it matter what you eat during race training?

Chelsea: When you’re constantly fueling your body with energy-rich foods, this leads to faster recovery time. One thing most runners don’t realize is that it’s not about how hard you train, it’s about how fast you’re able to recover from training that will make you a better runner. Proper fuel enhances the recovery process.

There’s this idea that true runners need to be on the latest “fad diet” in order to reach new heights in their running. That is completely false. Food is your friend and should continue to be your friend throughout your training. Limiting or restraining food intake is putting a cap on your resources of energy.

For female runners, nutritional essentials include high protein, high iron, and balanced healthy-carb diets. A balanced diet will also lead to muscle development and no, this does not mean you’ll “bulk up.” You’ll expand and develop lean muscle that will propel your training and your races.

RUNGRL: What can happen if you don’t pay attention to what you eat?

Chelsea: An imbalanced diet can lead to lackluster running performance, low energy levels, slow muscle recovery and a decrease in workout progression. There’s a common saying, “you are what you eat.” This doesn’t mean you can’t have days where you eat some ice cream or a candy bar. It’s okay to treat yourself for the work you’re putting in, however, if your main source of protein is coming from a Snickers bar, you need to reevaluate your food intake.

bagel nutella fruit

RUNGRL: Is there a difference between what you should eat on run days vs. other days?

Chelsea: All days should be balanced intake eating days. However, the difference between what you should eat on run days vs. other days (i.e. rest days) all depends on the level of intensity you’re putting forth. Higher intensity workouts require additional energy. A balanced nutritional intake throughout the day should be the ultimate plan. Here are some foods recommended to optimize performance on workout/ high-intensity days:

  • Bananas are a high energy boosting food with healthy sources of carbohydrates that can be easily absorbed and processed by the body. They provide a good source of potassium, sodium, and magnesium, which decrease muscle inflammation and replenish minerals lost in sweat.

  • Oats are another energy booster that are also high in fiber; they have a low glycemic index which causes blood sugar level to rise slowly. This optimizes energy over long periods of time, unlike other high-sugar, processed foods which only withstand short bursts of energy.

  • Yogurt is one of the best post-run recovery foods because it provides a great combination of protein and carbohydrates. When consumed within 30 minutes post-run, it can protect and speed up recovery of your muscles. Yogurt is also high in essential amino acids and calcium, which is especially important for female distance runners to protect bone health. Finally, yogurt is an immune system booster.

  • Peanut butter is another very popular food amongst runners. Natural peanut butter without added sodium, sugar and oil is the best source of vitamin E and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which runners find essential in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

  • Spinach/Broccoli/Greens are superfoods that are excellent sources of vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid and calcium which can prevent and protect against muscle soreness and strengthen bone health.

  • Whole-grain pasta/bread/rice are key carbohydrate energy sources that fill up glycogen storages to provide energy for long distance runs and races. Carb loading is mostly essential for longer distance races ranging from 10k and higher. Whole-grain foods are also an excellent source of B vitamins, which are essential for building muscle.  

  • Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A, known to boost the immune system and strengthen bone tissue. This helps prevent risk of injury during workouts and races and strengthens your immune system from getting sick.

RUNGRL: What role does timing play in your training nutrition?

Chelsea: Timing is everything when prepping for a workout or race. It’s always beneficial to plan meals around your training. Planning your meals and snacks throughout the day will not only ensure you’re getting the nutrition and fuel you need for optimal performance, it’ll also increase the likelihood of you making healthy, balanced food choices.

Before any workout, especially high-intensity training or races, it’s best to leave a two-to-three-hour window for the food to properly digest. This window will prevent any digestion issues during your training. If you find you need an extra boost of energy, choose simple, compound snacks such as a banana, pretzels or energy bar that can be digested within that three-hour window and not cause reflux, indigestion or heartburn. If you typically train early in the morning, it’s essential to avoid heavy, late-night meals the night before. This can create an issue as some foods take longer for the body to process.

Poor timing of nutrition will either lead to not having enough energy to perform at an optimal level in training or having too many nutrients that your body can’t process before and your during training. It’s integral to find a balance and plans all meals and snacks to fuel the day’s training.

balanced meal spread

RUNGRL: Is junk food really such a big deal? I mean, I’m already burning calories, right?

Chelsea: It’s okay to treat yourself. Training should never be about deprivation. However, there’s got to be a healthy balance. Excess consumption of junk food is depriving your body of the necessary sources of energy it needs to perform. Besides the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and slowed metabolism, processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods also slow muscle recovery. If you’re fueling on junk food pre- or post- workout, you’re depriving your body of natural sources of energy.

RUNGRL: How can I get started creating a training nutrition plan?

Chelsea: Proper nutrition training plans start with food logs. Log what you eat over the week; find out how you’re fueling yourself when you first wake up, what times you’re eating and where there are short-falls in your nutrition or potential areas  of improvement. Are you eating energy-boosting, nutritious foods that are balanced amongst all food groups? These groups are the following:

  • Fruits (4-5 servings per day)

  • Vegetables (4-5 servings per day)

  • Grains (6-8 servings per day)

  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products (2-3 servings per day)

  • Lean meats, poultry and seafood (less than 6 oz per day)

  • Nuts, seeds, legumes (4-5 servings per week)

  • Healthy Fats / oils such as vegetable oil or margarine (2-3 servings per day)

  • Sweets and added sugars (5 or less per week)

Serving size of each of these food groups depends on suggested daily caloric intake and amount of energy you’re burning with exercise. (Above recommendations are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.)

RUNGRL: Does it have to be complicated?

Chelsea: Nothing about your nutrition needs to be complicated. It’s always best to come up with a routine, provide yourself extra time each day to plan meals and stick with that plan. Pack snacks to eat in between meals.

The more organized you are with planning your day, the healthier your nutritional decisions and the likelihood of getting in your workout in.


Chelsea France


Chelsea France is a USATF Level 1 Country / Track & Field Coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Chelsea holds certifications in Strength & Conditioning as well as Fitness & Nutrition. She recently coached her Track & Field team to a 2018 Indoor Ivy League Championship amongst many other previous athletes to conference and national recognitions in the sport of Track & Field and Cross Country.

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