What you eat before running a race makes a difference

Autumn is race season, so almost every Sunday in cities all around the country, runners of all sorts gather for races that range from marathons to fun runs.

On Saturday night, many sit down to steaming plates of pasta, the traditional pre-race meal for runners everywhere. But are these pasta parties more traditional than medicinal?

Orecchiette With Broccoli Rabe

In the October 2010 issue of Runner's World magazine, restaurateur-winemaker Joe Bastianich shares his story of how running improved his health, along with some great pasta dishes that help fuel his workouts.

Bastianich co-owns three Lidia's restaurants with his mother, Lidia Bastianich. He also co-owns numerous restaurants with Mario Batali, including Babbo, Esca and Del Posto in New York and Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. Here's one of the recipes.


1 tablespoon canola oil, divided

1/2 pound fresh sausage (pork or lamb), sliced into coins

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 pound broccoli rabe, cut in 1-inch pieces (discard tough ends)

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound dried or fresh orecchiette

1 tablespoon olive oil (to drizzle)


Boil a pot of salted water. Heat 1-1/2 teaspoons canola oil in a saute pan over medium. Add sausage and cook, letting pieces brown on one side before turning. Remove and set aside.

Heat remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons canola oil in same pan. Add garlic and saute until golden brown. Add broccoli rabe and 4 tablespoons water. Cook until tender. Add sausage and butter. Season with dried red chili pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Add pasta to boiling water. Two minutes before it's cooked, remove it from water and add to saute pan, along with a splash of pasta water. Cook until pasta is tender.

Drizzle with olive oil.

Serves 6.

Calories per serving: 466; carbs: 58 g; protein: 17.6; fat: 19.6.

— From Runner's World

And what about after the race? Is all that food at the finish line just an extra enticement to participate, or does it actually have a purpose?

In her job as a senior editor at Runner's World magazine, Joanna Golub keeps up to date on the latest in exercise and nutritional science.

"There's a reason that pasta has long been considered the ideal pre-race fuel," she said. "It's high in easily digestible carbohydrates, and that's what your body needs when you're getting ready to run a long distance."

"Easily digestible" is key to pre-race meals. Runners should avoid any foods that might cause stomach distress the next day. For that reason, many runners avoid meals that are extremely high in fiber or high in fat, although most runners quickly get a sense of what they can and cannot eat before a workout.

Not only does your body need carbohydrates before you run, but also it needs to replenish them after the run is over, Golub said. "You have a 30-minute window after your run when you want to make sure to get some recovery fuel of some sort."

How much you need to eat obviously depends on the length and intensity of the workout. So if you run a couple of miles, you don't necessarily need to follow it up with a snack, but "once you start getting into some longer distances, or any time you're running for an hour or longer, you want to think about recovery," she said.

The ideal post-run snack has a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, but don't get too hung up on the numbers; just try to get both carbohydrates to refuel the muscles, she said, and protein "to help repair some muscle damage that occurs whenever you exercise."

Overall, she recommended that runners eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates from all kinds of sources, including beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Golub had even more good news to offer. Runners who like to start the day with a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea don't have to change their habits on race day.

"There is a huge body of evidence that shows that coffee enhances athletic performance," she said. "It helps you run faster and longer."

Caffeine can even help you recover after your run.

"When you pair caffeine with carbohydrates, it helps your body absorb and process the glycogen faster," Golub said. "It's a way to kick-start recovery."

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