On the spur of a moment this morning I decided to sign up for a race. When is the race? Tomorrow. What can I say- I have a history of entering races impulsively at last minute. However, there was a little bit of logic that went into my decision.
Usually on Saturdays I go out to the indoor track to meet up for a good workout. I wasn't able to go for a few weeks because the holidays fell on weekends so people were away and practises got cancelled. I wanted to go today, but my partner was going really early because the track was being closed for a track race. If I was still at school- I would be in the track race. But alas, the life of a post undergrad means that I wasn't going to partake. So, since I wasn't up for a crack of dawn workout, or running a 1500m race off of absolutely no training, I decided that a road race would have to take its place. It just so happens that it is about -20 degrees outside and extremely windy and I am not quite as "prepared" as I should be- but at least this doesn't give me time to get nervous right?
So today at lunch, as I snacked on a left-over Christmas cookie, my parents started to discuss possible dinner options for the evening. We debated and then my mom said, "Well, if you are racing tomorrow- shouldn't you have pasta the day before a race?"
Spaghetti was always something that we went to for the day before a race. At school, we would get together for pasta dinner. Its quick, it's healthy- and best of all- it's cheap. Yet, as runners, or athletes in general, pasta and carbo-loading the day before seems like a written in stone commandment that we are meant to follow. We are lead to believe that pasta can make or break a race.
But can it?
Nutritionally, every meal we consume throughout our training program is important, but no meal is more important than the ones before a race. If we chose inappropriate foods, over or under eat and even the timing of our meal can affect performance. And it's no secret that by eating well at the right time ensures that all hard training doesn't go to waste.
According to Mark Fitzgerald, the main purpose of the pre-race meals is to fill your liver with glycogen, especially if it precedes a morning race. "Liver glycogen fuels your nervous system while you sleep, and as a result, your liver is roughly 50 percent glycogen-depleted when you wake up in the morning. Your muscles, inactive during the night, remain fully glycogen loaded from the previous day."
So the night before- should we overdo any potential glycogen rich foods?
Carbohydrate loading is no novelty. It dates back to the late 1960s, and the scientific term for this loading of carbohydrate to fuel muscles is glycogen supercompensation and was named when Scandinavian scientists conducted a study to test the effects of carbohydrates. After several days of a low-carbohydrate diet, men in their study had low muscle glycogen stores and less endurance compared to when they consumed a moderate-carbohydrate diet. The high-carbohydrate diet over several days proved to supersaturate the glycogen stores in the muscle and extend endurance times. Today, many runners like to top off their glycogen stores by devouring carbs the night before a race. What remain a bit vague however is how many carbohydrates they should eat and when to start loading up. "When I go to marathon expos," says Monique Ryan, R.D., author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, "I'm amazed how many people haven't carbo-loaded properly. Runners train so hard and then arrive with a huge handicap."
The easily accessible carbs are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver, but it's not the only source. When you run out of glycogen during a race your body slows down and turns fat into energy. Benjamin Rapport, a 2:55 marathoner, hit the wall so hard at the 2005 New York City Marathon that he decided to put his education to practical use. As a Harvard M.D. student (who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT) had his research published in PLoS Computational Biology in October 2010. "Proper carbo-loading---or filling your muscles to the brim with glycogen---won't make you faster, but it will allow you to run your best and, if you race smartly, avoid the wall," he says. During his research, Rapoport developed an even more precise formula, which runners can access at EnduranceCalculator.com; those factors in variables including age resting heart rate, VO2 max, and predicted finishing time. This seemed a little intense for me to do- but it still hasn't quite answered my question of the pre-race dinner conundrum.
Apparently you can't completely fill your muscles with glycogen from just one meal, "which is why you should start carbo-loading two or three days before your race," says Ryan. This doesn't personally help me, since the race is tomorrow- but does that mean I should steer clear of my welcoming plate of spaghetti tonight?
Most nutritionists agree that eating a whole box of pasta the night before will not replace weeks of serious training and nutritional devotion. But they all recommended high carbohydrates for a pre-race dinner. I cruised through some athletes' blogs to see what some athletes ate instead of pasta and came across on triathlete who seems to have tried just about everything. His favorite meal: Mashed potatoes, carrots, rutabaga and yams - heavy on the yam. Small side of lightly steamed spinach and a tomato. Homemade humus for flavour along with 2 or 3 hardboiled eggs for added protein. Top it off with dark chocolate (minimum 75% cocoa) soon after finishing. He explains that the meal itself is quite high glycemic, but having the eggs with the meal and the dark chocolate (high fat content) will slow down the absorption some. Root vegetables are a good source of easily digestible carbohydrates (much easier to digest than pasta), and they contain serotonin which can help relax you.
The best advice I've heard has been: if you haven't paid attention to your nutrition leading up to a race one evening of pasta isn't going to make any difference in your performance on race day. Nutrition is something that needs to be incorporated into each phase of a training plan. So what will I eat tonight? I am definitely still having my spaghetti. I can make it healthy by choosing whole wheat. But let's face it. If spaghetti and meatballs helps the nerves the day before an impulsive race- why shouldn't I? Benefits or worthless. All athletes have their rituals. I have a favourite pair of running socks. I like to listen to "Paralyser" by the Nine Inch Nails. And I love my plate of spaghetti. And if it works for the Lady and the Tramp to find love, it can help me avoid pre-race jitters.