If you’re anything like me, the question of when to eat or drink before a race or workout is a difficult one. If you eat too close to a race you will surely get side aches; if you eat too far away from a race you may feel fatigued from a lack of nutrients. Let me share a few crucial things I have learned over the years.
Everyone Is Different
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that everyone is different. Some people can get away with eating very close to a workout, while others need to give themselves many hours to digest their food. With that said, the best way to find your threshold is to experiment with different times. You do not have to wait for race day to experiment either, you can try different times to eat and drink before each workout. Start with a baseline of where the threshold is for most people (eat no closer than two hours before, and drink no closer than one hour before), then try to eat or drink closer to your workout each day by 15 minutes until you get side aches.
Err on the Side of Caution
Once you have identified your threshold, it is a good idea to err on the side of giving yourself more time than your threshold. You should treat that as the cliff that you don’t want to go over, and give yourself enough space from the edge.
Know What You’re Eating
The speed with which your body digests different foods varies. For instance, fruit will digest faster than meat. The following continuum lists items in order of fastest to digest to slowest to digest: liquids, fruits/vegetables, grains, and meats (note that dairy should not be part of the equation because it is notorious for causing side aches). You can use this same principle when considering the use of energy bars and energy gels (the gels will digest and be absorbed into your body much more quickly than solid bars).
Personally, I like to eat a small bowl of oatmeal and half of a banana about 2.5 hours before a race. I hydrate heavily days before a race, and then sip liquids up until about 1.5 hours before a race. Once you identify your thresholds you will have a great competitive advantage. Happy Eating!