Eat right, run great

2004-07-28 11:54
For every runner who hasn't suffered from diarrhoea, nausea or an upset stomach during a run, there is one who has. Because of the nature of running, what you eat before you run is far more important than in most other sports.

When you run, your stomach is bounced around inside your abdomen and if you've eaten either too much or consumed the wrong thing, it could ruin the rest of your race or training session.

Most runners don't know what's best before they run. They simply follow advice passed on to them by others, without knowing whether or not it has any solid scientific backing.

So here are some pre-race meal guidelines to get you started:

l Low fibre

l Low fat

l Contains intermediate-release carbs

l Contains lean protein foods

l Low lactose (milk carb)

l Low in gas-forming foods!

Ideally, solid food should be eaten at least two hours before a race or long run, and a meal replacement drink one hour before a race. If you eat your meal too close to the race, you're likely to feel uncomfortable for the first 10 to 20km and may even experience nausea and diarrhoea.

I will concentrate on breakfasts for much of this column, but it's important to note that the principles apply to all pre-race food.

Here are some of the options you can use next time you're planning your pre-race nutrition.


Bread - Many runners opt for white bread because it is low in fibre. But it is quickly digested and does not give you sustained energy. Rather opt for rye bread (but not the whole kernel type). You may find rye bread is more tolerable toasted. Rye bread is more slowly digested, and will provide you with more sustained energy. Try it as a pre-training meal before a long training run at the weekend, before trying anything new on a race day.

Porridges - Although mealie meal porridge is a favourite among runners, it is a quick-digesting carb. If it is cooked, allowed to cool and then re-heated, it digests more slowly. If you opt for this route, you may want to cook it the night before.

Opt for Tastee Wheat porridge or Bokomo Oats porridge, as these are both intermediate-digesting porridges, which will give more sustained energy. Many oats porridge brands in South Africa, like 'one-minute' oats and some other brands of oats, are quick-digesting. To find out whether your favourite brand is an intermediate-digesting carb, visit the South African GI foundation website (

Cereals - Most slow- and intermediate-digesting cereals are high in fibre, which are great on a training day, but not a good idea before a marathon or an ultra marathon. While the low fibre cereals are generally quick-digesting, they will not provide you with sustained energy.

Milk - The carb in milk is called lactose. You may have heard of lactose intolerance before. Some people's guts are unable to fully digest the lactose, which results in bloating and sometimes diarrhoea. You may find that you develop a level of lactose intolerance during heavy training.

So rather opt for smaller volumes of milk at a time, or opt for low fat or fat-free yoghurt or Maas. The lactose in these is partially digested. Most cheeses contain only 3g lactose per 100g, except for ricotta. Always opt for fat-reduced cheeses.


It's always a good idea to include some protein in your pre-race meal. If you only eat an hour before a race, then opt for a meal replacement drink.

A few slices of lean beef, ham or chicken or fat-reduced cheese on your rye toast or with plain pasta (made the night before!), work best when it comes to including protein.

Fried eggs? Not a good idea! Rather try scrambled egg with a little fat-free milk or a poached or boiled egg.

Bean curry? Although beans are slow-digesting and provide you with sustained energy, you may find the 'gas' formed after digestion can have some detrimental effects - particularly on those around you!

If you can't live without your bean curry before the race, then opt for split lentils or split peas, to reduce the fibre, and check that not too much oil is added during cooking.


If your idea of a good pre-race meal is a pie, fried chips or a samoosa, think again. Fat takes too long to digest, and too much of it will make you feel nauseous, or leave you feeling slow and heavy. Rather opt for foods that are low-fat.


A low dose of caffeine may help mask your fatigue during the race. A cup of tea has about 40mg caffeine, a cup of instant coffee about 80mg caffeine and filter coffee about 112mg caffeine.

To get the full benefit of caffeine, you need to avoid it for a week before the race. If you usually experience heartburn you should avoid having coffee before a race.

Get fruity

Always opt for pure fruit juice instead of whole fruit before a race, to reduce your fibre intake. Some runners swear by their bananas, but the high potassium content may cause a little heartburn. The fruit sugar in bananas is slowly absorbed, and the soluble fibre in bananas may just have you running in the wrong direction, especially if you eat a green (unripe) banana!

Too nervous to eat?

Many runners feel too nervous to eat before a race or don't like eating solid food so early in the morning before a race! Opt for a pre-digested meal drink like Metabolol Endurance, which you can either find at a health or sports shop or you can order through the website ( It contains a low dose of caffeine (about 25mg per serving) and is low in lactose. It should only be mixed with water and not milk before a race.

If you find Metabolol Endurance expensive, then mix a pure whey protein, like the Muscle Science product, Whey Supreme, with glucose polymer powder and water. Unfortunately, many replacement drinks found on retailers' shelves are too high in lactose and fat.


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