There are several things to consider when choosing a pre-race breakfast:
- Glycemic load (GL). This is a concept that describes how a meal affects your blood-sugar levels, and is set by the glycemic index (GI) of the various ingredients, and the quantity of each. A high-GL meal will cause a rapid spike in your blood-sugar, and a nice energy boost, but it wears off quickly leaving you flat. Carbohydrates (carbs) are high GI, fats and proteins zero. The closer to your race start time you eat, the higher your meal's GL should be. Ditto for a short race, like a 40-minute criterium. The longer your race, and the more time you have between your meal and your race start, the lower the GL should be.
- Digestion. Your body can usually digest about 400 calories/hour, so, for example, you could eat roughly 1,200 calories 3 hours before start time and feel good. Once the race starts your body slows down its digestion, and you could feel nauseous if you have too much undigested food in your stomach when the whistle blows.
- Quantity. How many calories will you burn during the race? I use 1,000 calories/hour as a rough guide, but it varies depending on you and the race. Try to eat that many calories, but not so much it won't be digested in time. Any additional calories you need will come from sport drinks or energy gels you eat during your warmup and race, and your fat stores.
- Quality. Avoid a lot of synthetic food. Fresh, natural foods are best, when possible, because they have so many healthy antioxidants and other micronutrients that help you fight the destructive effects of intense exercise. But make sure they are easily digested in time.
- Hydration. Drink water, of course, but there's more to this. If you're racing in hot weather, especially in a long race, you should also make sure to get enough salt. Trust me, that's rarely a problem in this country! But if you usually avoid excess sodium, as I do, you should make sure to get at least 400 mg of sodium per hour of racing, again, depending on you, the heat, humidity, etc. You can take that in during the race too.
- Recovery. Try to choose foods that will also help you get a head start on recovery after the race (that's why I always make sure to have a sport drink with protein in it). The post-race meal is a separate subject I will cover in the future.
So, here's a specific example of how I used these guidelines for a race-day breakfast:
When I raced the 55-mile Panoche Valley Road Race, that I knew would last about 2.5 hours, I figured I'd burn about 2,600 calories. I considered just eating my usual 800-calorie race-day cooked buckwheat cereal breakfast at home, about 3 hours before my race start, followed by some light snacks during warmup, and sport drink and gels during the race. But then I read that a small cafe near the race, FlapJack's Country Cafe, was a sponsor, and their neat menu had lots of options for putting together a good pre-race breakfast. I even managed to talk some of my teammates into joining me. I was soooo excited!
Here's what I ordered:
A huge plate of flapjacks with lots of walnuts, banana and butter, swimming in a pool of syrup. Oh, two eggs, orange juice and coffee too. The whole meal was about about 1,100 calories, with roughly 154 G carbs, 31 g protein, 45 g fat, 1,670 mg potassium and 1,110 g sodium.
Even though it just looked like a traditional breakfast, I carefully chose each item. Here's how my meal followed those guidelines:
- Glycemic load. The flapjacks were made with white wheat flour, which while not ideal in general because grains raise blood acidity (which is one reason why I prefer buckwheat, a starchy fruit), is a great high-GI source of simple carbs that was easy to digest. The sugary syrup too (white flour isn't that different from sugar!). The protein and fat from the eggs and butter kept the meal's GL lower so it would last throughout the race instead of causing a sudden blood-sugar spike and commensurate drop.
- Digestion. We got there 2:20 before my race start, so I had to make sure I could digest the meal in time, or risk losing it during the race! At 400 cal/hour, I could theoretically digest only 933 of the 1,100 calories. But I happen to know from experience that I would be OK.
- Quantity. I would burn 2,600 calories, so I would need an additional 1,500. I only carried 440 calories worth of sport drink and gels, but experience has taught me that I could easily make up the last 1,060 from my fat stores. Training improves your fat-burn rate, by the way.
- Quality. By getting the flapjacks with walnuts, banana, orange juice and coffee I got crucial omega-3 oils, minerals, antioxidants and electrolytes to prevent inflammation and cramping. The eggs also contain various enzymes that improve muscle response.
- Hydration. The flapjacks tend to be high in sodium, and this meal had 1,100 mg of it. Plenty, even for a long race in hot weather! No need to even add any from a salt shaker, though my sport drink did add some.
- Recovery. The protein and omega-3 oil from the eggs and walnuts, and the antioxidants in the banana and juice gave me a head start.
So, did it work? Absolutely! This race was long, very hot and dry, and incredibly hard for me. I was on the ropes for a good part of this 2:37 race, spending lots of time in the fires of my "L5" zone! But while I did burp a little in the first few miles, the meal stayed down, and yet sustained me with long-term energy that left me feeling surprisingly strong at the finish line, 55 miles later. Heck, I even won!
Everybody is different, and what works for me may not work for you. But these basic concepts are pretty well proven by the experts and their clients over the years, so experiment with these ideas and modify them to work with your unique physiology. And have fun eating!