Home PageUncategorizedTraining Nutrition Thursday: Cramping During the Big Race


I cramped badly during the Flying Pig Marathon. I never cramp on training runs no matter how long they are. What is the best nutrition plan for race week for a full or half marathon?


First of all, there are many reasons why you might cramp during a race, and they are not all nutrition related.  In fact, there’s little conclusive research to support the theory that low electrolytes directly cause cramps (although it makes very good theoretical sense) while there is research to support that poor mechanics or simply pushing yourself up to or beyond your physical limits CAN cause cramps.  In your case, I would lean towards the latter being the cause of your cramps since they don’t happen in training runs.

That said, if you do believe it’s nutrition related, or just for a good nutrition plan the week before a big race, here’s my recommendations :

Since you don’t cramp except when going at race-pace, I suggest that you also add calcium, potassium and magnesium each day leading up to the race for at least 5 days. Then, during the race you need to pay extra attention to hydration and electrolytes. You simply won’t get enough relying on sports drinks – they don’t give you physiological amounts.

Overall nutrition plan for week before:

There is a finite amount of glycogen your body can store – this will not change with diet adjustment the week of a competition. On the other hand, there is an indefinite amount of fat your body can store, and overeating compared to how much you are training during your taper can cause you to store fat and feel “heavy” during your competition. Also, while you may be able to use and store some extra electrolytes, more than what’s necessary will simply be filtered out. So, the week of your big competition:

1) Continue to follow your meal plan if you are not tapering your training. Be diligent with staying hydrated.

2) As you taper your training, eliminate training fuel as needed. Continue to follow your Daily Eating Plan.

3) The day before your competition, if you are not training or training very little, consider doing 1-2 short sprints and follow with your normal recovery snack/meal. This can replicate the increased enzyme action that loads glycogen after a normal training session.

4) The day before your competition, only eat foods/drinks that you know do not cause stomach upset, bloating, or extra gas. Avoid any fatty foods (fried or high in animal fat) and maintain a balance of carbohydrates and lean protein. You can eat vegetables with dinner if you’d like, but avoid gas-producing veggies such as broccoli or cauliflower. Instead, try a salad with spinach, tomatoes, & bell peppers.

5) The evening before your competition, add a small amount of extra carbohydrates – just about 30-60 grams. Don’t overdo carbohydrate loading or you’ll go into your competition feeling heavy rather than fueled. Some example additions include:

  • 8 oz. honey milk (made w/ 8 oz. milk + 2 tbsp honey) = 37 gm carbs
  • 1 large piece fruit or 1 medium banana = 30 gm carbs
  • 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 100% whole wheat English muffin or bagel = 30 gm carbs
  • ½ medium bagel + low-fat cream cheese = 30 gm carbs
  • 2 slices 100% whole grain toast = 36 gm carbs
  • 1 slice toast + 1 tbsp honey or jelly = 33 gm carbs
  • 8 oz. yogurt = 30 gm carbs
  • 1 large yam/sweet potato = 30 gm carbs
  • 2/3 cup cooked wild or brown rice = 30 gm carbs
  • 2/3 cup cooked quinoa = 27-30 gm carbs

It’s important to think about the timeline of digestion in this scenario. It only takes refined carbohydrates ~15 minutes to be digested and hit the bloodstream. Then, they’re stored. If your glycogen stores are not fully replenished, they can be stored there. But, for most athletes who haven’t just ended a training session, glycogen stores will be filled to their limit. So, any extra carbs will be stored in the cells as fats – which can be used in long endurance workouts, but do not have any advantage over whole, healthy carbohydrate sources. So, instead of “quick-energy” carbs the night before a race, go for lower-glycemic, whole-food, healthy ones. Their slow digestion and even energy will be more likely to give you usable, efficient fuel the next day.

6) The day of competition, follow your plan for pre-, during, and recovery nutrition (do not try anything new on race day!). Now’s the time for “quick-energy” sports foods! Make sure to stick with foods and drinks you know you digest well. If you have multiple events in one day with breaks between them (such as being on a team for a 24-hour race), make sure to eat the recovery snack or meal after you finish each activity.

Electrolytes 5-7 days leading up to the race:

A good place to start is ~500 mg calcium + 200-300 mg magnesium + 100 mg potassium after training or every evening leading up to a race (5-7 days out). You can try: NSI Calcium Citrate-Vitamin D-Magnesium (http://www.vitacost.com/NSI-Calcium-Citrate-with-Vitamin-D3-Magnesium#IngredientFacts) and NSI Potassium Citrate (http://www.vitacost.com/NSI-Potassium-Citrate/?pd_section=pr#ProductReviews) @ 2 tablets of calcium citrate and 1 potassium citrate capsule each day to get this amount. Additionally, drink 64-80 oz fluid. + 24-32 oz. per hour of training each day leading up to the competition.

Fluid and lytes during the race (or trainings for that matter – the fluid is always important for training over 60 minutes, lytes become more important after 120 minutes or in conditions in which heat + humidity = 140 or more):

Try to replenish your glycogen stores with 40-60 grams of carbs, and 16-32 oz. fluid per hour. Additionally, for longer or intense training sessions or competitions (>2 hours), especially in high heat or humidity, you should aim for 400-700 mg sodium and 100-200 mg potassium per hour. You also need 60-80 mg calcium and 40-60 mg magnesium each hour, but commercial sports drinks are better and meeting these needs because they are smaller amounts.

Most commercial sports drinks fall way short in electrolytes – to increase sodium and potassium of any sports drink, you can add salt (2400 mg sodium per 1 tsp) and Milton’s lite salt (290 mg sodium and 350 mg potassium per ¼ tsp) in combination (you can usually find Milton’s lite in the salt section of the grocery store).

For example, if your sports drink provides 80 mg sodium and 50 mg potassium for the amount you drink per hour, you’ll need to add more electrolytes when training hard for more than 2 hours, especially in hot or humid conditions. To get 400-700 mg sodium and 100-200 mg potassium per hour, add:

1/16 tsp Morton’s lite (provides 73 mg sodium and 88 mg potassium) – subtotal w/ drink = 153 mg sodium and 138 mg potassium.

1/8 tsp table salt (provides 300 mg sodium)

Grand Total: 453 mg sodium and 138 mg potassium per hour.

Another option is to rely on some sodium/potassium from your fluids, and then add more with foods or electrolyte tablets. If you use gels, I like Powerbar Gel as it offers 200 mg sodium per gel (others are closer to 50mg). There’s also Hammer Endurolyte tablets or other electrolyte tablets to make up the difference from what you need to what your drink provides.

Or you can go for my home-brew, Kelli’s Homebrew, to save you money, give you good fuel, and NOT use a drop of artificial colorings, flavorings, etc. You’ll find it here.

Take care and all the best!

Kelli, RD

Give your body what it needs for great energy and health every day and during training with the right Foods, Drinks and Supplements.  If you would like my help with it, I offer comprehensive plans as Instant Downloads and as Custom Clients starting at just $20.  And, as a FuelRightBlog reader, get a further discount with coupon code:  password-frblog  username-reader.  I’d love to work with you!

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