Alexi Pappas’ Guide to Fueling Your Race

Because what you eat and drink on race day is just as important as how you train

Over time I’ve learned how to stretch, how to warm up, how to train, how to cool down—how to do many running things—from other people. But learning how to fuel has been an entirely different game. Fueling, I’ve found, is highly specific and hugely important to figure out, especially at the highest level of running. What I eat before, during, and after runs is as important as the training itself, but it’s not something that’s as easy to imitate as stretching or a mileage plan. Food is personal and it took many years of experimentation and discovery before I settled on pre-race fueling strategies that consistently work well for me.

Without thinking about it, I was getting protein, carbs, calcium, iron, everything I needed.

As a kid, I ate what my dad fed me: lots of tall glasses of milk and spaghetti with his homemade meat sauce. Breakfasts were standard toast, eggs, cereal, peanut butter-banana situations. There were no tricky incredibly processed or out-of-the-norm foods available or being prepared in my house, so everything was relatively healthy, and nothing I ate bothered me before middle and high school races. Without thinking about it, I was getting protein, carbs, calcium, iron, everything I needed.

As I progressed into college and beyond, what I put into my body became more of a choice and something I’d have to consciously factor into my day. This opened the floodgates to a whole new abundance of opportunities and challenges. Suddenly, I was allowed to eat sushi the night before a race if I wanted to, and candy or worse immediately afterward. At the collegiate level, this led me down a path of fatigue by way of low-iron. I wasn’t feeding myself enough red meat, which is now a two- to three-days-per-week staple for me.

Why potatoes when there’s okra? I’d soon learn.

At the post-collegiate level, my fueling lessons were learned in more humiliating ways. During my very first race as an Oregon Track Club Elite professional runner, the New York Road Runners Dash to the Finish Line 5K, I made the gravest mistake of all: I decided that I would go to Whole Foods’ hot bar the night before the race. There, I ate all the foods I didn’t know how to cook and couldn’t find in Eugene. I returned to my table with saag paneer mixed with seaweed salad and some sort of fish stew. Why eat pasta when there’s quinoa? Why potatoes when there’s okra? I’d soon learn. Let it be known, I’ve never incorporated anything involving “stew” or “saag” in my pre-race meal since.

Alexi’s Pre-Race Meal Plan

Since that fateful—and painful—5K, I’ve learned that the best pre-race fueling strategy is to rely on the basics. I rewrote my menu and returned to the same 5K one year later (last year) and won. Here is the method I discovered to fuel for success:

Two Nights Out: Red meat and veggies! I stock up on steak from my favorite butcher in Eugene, Long’s Meat Market, and veggies from my local farm store, the OG Corner Market. I drink EnduroPacks’ electrolytes and take Sound Probiotics to make sure I stay hydrated, healthy, and strong on the inside. I’ll drink plenty of Runa tea the days before the race, which makes me feel calm and energized.

The Night Before: I chow down on chicken from Long’s or fish from Newman’s Fish Market, my local go-to. Plus, two big sweet potatoes and plenty of bread from Great Harvest in Eugene with Wild Friends’ nut butters on top. Nothing green for me now.

Race Morning: I start with coffee from my favorite roaster, Café Mam, and Maple Hill Creamery yogurt mixed with plenty of GenUCAN carbohydrates and BeetBoost, designed to amp up my energy and stamina. I’ll also have a banana and Wild Friends’ nut butter sandwich on Great Harvest bread and sip more Enduropacks electrolytes and Runa tea until race time.

Some lessons come easily, others we learn the hard way. For me, fueling was a long and messy journey, but I’ve figured out my routine. Even at the Rio Olympics, when many things had to be done on-the-fly and I had to be flexible, I was able to maintain my general fuel routine before the 10,000-meter final. The bottom line: The less wild my fueling right before the race, the more wild my race can be.

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