We’ve all heard incredulous stories about pre-race meals. Many marathoners will to pound a massive bowl of spaghetti the night before a big race. Is this pure superstition, or does pasta actually benefit runners?
Runners eat pasta because it is a high-quality source of carbohydrates that provides long-lasting energy for long-distance running. Eating pasta is a form of carbohydrate loading that provides a sustainable increase in your energy level. Other great sources of carbs before a big run include white rice, quinoa, potatoes, bananas, and wheat bread.
Read on to learn about why pasta is great for runners, pasta’s benefits, pre-race food alternatives, and more!
Is eating pasta good for runners?
Pasta is commonly made as a heavy dish drowned in meat sauce and cheese. There’s no way this could improve running performance; is eating pasta even beneficial for runners?
Pasta can be good for runners because it provides complex carbohydrates and fiber. A big pasta meal the night before can help increase race day performance.
Runners expend lots of energy, most commonly in the form of carbohydrates. Fat can also be used for energy, but the human body only switches to fat expenditure once all the available carbohydrates in the body have been used up.
Pasta is a great way to load up on that primary energy source. Consuming pasta gives a runner lots of carbohydrates that are subsequently broken down into glycogen to be used for energy.
Being a complex carbohydrate, pasta also contains high levels of fiber. Fiber is essential in a runner’s diet to aid digestion and regulate blood glucose levels to avoid insulin spikes.
One cup of whole-grain pasta provides 48 grams of carbs and 6.2 grams of fiber; that is 25% of the recommended daily fiber intake.
By eating pasta, runners can get the necessary nutrients and benefit from increased energy levels. This makes pasta great for runners!
When should a runner eat pasta?
Pasta makes great fuel for an upcoming race, but when should a runner eat pasta to reap its full benefits?
Runners should eat pasta in the two to three days leading up to a long-distance race. They can also consume pasta the morning of the race, although it is unnecessary.
Runners eat pasta as a form of carbohydrate loading. In layman’s terms, carbohydrate loading is eating more carbohydrates than usual to maximize energy levels on race day.
For best results, begin carbohydrate loading two to three days before a race. This allows your muscle cells to store glycogen over a longer period to maximize the amount available on race day.
While it is optimal to begin eating pasta multiple days before the race, it’s most important to eat pasta the night before. Eat pasta for dinner the night before the race to energize your cells!
However, be mindful of the size of your meal. Too large of a dinner may lead to digestion issues that could hinder race day performance.
What are the benefits of pasta for runners?
Most people will be thrilled to hear that pasta is a great meal choice before a big run, but it’s worth learning a little more.
Here are a few potential benefits for runners eating pasta:
- Helps regulate blood glucose levels
- Fuels muscles through increased glycogen stores
- Aids digestion with added fiber
- It tastes great
Let’s get into the details of why pasta is beneficial for runners.
Helps regulate blood glucose levels
Pasta is a complex carbohydrate, meaning they have more nutrients and are higher in fiber than simple carbs, and digest more slowly. Simple carbs – foods high in sugars, including fruit sugars – can cause your blood sugar to spike and tend to leave your body quickly.
Complex carbohydrates, like pasta, take longer to break down and digest. This means these carbohydrates release energy more steadily and for a longer period.
Paired with fiber, blood glucose levels manage to remain steady throughout a race after consuming pasta.
Fuels muscles through increased glycogen stores
Eating pasta in the days leading up to a race helps to carbohydrate load your body.
By loading your body with high-quality carbohydrates, you can increase the glycogen stores in your muscle cells. This leads to increased energy and improved performance.
Aids digestion with added fiber
Pasta is a grain high in fiber, which helps to aid digestion and ease stomach troubles during a hard workout or a race.
Fiber isn’t actively digested; it helps your digestive tract absorb nutrients and regulate bowel movements.
It tastes great
Most of these benefits are “it not only tastes great, but…” but, let’s face it, eating a meal you actually want before pushing your body to the brink is a nice treat.
Pasta is not only advantageous for runners, but it’s tasty too.
It’s much easier to eat healthy and treat your body right when the food is easy to eat.
What other foods should a runner eat?
While pasta is a favorite among the running community, it isn’t necessary to eat it specifically the night before the race.
There are plenty of other high-quality carbohydrates that can be beneficial to runners:
- White Rice – 28g of carbs per 100g serving
- Quinoa – 18.6g of carbs per 100g serving
- Potatoes – 15.4g of carbs per 100g serving
- Bananas – 23g of carbs per 100g serving
- Wheat bread – 47g of carbs per 100g serving
All nutritional values are found on RunnersGetUp. For context, a 100g serving of pasta contains 25g of carbs.
Aside from these five alternatives, runners could also eat foods high in simple sugars like candy or even bakery goods such as muffins.
If runners can eat those, why are they not considered great alternatives? Candy and bakery goods are high in carbohydrates but do not hold the same nutritious value as white rice, potatoes, etc.
The five alternatives listed are all complex carbohydrates high in fiber and nutrients that will help to sustain energy levels rather than spike them.
Is pasta or rice better for runners?
Both white rice and brown rice are awesome alternatives to pasta when carbohydrate loading for a big race! Is one better than the other?
Pasta is better for runners than rice but only by a slim margin. Both pasta and rice provide complex carbohydrates to runners for sustained energy.
It’s only by a minuscule margin that pasta beats out rice as the ultimate pre-race carb. Per 100g serving, rice has more carbohydrates than pasta, although it’s only slightly different.
Pasta is better than rice for its higher fiber content and quick digestion. When eating pasta, the carbs are readily available in a shorter amount of time than when eating rice.
Pasta’s high fiber content also helps to regulate blood glucose levels and ensure easy digestion. Rice cannot offer these same benefits.
What should I eat before a marathon?
General advice for marathoners is to avoid switching up eating routines around the time of the marathon. The last thing a runner wants is for his or her hard work to be negated due to tummy troubles. So, what should you eat before a marathon?
You should eat a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates before running a marathon to increase glycogen levels in muscle cells. Eat only a moderate amount to avoid digestion issues that could detract from race-day performance.
Complex carbohydrates (brown rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.) are your best bet for marathon fuel.
Eating these in moderation is important once you get close to the race. Running a race while trying to digest a meal can wreak havoc on your stomach and your performance alike.
The night before the race, eat a smaller dinner of complex carbohydrates that you have tested before. Don’t try anything new.
The morning of the race, make sure you eat small portions of complex carbohydrates around 2 to 3 hours before the race. This ensures your digestive system has the amount of time necessary to fully digest your meal before you find yourself on the starting line.
What should runners not eat?
To keep your body in peak running shape, it’s just as important to avoid highly processed foods that lack nutritional benefits. The quality of what you eat is just as important, if not more important, than the amount you eat.
To keep your body in good shape, avoid the following foods:
- Soda and diet soda – These are chocked full of sugar and artificial sweeteners that have been proven to have adverse health effects.
- Candy – Be mindful of your candy consumption due to its highly processed nature and high sugar content.
- Fried foods – While fried chicken and fries may sound like a treat, your body thinks otherwise. Foods fried in seed oils are extremely calorie dense and highly processed, which can lead to excessive weight gain.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is calorie-dense and takes a toll on your liver. If you choose to drink, opt for a spirit such as tequila or whiskey because of the lower sugar content.
- Full-fat dairy – Full-fat dairy can be hard to digest and holds many calories in small portions. Low-fat alternatives are ultimately a better option than their full-fat counterparts.
You may notice some similarities between these different foods – many of them are high in unhealthy fats or hold empty calories.
Opt for healthy fats like avocado or olive oil and avoid the empty calories entirely to keep your waistline in check and your body a well-oiled machine.
What should you not eat before a marathon?
Complex carbohydrates are great for fueling up before a marathon. However, avoiding foods that could upset your stomach or slow you down on race day is important.
You should not eat foods that are high in fiber or protein because these take longer to digest and release energy slowly. It’s also important not to eat new foods to avoid unexpected digestive reactions.
The best morning marathon meal is one of the simple carbs and a bit of protein – nothing more, nothing less.
Do not eat foods you haven’t tested before. For example, if you usually eat oatmeal before a run, don’t eat yogurt and fruit instead. Stick to your usual so long as it is nutritious and provides energy.
Foods high in fiber and protein can also be challenging to digest and should be avoided on the morning of a marathon. This includes foods like beans, certain cereals, protein bars, etc.
- About the Author
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Joshua Bartlett is a professional amateur when it comes to running – basically, he takes his mediocre running ability very seriously.
As the Editor-in-Chief at Saltmarsh Running, it is his job to make sure that readers get only highly-researched and comprehensive questions to all of their running questions.