Whether you’re training for a 50-mile endurance running race or tackling a 100-mile cross country mountain bike race, by the time the big day rolls around you’ve hopefully spent so much time out on on the trails that hydration and nutrition are second nature. Dr. Scott Costley, a board-certified family-medicine physician and IRONMAN athlete, sums it up perfectly by recommending that you “train as you race, race as you trained. Find out what the nutrition and hydration on the race course will be and train for those. Right down to the exact flavors.”
That being said, there will probably be a couple aspects that are different when it comes to the best way to hydrate before and during a race: first, that you’ll likely have access to aid stations and a race drop bag, and second, you’ll be psyched and hyped. “You might be tense—you can feel stressed out and end up skipping aid stations in order to keep up with everyone else,” Kevin Friedrich, an experienced Seattle-based endurance trail runner, says. “But doing that is really detrimental.”
Some runners find that anything they might want for fuel is supplied at the aid stations; others find it helpful to stash away their preferred snacks in a drop bag, especially if it’s a really long race. Other things to consider packing in your drop bag are extra clothes in case the temperature drops (especially a windbreaker), extra socks, a blister kit, and anti-chafing cream. Dr. Costley says he prefers to use the on-course hydration and uses his drop bags for food. “I suggest eating (rather than drinking) your calories when possible.”
For both calories and hydration, ideally, on race day you want to re-create everything that you practiced during your training runs. But really, the long and short of it is: “You have to be constantly putting stuff in your body, constantly eating and sipping water,” Friedrich says. It’s important to begin an event in a hydrated state and stay ahead of the “thirst curve.” A general rule of thumb is a 20 ounces of water per hour during the race and up to 30 ounces of water per hour when it’s hot. Of course, different people have different hydration needs, but this is a good place to start. Also, you lose a lot of essential minerals, like sodium, when running or biking. You should definitely be supplementing with electrolytes as part of your hydration and/or nutrition plan.
One last note on hydration: whether you like to swallow in stride or prefer to stop for few seconds, exactly how you drink your water down is up to you. Some people get cramps if they drink while running, so it can be helpful to at least slow down. The key is to make sure that you’re sipping and not gulping.