There’s no magic elixir in elite runners’ breakfasts (we’re not counting the doped-up cheaters who eventually get caught); no essence of cow heart or beetle-wing extract with mysterious performance benefits. The perfect breakfast is simple—boring, even. “Simplicity is king,” says Brendan Gregg, a professional runner and coach with the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project, who has a PR of 13:46:49 in the 5K. The rules for the perfect pre-race meal according to Gregg? Keep it high in carbs, easily digestible, and familiar, and eat it at least an hour before the gun goes off. With that in mind, try this nutritionist-backed and runner-approved meal to nab a PR at any distance.
1. Whole-wheat Bagel Drizzled in Honey
This is your main fuel cell—the energy reserve your body will use first after the race starts, because carbs burn more efficiently than fat and protein. “It’s almost universal practice for runners to eat a high-carb, low-fat breakfast,” says nutritionist and running coach Matt Fitzgerald. He recommends eating about 100 grams of carbs before a race of any length. This bagel with honey accounts for nearly 70% of that.
With about 27g of carbs, a banana should get you closer to the ideal 100g level, but it also does another important job—it fills you up. Runners on half- or full marathons will spend several hours gulping down only energy gels and sports drinks; whole foods like fruit give a little weight to the stomach before you toe the line, says Gregg.
Research has proved that caffeine boosts performance. In a recent study in Physiology and Behavior, coffee-fueled cyclists rode up to 2% faster than decaffed bikers. Fitzgerald recommends drinking a cup an hour before a race starts, but be warned: Coffee is a diuretic, so test how it sits in your stomach during training or you could end up on the pot instead of at the line at race time.
4. Beet Juice
This newcomer to the runner’s morning spread was shown to boost endurance by up to 16% in a U. of Exeter study. Beets are packed with nitrates, which, during exercise, convert into nitric oxide—a vital component in muscle contraction and oxygen circulation. Tip: Try BeetElite NeoShot, a concentrated beetroot powder you mix with water to make a 4-oz shot equivalent to eating six whole beets—about the same as a full liter of beet juice, but with a fraction of the calories and sugar.