Proper training is the key to running a successful marathon, and nutrition is included in that. The type of food consumed, the amount and timing all need to be considered. I’ve seen nutrition go both ways in those who are marathon training. Some may think that just because they are training for a marathon they can eat whatever they want. Yes, your body will need more calories to sustain your training but if you eat more calories than you are burning then you will gain weight. A lot of people tend to overestimate the calories they are burning and underestimate the calories they are consuming. The other end of the spectrum are those who want to be as lean as possible for their marathon and don’t consume enough calories while training. This can make you more susceptible to injuries, illness and less likely to train to your full potential because your body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs to recover. I have been on both ends of the spectrum and finally found balance.
Nutrient Timing- how much, how often, and when?
To train to your full potential, your muscles need to be fueled with enough carbohydrate to provide energy for your entire run, with adequate nutrition provided after each workout for optimum recovery. Carbohydrate is stored in the form of glycogen and is used by the muscles during exercise. Your body has limited carbohydrate stores and when these stores get too low during exercise, you “hit the wall.” Anyone who has ever experienced this knows this feeling mostly consists of overwhelming fatigue and an urge to quit. I always get that feeling around mile 18-20 of my marathon and this is usually when I consume some sort of carbohydrate- usually a gel pack or chews.
Here is a 7- step plan for nutrient timing developed by Nancy Clark MS, RD, CSSD, one of my favorite sports dietitians who has had the great opportunity to counsel Olympic athletes and is a marathon runner herself:
1) Carbohydrate load daily to assure your muscles are always saturated with glycogen. By carbohydrate loading, I mean taking in 3-5gm carbs per lb body weight to prevent chronic glycogen depletion that can happen with low carbohydrate intake and intense training.
2) Taper your training- do your final hard training 3 weeks before the event and begin to taper at least 2 weeks out. This gives your muscles enough time to completely refuel with carbohydrate. This can be hard for most athletes- I’ll speak for myself on that one, I’m as hard headed as it gets when it comes to my training- but research proves that athletes perform better when they tapered for a least 2 weeks. Maintain your standard carb intake (3-5gm/lb), your body will use the excess calories to double your glycogen stores.
3) Eat enough protein- your body does use a small amount of protein for fuel and your muscles need the amino acids provided by protein to rebuild and repair muscle fibers. 0.6-07gm/lb body weight is sufficient. Most people get more than enough protein in their diet, and this generally is not an issue.
4). Choose fiber rich foods to promote regularity and keep everything in your GI tract running smoothly. If you carb load on white breads, fruit loops and jelly beans you will more than likely become constipated.
5). Plan your meals carefully. You know your own body- it may take some trial and error to figure out how to best fuel your body before a marathon. For example, if you have a jittery stomach you may need to eat a big lunch the day before a morning marathon and a smaller supper. You can carb load up to 2 days before the event to reap the benefits, this can allow you to eat a little less the day right before if you are worried about a nervous stomach.
6). Drink extra fluids- drink plenty of water and/or juice the day before the event and abstain from alcoholic beverages; they are poor sources of carbohydrate and can also be dehydrating- I learned this the hard way. Drink 2-3 glasses of water up to 2 hours before the event but refrain from drinking too much. Over-hydrating can be just as dangerous as under hydrating.
7) Eat breakfast on event day- carb loading is just part of your fueling plan, eating a good breakfast will prevent hunger during the event and help keep your blood sugar stable.
Eating before your runs
Eating before a workout is important for any exerciser. Just like you put gas in a car before taking it for a drive, you need to fuel your muscles before engaging in a workout.
Not eating before you run does you more harm than good. Some people have told me they don’t eat before they run so they can burn fat. It is true that your body will rely on fat as a secondary source of fuel if there is an inadequate amount of carbohydrate available. However, just because you burn through fat as an energy sources doesn’t mean that you will actually lose body fat- to do this you must create a calorie deficit. By eating a pre-exercise snack, you are giving your muscles the fuel to go longer and harder, which can create a higher energy deficit than you would have if you didn’t eat anything at all.
Pre-exercise fueling guidelines for running a marathon or fueling a training runs:
- Having a snack within an hour of exercise can help maintain normal blood glucose levels but does not allow enough time to replenish glycogen stores. Eating the recommended (3-5gm/lb body weight) amount of carbs every day will allow for you to perform at your best. Carbs are NOT the enemy!!
- Be sure to eat 60 minutes before the marathon or a long run with both carbohydrate and protein (such as a bagel with peanut butter or oatmeal made with milk). This will allow for sustained energy throughout the marathon as the protein will slow down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrate.
- Before a short training run (lasting less than 60 minutes), consume carbohydrate 30-45 minutes before you run that will digest easily. Examples include a granola bar or crackers.
- Be cautious with foods high in simple sugar such as jelly beans and honey, syrups, and jelly. These foods have been known to cause rebound hypoglycemia in athletes (a spike in blood sugar followed by a sudden drop) which can lead to dizziness and early fatigue.
- Allow adequate time for digestion. If you are participating in a high-intensity workout, allow for additional digestion. Your muscles will require a stronger demand for blood flow which will have priority over the digestion that may be taking place in your stomach. Failure to do so will result in GI issues during your race or training run- never a fun experience!
Fueling During Training Runs and the Marathon
When running for longer than 60 minutes, you can greatly improve your stamina by consuming 100-250 calories of carbohydrate per hour during your workout. The best would be to mix up the source of carbohydrate during prolonged exercise to get in a variety (sports drink and a banana, sports gels plus a fruit). Different sugars use different transporters in absorption, so you can absorb more carbohydrate and provide your muscles with more fuel by having a couple different types of snacks on hand.
Recovery Foods and Fluids
Your #1 priority after ending a hard workout should be replenishing your body with fluids and electrolytes so that your body can return to normal water balance. By weighing yourself before and after exercise you will know how much water weight you lost- 1lb lost= 16oz of fluid. When exercising in extreme heat or for long bouts (60 minutes or greater), be sure to replenish electrolytes lost in sweat by opting for a sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade.
Your second priority should be to replenish the glycogen stores (energy stores) in your muscles. Aim for 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per lb of body weight taken at 30 minute intervals until your next meal.
My diet varies quite a bit, but this is typical when I’m training for marathons:
Breakfast (6:45 AM): oatmeal with granola and PB2 mixed in, 1 banana or 1 egg scrambled with egg whites (probably about ½ cup) with fruit and Greek yogurt
After run: If I’m training in the summer I like to do a big smoothie with almond milk, frozen fruit, ground chia and a little bit of protein powder. This winter I’ve been grabbing a banana or orange and spreading some peanut butter on a couple crackers.
Lunch: salad with hummus for the dressing, chickpeas, avocado, handful of nuts, salmon or veggie patty on top.
Snack: I crave salty foods when I’m running a lot. I’m a grazer in the afternoon and try to eat whenever I get a chance- veggie sticks, pretzels, chips and salsa are typical choices. I make homemade sweet potato fries and carrot fries (recipe here) for Carli to snack on and reach for these as well.
Dinner: This meal varies the most but I always try to include in our family dinners a protein, grain or sweet potato, and lots of veggies. Our favorites are fish tacos, fajitas, chicken parmesan, chicken sausage with peppers, homemade veggie pizza. I always include lots of veggies and nutrient dense carbohydrate and aim to make the meal 25% protein. I add healthy fats in the form of oils, fatty fish and avocado.
Snack: typical choices would be a bowl of cereal, ice-cream, popcorn.