Training for a marathon requires a lot of commitment and determination. It is one of the most challenging events you can put your body through, so getting your nutrition right is a massive bonus to support your training and keep you fit and healthy. As you edge closer to competition it’s important to have practiced your race day nutrition so you can maximise your performance when it matters most. Get the most out of your training and arrive at the start line with these practical nutrition strategies.
Fuel for the work required
What you eat should reflect your energy requirements to fuel your daily training volumes. Consistently under fuelling your body during periods of intense training can negatively impact your performances, but also lead to illness and injury. Many years’ research has consistently shown that muscle glycogen is the primary energy source during endurance exercise, and depletion of these stores is directly linked to fatigue (Bergstrom et al., 1967). Carbohydrates supply the muscles with glycogen and therefore are considered as the energy foods.
In the hours before training you should aim to include carbohydrates in your meals to fuel your run. The timing of your pre-race meal and what you eat will be down to your preference, however allow sufficient time (2-4 hours) for the food to be digested to prevent gastrointestinal issues during the race.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Porridge with dried fruit and honey
- Bagels with peanut butter
- Eggs on toast & fruit juice
Start thinking about what foods work best for you to plan for what to eat before the marathon.
As the duration of your training increases beyond 90 minutes, you should also be practicing consuming carbohydrates during training to maintain energy levels. This can be done through carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks, gels or solid foods. For a marathon you should aim to consume approx. 60g carbohydrate per hour (Jeukendrup et al., 2014). Two Energels provides 50g carbohydrate. Staying hydrated is also essential during prolonged training to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat.
As previously mentioned, it’s important to monitor your strategies as gastrointestinal issues may occur. Minimizing this risk is vital to improving performance.
Recovery is just as important as the training session. If your body doesn’t recover properly then you increase the risk of illness and injury and training performances may be hindered. High quality proteins help to repair damaged tissue and promote training adaptations, and 25-30g leucine rich whey protein is recommended to maximise this response. It’s also important to replenish your muscle glycogen stores and rehydrate after training. Milk is the best thing to have after intense training as it is more effective for stimulating protein synthesis and rehydration, improving subsequent exercise performance and attenuating exercise induced muscle damage than any commercially available sports supplement (Karp et al., 2006; Shirreffs et al., 2007; Cockburn et al., 2010). Milk is also rich in calcium to promote bone health. If you require additional carbohydrates then you can also make a smoothie by including antioxidant rich fruits.
Check out my previous article on functional foods to maximise recovery.
Fuelling low-intensity training and rest days
If you’re doing a short 30 minute run, does that mean you need a huge bowl of porridge before it? No it doesn’t. So what do you eat on easy training days and rest days?
Remember that carbohydrates are the energy foods, so you don’t need as much on these days. Reduce carbohydrate intake and increase protein and include high quality unsaturated fats (e.g. omega-3).
Easy/low-intensity runs can be done before breakfast with the goal of increasing training adaptations (Van Proeyen et al., 2011). This helps the muscles to become more efficient at using fat and carbohydrates as an energy source, reducing the reliance on carbohydrates for fuel thus preserving glycogen stores for periods of increased intensity e.g. hill climbs, sprint finish.
Preparing for competition – carbohydrate loading
In the days before competition, it’s important to ensure your primary energy stores (muscle glycogen) are full and you’re well hydrated so you arrive at the start line ready to race.
Carbohydrate loading consists of increasing the amount of carbohydrate you eat the day(s) before competition. It is generally recommended to consume 8-10g carbohydrate per kg of body mass. Therefore if you weigh 70kg, you should aim for 560-700g of carbohydrate. This is the equivalent to 9 large potatoes, 750g raw pasta or 17½ 500ml bottles of Lucozade sport. In other words, a lot of carbohydrate!
Reducing total fibre intake and avoiding large quantities of dairy, fat and protein rich foods are recommended to prevent gastrointestinal discomfort.
Instead, focus on energy dense carbohydrate foods with adequate sources of protein and unsaturated fats, and hydrate well to support muscle glycogen synthesis.
Table 1. Example menu providing 10g·kg·bm for a 70kg athlete (700g).
100g porridge oats
300ml skimmed milk
2 tbsp. raisins
2 slices wholemeal toast with jam
400ml apple juice
1 Energy gel
100g chicken breast
100g white basmati rice, raw weight
250g low-fat rice pudding
500ml Hydration formula
80g cornflakes (or similar)
250ml skimmed milk
500ml Lucozade sport
100g grilled cod/haddock fillet
400g mashed white potato, raw weight
2 grilled tomatoes
400ml apple juice
Total – 700g
The main preparation has been done the days before race day, so the aim of the pre-race meal is simply to ‘top up’ the already loaded muscle glycogen stores and replenish liver glycogen stores after an overnight fast.
By this point you should have extensively practiced your pre-race meal in training so you’re comfortable with it and should not cause any digestive discomfort. Based on personal preference, a typical pre-race meal will be a combination of the options listed above, and depending on when you eat should contain 1-4g/kg carbohydrate (1g/kg/hour).
For example: a 70kg athlete eating 3 hours before the race (3g/kg/hour) will aim to have approx. 210g carbohydrate.
In the hours loading up to the race you just need to focus on hydration. Water and Nutrition X’s Hydra 10 are recommended to ensure you start the race well hydrated.
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Bergstrom, J., et al. (1967). Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 71, 140-150.
Cockburn, E., Stevenson, E., Hayes, P., Robson-Ansley, P., & Howatson, G. (2010). Effect of milk-based carbohydrate-protein supplement timing on the attenuation of exercise induced muscle damage. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 35: 270–277.
Jeukendrup, A. (2014). A step towards personalized sports nutrition: carbohydrate intake during exercise. Sports Med, 44, S25–S33.
Karp, J., Johnston, J., Tecklenburg, S., Mickleborough, T., Fly, A., & Stager, J. (2006). Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 16: 78-91.
Van Proeyen, K., Szlufcik, K., Nielens, H., Ramaekers, M., & Hespel, P. (2011). Beneficial metabolic adaptations due to endurance exercise training in the fasted state. J Appl Physiol 110: 236–245.
Shirreffs, S., Watson, P., & Maughan, R. (2007). Milk as an effective post-exercise rehydration drink. Br J Nutr. 98: 173-180.