Properly fuel marathon running by incorporating and practicing these sports nutrition strategies as you train for your next event.

Incorporate these tips on how to properly fuel for marathon running into your training plan so that you are ready for your next long-distance running event.

It’s marathon season in Pittsburgh, and the anticipation with my clients is building!  I’ve received so many questions this week on how to fuel for the event. What to eat the night before? What to eat the morning of? Hopefully, this post will answer some or all of your questions.

Practice Sports Nutrition Strategies Before A Marathon

Hopefully, you are not reading this post the week of your marathon, trying to figure out how to fuel. If that’s the case, you’re too late. To properly train marathon running, you need to begin practicing months before the event, just as you do for your runs. The day of the event, you should feel highly confident in your fueling plan. You should know exactly what to eat, how much to eat, and how those foods make you feel. You should know, because you should have been practicing throughout your training.

Focus On Day-To-Day Nutrition

Most of the questions I get about fueling for a marathon revolve around running day. What to eat the evening before, or the day of an event. While those are very important, in order to properly fuel marathon running, you’ll need to focus on more than that. What you eat on a day-to-day basis has a significant impact on your race day performance. It’s important to eat a variety of nourishing foods eat and every day, not just running day.

It’s not often thought about, but getting adequate micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – is just as important as getting enough carbohydrates and protein. Training can impact vitamin and mineral requirements because of the increased physiological demands and stress of exercise. Activity can also increase the loss of certain nutrients, such as sodium through sweat, too. When you consider the role certain vitamins and minerals play in the body, it’s clear how they can impact performance.

Take iron, for example. Iron plays a vital role in oxygen delivery, which is critical to the performance of endurance athletes. Inadequate iron can result in iron-deficiency anemia, which  can decrease overall aerobic capacity, and therefore, performance.  Nutrients like calcium and vitamin D are important in maintaining a strong skeletal system and B vitamins play a crucial role in energy metabolism.

While I’m not going to get into all of the individual nutrients runners need in this post, it’s important to consider their importance. The best way to assure you’re getting all of the nutrients needed to support training, is to pay attention to what you eat each and every day, not just marathon day.

Common Marathon Fueling Questions, Answered

As I mentioned above, the most common questions I get around properly fueling marathon running, are regarding how to eat on race day, and the days leading up to it. I want to address those here, so you can practice your fueling strategies as you train for your next marathon.

Should You Carbohydrate Load?

The goal with carbohydrate loading (also known as muscle glycogen supercompensation) is to increase glycogen stores so that you have a greater supply of energy to fuel your run.  Years ago, extreme carbohydrate loading involved days of low carbohydrates, followed by days of a very high carbohydrate diet, and involved a depletion run a week before a race. That is not the case anymore. Achieving glycogen filled muscles can be achieved by simply eating more carbohydrates. This process, however, requires more than simply loading up on pasta the night before an event.  To maximize muscle glycogen, you shouldn’t stuff your body with foods that you don’t typically eat. Doing so can result in gastrointestinal issues and leave you feeling horrible. Instead, eat carbohydrate rich meals the day before the event for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Just be sure those meals include foods that your body is familiar eating, and you have practiced during your training. You can top off your glycogen stores in the morning, with a carbohydrate-rich breakfast. That will allow them to store the maximal amount of glycogen.

How Should You Eat The Week Leading Up To The Event?  

The weeks leading up to your marathon is not the time to be trying new foods.  Your diet should remain fairly consistent during this week.  That means the same well-tolerated carbohydrates that you (hopefully) have been eating while training.  Each meal should continue to be balanced and include healthy carbohydrate sources such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy.  Each meal should also include a moderate amount of protein and some healthy fats.

What Should You Eat The Night Before A Marathon?

The night before the marathon will look very similar to how you were fueling the night before your long run (you were practicing how to eat for your long runs, right?)  Think healthy, balanced meal.  The most important thing is that you don’t consume anything that might upset your GI tract or cause you to wake up feeling yucky.  Avoid high fiber foods or over consuming fats. Instead, have a balanced meal that includes complex carbohydrates, moderate protein and some fats.  A few of my favorite suggestions are chicken stir-fry over rice, chicken fajitas or pasta, but skip the garlic bread. Depending on what time you eat dinner, you may benefit from a bowl of cereal or something small before.

What Should You Eat The Morning Before A Marathon?

No doubt about it, eating before the event is critical to properly fuel marathon running. The goal of the pre-marathon meal is to top off your muscle glycogen stores so that you start the race ready-to-go. Choose easy digesting carbohydrates and stick to foods that you are sure you tolerate before running.  There is no “right answer” as to what to eat.  Avoid foods that are high in fiber and fat for sure. The more time you have before the race starts, the more food you can eat. Some examples include: English muffin with peanut butter & jelly, cereal with milk, piece of fruit, rice cakes with peanut butter, energy bars, etc. For more specific ideas, check out my post on what to eat before training.

How Should You properly Fuel And Hydrate During The Marathon?

There is no “best” food to eat during a marathon, but there are some strategies on how to properly fuel the event.  Your body will be using your muscle glycogen stores to fuel the race, and you will be losing fluid and electrolytes through sweat, so you’ll need to replace some of those losses while running.  Sports drinks are specifically formulated with simple carbohydrates, fluid and electrolytes to support you during your run. Other commercially made products, like sports drinks gels, beans, chews and bloks, provide the carbohydrates and electrolytes, but not the fluid. If you use those products, be sure to drink adequate water with them.

It’s not necessary to buy commercially made products to properly fuel marathon running, though. You can make your own sports drink, or drink water and consume foods that supply simple carbohydrates and some sodium. Raw fruits and dried fruits, such as pineapple chunks and raisins are some example, and even gummy bears. You just want to be careful not to over-do it, and too have these items planned and practiced. Consuming too much can result in GI upset and over consuming water without proper electrolytes can result in hyponatremia – a potentially dangerous health condition.

Recovery Nutrition

Of all of the sports nutrition practices that exist, the topic of recovery nutrition might be the most popular. There are specific guidelines on how to recovery quickly from a race, but unless you plan on doing more exercise later in the day, or have another race planned the next day, there’s really no rush to refuel your muscles. Continue to drink fluids so that you re-hydrate appropriately and make sure to have a healthy meal in the hours after the event.  Most importantly, though, enjoy your accomplishment and celebrate with some of your favorite foods, in moderation.

These are some general guidelines to follow as you prepare for your next marathon. If you are interested in a sports nutrition plan that is tailored to your specific and individual needs, consider working one-on-one with a sports dietitian that’s trained in working with endurance athletes. Enjoy the process, have a great time at the marathon, and celebrate your achievement.

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