How to fuel yourself for a marathon

You are what you eat, as they say… so choose your marathon nutrition plan and race-day running food wisely
February 18, 2014

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people decide they’re going to run a marathon.  You might well be one of them.  You pick a training plan, buy some running shoes, bid farewell to your family and start a fitness regime that will make Olympic athletes look lazy – which means you’ll also be burning lots of calories - an attractive thought to those on a weight loss mission.

But as any performance coach or personal trainer will tell you, if you’re going to complete a marathon, fuelling your body with the right foodstuffs is incredibly important.  For the elite runners, marathon nutrition is the difference between winning and losing. So, if we’re going to avoid hitting the proverbial ‘wall’ at mile 18, what running food should we take, if any at all? What about marathon hydration?  How often should we be taking on fuel?  And when should start?

There are a bewildering array of books and articles on this subject, but these are my five top tips based on what’s actually worked for me.

Practice eating on the run - find what works for you during your training

With over 100 endurance races to my name, including many marathons and ultramarathons, I’m still learning new things about my body.  But one thing I’ve quickly taken on board is that unless you have extra-large nostrils and happen to be going very, very slowly, trying to chew and breathe while running is rather difficult.  Moreover, it can also cause gastrointestinal issues - which is less than ideal.  So what do you do for fuel instead?

Step into any running shops and you’ll be faced with a bewildering array of energy gels, drinks and bars.  The key is to find those with the highest amount of carbohydrates - the key ingredient.  On your next long run, try it out.  Taste is really important - because regardless of what it might do for your body, if it doesn’t taste nice, you won’t use it.  If this is the case, go back to the shop and choose another.

I’ve learned this the hard way.  Which is why it’s crucial you start trying out different running foods during your training not on race day.  And don’t forget - almost all of them require you to drink water with them - which helps flush the carbs into your system.

The week leading up - balance protein with carbs

We’ve all heard about carbo-loading - which to the average layman means stuffing your face with as much pasta/wheat based food you can lay your grubby hands on. But the trick to marathon nutrition is to eat little and often. Your meal portions shouldn’t be any bigger - just more frequent. And although it’s easy to get hung up on carbs - protein is really important. It’s what makes your muscles stronger and ultimately repairs them.

Night before - carbo-loading 

Our bodies can only hold a finite amount of glycogen (carbs) - which for a 150 pound male would be around 14-24oz.  So there’s no point taking on more carbohydrates than we can physically hold or digest in the time available (around 2.1 oz per hour).  If you’ve gradually increased your carb intake throughout the week, the night before the race should be spent ‘topping up” and staying hydrated.

Race day - eating during a marathon

If there was one thing you need to remember, it’s don’t try anything new on race day -no matter how tempting it is. Have the same breakfast you always have - just make sure you have it several hours before the race.  And don’t drink too much water before the race. While marathon hydration is extremely important, you don’t want to be repeatedly dashing off to the toilet.

If you’ve gone down the gel route, you will probably have around 2-3 gels an hour, depending upon your marathon goals. It’s crucial, however, that you don’t wait until the last minute to have a gel.  You need to take your first gel within 30-45 minutes of starting and continue to top up as you run.  If you don’t, you’ll burn through your glycogen stores and begin to crash.  And don’t forget to keep taking regular sips of water, especially after a gel.

Post race

Just because the race is over, doesn’t mean you can totally relax. There are a few things you need to do.  First, try to drink a recovery shake within 20 minutes of finishing. Your body is crying out for not only carbohydrates but also protein to help repair the muscle damage.  Then make sure to drink electrolytes - especially if you can see white salt marks on your running apparel.  You’ll thank yourself in the morning!  After all, you still need to go back to work!