Marathon Nutrition - Before, After and During the Race

by Beth Thomas
A marathon is 26.2 miles, a running distance often listed on many people’s “bucket lists” as a feat to accomplish at some point in their lifetime. Recently, I checked this off of my own bucket list, however my road to the finish line was almost halted during the training phase due to poor knowledge about the importance of properly fueling my body.

When I first hit the pavement in January of 2009 after officially signing up for the race, my only thought about nutrition was, “this is great! I can eat whatever I want to because I will burn it off over the week”. So that is precisely what I did, not paying attention to what and how much I consumed, let alone the nutritional value of my meals and how my choices may help or hinder my training.

It was around the 2nd month of training that I truly felt the impact of my careless abandon regarding conventional marathon nutrition requirements. I became too tired to follow the suggested training schedule, was constantly consuming caffeine at work to stay awake, and would end up going to bed around 8:00PM. At first I believed that running so much was the culprit, however, after researching a bit on the web, I quickly realized that my lack of energy was most likely directly related to my lack of consciously preparing meals that would replenish fuel stores, prepare my body for the extra activity, and keep me going through the day.

Nutrition and training for an endurance event go hand in hand. According to “Nancy Clark’s Sport Nutrition Guidebook”, individuals in the training phase for an endurance event should consume a diet that is “carbohydrate based and balanced with adequate protein and appropriate fat”. More specifically, the endurance athlete should consume a daily diet consisting of four grams of carbohydrates per pound, equaling about 55-65% of the overall calories. The type of carbohydrates should be taken into account just as much as amount. During the training phase, most carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates (or those low on the Glycemic Index) as they will not cause a spike in blood sugar therefore giving your body a steady supply of energy. Sugar and other simple carbohydrates have the opposite effect, causing your blood sugar levels to rise rapidly, signaling your body to release insulin, which works to pull the carbs, or energy providers, out of your bloodstream causing your body to crash. I daresay that at the time of my free-grazing training diet, my intake of daily carbohydrates was substantially higher than, averaging around 75-80% of my total caloric intake and of those probably 50% came from simple carbohydrates and sugar, which ultimately caused the lack of energy and fatigue.

The week before the event, nutrition is also extremely critical. Fortunately, the week before mine, I had already realized the importance of nutrition, so I followed the recommendations to a tee. This phase is called the taper phase and should begin two to three weeks before the big race. During the last few weeks, the runner should maintain the same balance of carbohydrates within their diet, but reduce portion sizes since they will not be running the same mileage. The final week before the glory run, Rick Morris, author of “Marathon Countdown”, suggests that an athlete engage in a “super compensation eating plan”, whereby they will reduce their carbohydrate intake for a few days to diminish the carbohydrate stores in the muscles. This is followed by a loading phase for the final three days where carbohydrates should become 70% of the total caloric intake to maximize carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in the muscles. As in the training phase, carbohydrates should be complex or low on the Glycemic Index Scale.

Day before and day of race nutrition is also critical to set up you for success, a.k.a. the finish line. The day before the race, eat a larger meal with plenty of complex carbohydrates at lunch, followed by a smaller meal at dinner, and a light before bed snack. This will allow your body to fully digest so you won’t wake up feeling weighed down on morning of the race. For breakfast, Rick Morris suggests having a small meal of carbohydrates low on the GI scale with fat, such as a slice of “whole grain toast with butter and a banana”. Most importantly, avoid foods that have a large amount of fiber or that your body is not used to digesting. So if you never eat shredded wheat cereal, don’t start the morning before your race, unless you want to hit the bathroom a few times.

While running those long 26.2 miles, it is important to refuel the body about every 45 minutes with simple sugars (those high on the GI scale) that will enter the blood stream immediately giving your body a boost of energy. There are various products available that are specifically designed for this such as GU, Sport Beans, and energy bars/drinks. The most important thing to remember is to test these products out during long training runs. Do not, I repeat, do not try a new product, food or drink on race day unless you are willing to face the possible ill effects (think stomach aches and bathroom trips). After you cross the finish line, which by mile 25 may seem like it will never come, Hal Higdon, renowned expert and author in the Marathon world, suggests immediately replenishing your body with a “replacement drink, such as Gatorade” followed by easily digested, yet high in carbohydrate foods such as a banana or yogurt to quickly replenish the body with nutrients that the race has stripped.

[Editor's Note: This is called "recovery nutrition" and is an important part of bouncing back from an endurance event. ---Judy Learn]

Last, but definitely not least, is the aspect of hydration, as proper hydration enhances sports performance. While participating in an endurance event and while training, Higden suggests drinking six to eight ounces of fluid every 20 minutes while exercising. In addition, it is important to consume fluids two hours before and after your runs. Lastly, avoid over-consumption of caffeinated or diuretic beverages and consume enough liquid throughout the day so that your urine is a light yellow. This should be a standard throughout your training and beyond.

With proper training, nutrition, and hydration, you will be able to successfully accomplish what otherwise might seem like an impossible goal. Remember though, you cannot be active over a long period of time without the cooperation of your body. If your body is not properly fueled, it will not be able to cooperate. So if you too have set a goal of completing a marathon, ensure that running is not the only thing on your training regimen.
Sources:
Clark, Nancy.Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Third ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2003.
Higdon, Hal. "Post Marathon - Zero Week."Hal Higdon. 1999. 10 June 2009 <http://www.halhigdon.com/postmarathon/zeroweek0.html>.
Morris, Rick. "Hydration and Running - How Much is Enough?"Complete Marathon Running Training Programs - Marathon Training - Running Planet. 10 June 2009 <http://www.runningplanet.com/training/hydration-running.html>.
Morris, Rick. "Marathon Nutrition - Nutritional Tips for Running Your Best Marathon."Complete Marathon Running Training Programs - Marathon Training - Running Planet. 10 June 2009 <http://www.runningplanet.com/training/marathon-nutrition.html>.

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