Training to run 26.2 miles is not just about distance and speed. Instead, it's equally important to have a sports nutrition plan before, during, and after the marathon. This will boost your performance on the race day and play a key role in post-marathon recovery and going back to your training routine.
Unfortunately, most beginner runners have no idea what to eat before a marathon or during and after the race. As a result, they make various mistakes like taking heavy meals one day before the marathon. Similarly, other runners tend to overeat, making them feel nauseous or bloated during the race.
Therefore, an adequate diet before, after, and during training and competition in terms of quality and quality is crucial to your success. In this guide, I'll help you create the ideal diet schedule for your running goals, including what and how much to eat before, during, and after a marathon and when!
Let's dive in!
What to Eat Before a Marathon?
Your selection of the best pre-marathon meal is essential since it can either slow you down or positively impact your performance. Also, eating the wrong foods can make runners feel uncomfortable during a race.
Therefore, there are some foods runners should avoid before a marathon. A good example is food items with high fiber- and fat content. Such meals can upset your stomach since they're harder to digest. Besides, you need to wait at least 3 hours after eating a large meal before the race.
Good foods to eat before a race should be low in fat, protein and fiber but high in carbs. If you're performing intense workouts over 60-min or moderate 90-min sessions, you need around 30 - 60g of carbs per hour. This will help refill your glycogen reserves in advance, giving you the energy you need for the workout.
In addition, you should not try any new foods or deviate too far from your regular diet before a marathon. Instead, experiment with the types and quantity of the meals you usually eat before a race.
Some runners require up to 3 hours to digest food to run comfortably. At the same time, other runners can eat marathon snacks one hour before the race with no significant side effects. For that reason, it's essential to determine the type of marathon runner you are during your workouts. Make sure you consider this information while creating your marathon week meal plan.
How to Eat Before a Marathon?
5-7 days before the race
In most cases, runners often reduce activity 1 week before the marathon as part of their training regimen. Therefore, the energy needs are not as high as the previous weeks in his/her entire training program. Nonetheless, the runners must ingest adequate carbohydrates to keep the muscle glycogen reserves high as muscles get ready for the race day.
So, eat balanced meals that contemplate your regular eating patterns and good marathon snacks to reduce hunger. Also, the high-carb snacks and meals should include protein to boost muscle strength.
The best foods for runners at this stage include; brown rice, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole grains, quinoa, oatmeal, sandwiches, and bagels with peanut butter.
2-3 days before the run
Eat your last big meal 2 to 3 days before the run. This will give your body adequate time to digest everything you eat to ensure you don't feel bloated a few hours before the race.
More notably, consider carbohydrate loading and only eat foods you're familiar with. Eating new foods as the race day approaches can lead to gastrointestinal reactions. Carbohydrate loading helps to maximize glycogen stored in your muscles. This will allow you to run at an optimal speed for a more extended period during the marathon before fatigue sets in.
What to Eat 48 Hours Before a Marathon?
Ingest 10 to 12 g/kg of carbohydrates 2 days before the race to increase your body's energy intake. Even better, glycogen loading will improve hydration since 1 g of glycogen can retain around 3 ml of water. More importantly, make sure you reduce your protein intake and fats during this period.
Food options to eat during this time include; pasta, pizza, rice, and potatoes.
1 day before the marathon
One day before the run, focus on rest and continue with adequate carbohydrate intake. Again, eat regular balanced foods as you usually do on marathon training days. Also, make sure you drink sufficient liquids throughout the day, particularly electrolyte fluids like Gatorade. If possible, carry a water bottle around all day long to prevent thirst. At the same time, monitor the color of your urine to see if it maintains a 'straw-like' color.
Your main foods during this time should still be medium glycemic to low glycemic index meals. Interestingly, since you are not too active 24 hours before the run, you may feel full faster. The best runners' food 1 day before the race includes; white rice, pasta, sweet potatoes, bagels with bananas, and baked potatoes.
After that, easy small meals every 2 to 3 hours. And avoid various food items like nuts, dairy products, fried foods, and fats after lunch. Instead, consume light, digestible meals like small sandwiches, energy bars, and bread. Also, avoid high fiber and salty foods, but continue drinking electrolyte beverages and water.
What to Eat the Night Before Running?
Eat carbohydrate-rich meals with moderate fat and protein the night before the marathon. Moreover, avoid alcohol to sustain a more skill function, adequate hydration, and mental clarity on the race day. If you're still hungry after dinner, eat a carbohydrate-rich snack before you head to bed.
4 hours or less to the marathon
The main goal on the morning of the race is to fill your glycogen reserves. Studies suggest that topping off the glycogen stores postpones fatigue by about 20% in endurance events that last for over minutes. So, walk up early enough to eat a small breakfast before a marathon. This gives the body sufficient time to digest the food before the race commences.
Ingesting carbohydrates a few hours before a run increases the exhaustion time and glycogen stores. Therefore, the breakfast meal you eat on race day should be carbohydrate-rich. Also, it should be low in protein, fiber, and fat to prevent a crash or spike in blood sugar levels before the run starts.
The other goal you need to consider before you get to the starting line is to have fluid balance/ be in dehydration. To achieve that, you need to drink water with some electrolyte liquid 4 hours before the run begins. Alternatively, you can drink caffeinated coffee/ tea if you regularly do so, adding extra caffeine sources on race day. According to experts, you should drink 17 - 20 ounces of water with a pre-marathon meal, especially on a hot & humid day.
Foods Runners Should Avoid Before a Marathon
The foods you eat 24 hours before a marathon can cause runner's trots (gastrointestinal distress) after or during your runs. If that's the case, you need to eliminate certain foods from your marathon week meal plan to see if they make the difference. Some of these foods include;
⦿ Dairy foods
Consuming dairy products before a marathon can trigger a runner's trots, especially if you are lactose intolerant. However, if you've got a mild intolerance, it might only show up depending on the stress you exert on the body while running. Either way, you should avoid dairy foods in your diet 24 hours before the run.
Fortunately, you can consume various dairy substitutes if you experience issues after eating dairy foods before the race. They include lactose-free food items like almond milk, soy, and rice. As an alternative, you can try yogurts with live cultures and acidophilus milk since they contain bacteria that promote digestion.
⦿ High-fat foods
Foods that contain high levels of saturated fats digest slowly, making you feel uncomfortable during the race. Such food items include; deep-fried foods, bacon, cheese, hamburgers, pastries, and sausages.
⦿ Caffeinated beverages
Caffeinated beverages like coffee can cause diarrhea or stomach race while running a marathon. Moreover, some marathon runners avoid morning coffee since it's a diuretic.
What to Eat During a Marathon?
Most marathon runners can run for up to 60 min without needing additional fuel during the race, provided they've eaten an adequate pre-marathon meal. You only need a sports drink or water when running for less than an hour in most cases. But once you exceed the 1-hour mark, fueling during a marathon will enhance your performance in various ways.
As mentioned earlier, most of the energy that fuels your effects is generated by glycogen reserves in the muscles. Unfortunately, once these reserves are depleted, the body starts consuming sugar stored in the liver and blood. So, if you're running a marathon, which usually takes more than 2 hours, you've to take in carbohydrates to replace the lost glucose.
According to research, you should aim for about 30 -60 g of carbohydrates per hour, either from energy gels, real food, chews, or liquid nutrition. Various carbohydrates during a marathon include; 21-27g gel, banana, jelly beans, and an energy bar. Carbohydrates will enhance your performance during the race. For that reason, it's essential to take small bites of these foods to replenish carbohydrates during the race. Also, sports drinks, chews, and sports gel provide hydration, sodium, and carbohydrates in the form of fast-digesting sugars. For those who prefer natural foods during the run, recharge your body with various mid-run options like energy bars, grapes, bananas, and raisins.
However, you shouldn't take too much since it can have the opposite effect or cause gastrointestinal problems. On the bright side, your gut is very trainable, meaning you can train it to handle these carbohydrate sources. You can accomplish this by using these products to prepare for the race. Note, don't try new products on race day. Similarly, if you don't consume carbohydrates regularly, don't eat these foods. Otherwise, you'll end up with gastrointestinal issues during the run since your guts have reduced capacity to absorb carbohydrates. On the same note, avoid spicy foods, high-fiber foods, dairy products as they can cause gastrointestinal problems. More notably, avoid foods that are hard to swallow or chew while running.
Also, keep your body hydrated during the run by replenishing lost fluids. Dehydration occurs when you don't adequately replace the water lost through sweat and heavy breathing by fluid intake. Runners usually lose 3 - 5 kg of water when taking part in a 3-hour marathon.
A certain study demonstrates that dehydration can cause Gastrointestinal stress in athletes, including bloating, stomach aches, and cramps. Therefore, it's essential to drink a sports drink or water every 15 -30 min while running to avoid these issues. Also, as mentioned earlier, avoid fiber-rich foods in the morning and the night before the run since they can also cause GI issues and cramps.
How Much Fluid/ Water Should You Drink During the Race?
It would be best to drink enough fluid to replace sweat losses without exceeding them. Generally speaking, you can drink about 0-4 to 0.8 l of fluid per hour. However, this will vary depending on the rate of sweat loss. In essence, you should drink adequate juice to avoid dehydration of more than 2% of your body weight.
So, to determine how much drinking is needed, you've to consider the sweat rate and your weight before & after training weeks before the marathon. That way, you can subtract the weight after training from the importance before and add the number of fluids consumed to determine the sweat rate.
Athletes usually have the same sweat rates when running at the same pace and in similar conditions during the actual marathon. Cups used during a marathon often have a capacity of 5 oz (150 ml), but you only need to consume around 100 ml (3 oz) of that to prevent dehydration. An athlete's stomach absorbs 6 - 7 oz of fluid every 15 minutes during the race, equivalent to 24 - 28 oz per hour. However, you can improve this through training and practice if needed.
Marathon runners also need sodium (electrolytes) during the race since it helps absorb. Luckily, many sports drinks have sodium, although it is more concentrated in some drinks than others. Researchers claim that sports drinks help long-distance runners maintain electrolyte balance and provide energy from carbohydrates. However, it would be best if you did not take excess sodium since marathons are too short of causing severe losses that will affect your health or performance.
The best starting point of sodium intake during the run is around 200 - 500 mg per hour. But this tends to vary based on the runner's personal needs. For instance, athletes who eat few processed foods or sweat heavily will need higher sodium.
What to Eat After the Marathon?
After finishing your run, you need to do a little more work; eating post-marathon food. Although some runners feel the need to jump into the shower immediately after the run, you should never skip this step. It plays a crucial role in refueling your body and gives it adequate time to cool down and recover.
Best of all, this refueling process will start the post-marathon recovery process by triggering your body to switch from the catabolism to anabolism state. So, make sure you get a post-marathon food or snack, probably within 2 hours after the race, for your recovery. The same case applies when you have a second workout planned since post-workout fueling helps the muscles recover and prepare them for future exercise.
With that in mind, here are some nutrition tips for runners you should focus on after a run;
⦿ Post-marathon hydration is crucial!
Running 26.2 miles is an intense activity that will leave you dehydrated. For that, it's important to drink plenty of fluids immediately after the race to rehydrate your body. The best fluids to drink after a marathon are sports drinks since they contain sodium. Sodium helps to replace all the electrolytes that runners have sweat out during the race. Alternatively, you can hydrate with isotonic drinks since they've got the same concentration of sugar and salts as the human body.
How much fluid to drink after a marathon? Drink one 16 - 20 oz sports drink right after completing the race. Drink another one within the next hour. Repeat this process until your body is rehydrated.
However, you should avoid certain drinks and practices when hydrating after a race. First, avoid taking alcohol within the next 24 hours after a run since it promotes dehydration. Secondly, don't drink fluids based on your quench, as it will not depict all your fluid needs.
⦿ Proteins and carbs are good for post-race recovery
What you eat after a marathon usually depends on your fitness goals. For instance, if you intend to build muscle, you should eat high-protein food options. But if you're trying off some kilos, you should focus on lower-calorie food options. Whichever the case, you need carbohydrates and proteins to restore glycogen levels, rebuild muscle fibers and replace lost fluids.
The best post-race food options include light meals or snacks containing protein, carbs, and fluids like greek yogurt, a protein shake, or a bagel with nut butter. Alternatively, you can eat energy bars since they have a good carbohydrate to protein ratio. Afterwards, eat a full meal that contains healthy fats, lean protein, and fiber-rich carbs within 2 - 3 hours after the marathon.
Long-distance runners have unique nutrition needs before, after, and during a marathon. For that, it is essential to fuel your body with an ultramarathon diet during your recovery and training to improve your performance. More importantly, it would be best to have a solid marathon meal plan for the race day. This will give you adequate energy to finish the race and prevent gastrointestinal issues during the run.
Remember, the best running nutrition is not the same for all marathon runners. So, make sure you track your food intake and assess how it affects your body during a training session. This will enable you to make the necessary adjustments to your marathon week nutrition!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How to prevent dehydration during a long-distance run?
Take about 300 - 600 ml of fluid 15 min before the marathon begins. More importantly, drink 150 - 250 ml of fluid during the run regularly to replenish the lost fluid. In this case, the fluid may be plain water (for races that are less than 90 min) and isotonic/ sports drinks for long-distance runs like a full marathon. Avoid drinks with high sugar concentrations like fruit juices, soda, and cordials since they can cause stomach stress during the run or delay gastric emptying!
2. What do elite runners eat before a marathon?
Elite athletes usually stick to foods with a low-glycaemic index and high carbohydrates before a race. Such food options include; pasta, potato, rice, whole grain bread, oatmeal, etc. High-carb meals are the most accessible source of fuel for marathoners.
3. Can you run a marathon on an empty stomach?
Undertaking an intense activity like running while hungry will make you feel dizzy, irritated, confused, and lethargic. To avoid that, it's important to eat before the race to add some pre-run fuel. Also, eating a pre-race breakfast will regulate your blood sugar levels, promote post-run recovery and improve your performance.
4. How much should you eat when training for a marathon?
The ISSN suggests that runners following an intense training schedule should way 5 - 8 g per kg of carbohydrates every day. Also, an endurance runner's diet should include around 1.4 to 1.8g per kg of protein per day.