Fuel Your Marathon Running

Find out what to eat and drink both pre-race and post-race in order to properly fuel your marathon and recovery.

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Your fuelling strategy is key to a good marathon performance. Get it wrong and your marathon can turn into a nightmare. By eating and drinking correctly before, during and after you race you can go some way to ensuring that your marathon and your recovery goes to plan.

Be prepared

As marathon race day approaches, you will be building up your training levels and starting to think about nutrition preparation.The key to success is to be both physically and mentally prepared. You have already put in the hard work in the weeks prior to the marathon, and ideally you will have been refueling with a high carbohydrate diet to maximize your carbohydrate stores (muscle and liver glycogen stores).

Avoiding 'the wall'

During the marathon, glycogen stores will start to deplete as the body has a limited supply of carbohydrate, which is why it is so important to make sure these levels are maximized to improve your endurance on the day. As the race progresses you will start to deplete these stores so to ensure you do not run low or 'hit the wall' you will need to top up your blood glucose levels with extra carbohydrate. This can be from sports drinks, gels, sports bars or food, the choice is yours, so take this opportunity now to practice during training and find what works for you.

Diet preparation for the race

A balanced diet that is high in carbohydrate and low in fat, and provides foods from all essential, food groups ensures that you are having an adequate supply of all nutrients. Make sure that you eat breakfast and if you can't stomach a meal, try a fruit smoothie drink to make sure that you are not running or training on empty.

Eat within two hours following training as this is when the body is most efficient at storing carbohydrate. If you do not refuel adequately on a regular basis, this will cause reduction in your carbohydrate stores, making training more difficult.

Do I need to carbohydrate load before the run?

In recent years carbohydrate loading has been modified and run training is tapered down over the week before the race. Continue with your high carbohydrate training diet containing around 5-6g carbohydrate per kg of body weight (approx 2-2.4g of carbohydrate per lb of body weight). Carbohydrate intake should then be increased slightly to 8-10g per kg of body weight in the three days before the race.

Pre-race breakfast ideas

Here are a number of simple ideas of what to eat for breakfast prior to your marathon:

  • Breakfast cereal with skimmed milk, fruit, toast and juice
  • Muffins or crumpets with fruit, yogurt
  • Rolls and sandwiches with low fat filling, yogurt, and fruit
  • Fruit smoothies or fruit flavored yogurts

Pre-run meal

On the morning of the marathon, you will need to take a light meal allowing three to four hours for it to digest. You may find it difficult to eat because of nerves; in this case try using a liquid meal such as fruit smoothie, or fruit yogurt drink. Ideally the pre-marathon meal should contain about 200-300g of carbohydrate and should be low in fibre, so that it does not cause a stomach upset. It is important to practice the pre-marathon breakfast during training to find out what works best for you.

Take a snack, or drink in the hour before the marathon for an extra boost of energy to help delay fatigue; try dried fruit, low fat fruit yogurt, cereal or energy bar, a jam sandwich or a sports drink. Drinking 400-600mls (14-21 fl oz) of fluid, two hours before the race, allows you to hydrate and also find time for a visit to the toilet. Then top up with 200-250mls of fluid (7-8.7 fl oz) 15-20 minutes before the race starts.

During the race

Ideally, during the race you will need to start topping up carbohydrate levels to ensure you don't run out. Start after about 30 minutes into the race, aim for about 30-60g carbohydrate per hour and continue at regular intervals. Try energy bars, gels, bananas, dried fruit-bars or an isotonic sports drink.

Start to replace fluids early into exercise, don't wait to become thirsty. It is easier to drink small amounts frequently to avoid gastric upset. Start replacing fluids within the first 30 minutes of exercise, aim for 150-350 mls (5-12 fl oz) of fluid every 15-20 minutes during exercise. An isotonic sports drink is an ideal way to refuel and rehydrate. If you've not already done so, start practicing drinking during training to help reduce stomach upsets during the race.

Ideas for carbohydrate during the race include:

  • Sports drink
  • One energy gel
  • Two cereal bars
  • 60g jelly beans, wine gums or jelly babies
  • One jam sandwich
  • Two pieces of fruit
  • Two handfuls of dried fruit

After the marathon

Celebrate and enjoy what you've achieved. However, following the marathon, as spirits are high, it is easy to forget about recovery. Remember to eat within the hour to make sure that your body has the fuel to start to recover. Eat a carbohydrate snack with some protein, for example, fruit yogurt and sandwich, banana and yogurt drink, sandwich and tinned rice pudding, or try a recovery bar and recovery sports drink.

Start replacing lost fluids by drinking until urine appears pale in color. Eat a high carbohydrate meal following the marathon and continue to eat carbohydrate-rich meals for the next week to replenish stores.

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