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Fueling during a marathon is tricky, but your performance will undoubtedly reach new heights once you nail your marathon nutrition plan. Throw plant-based eating into the mix and you may feel completely overwhelmed with fueling for a marathon.
The good news is that I’m a plant-based Sports Dietitian who has written a book dedicated to fueling plant-based endurance athletes, and I’m a marathon runner. That means I’ve made the nutrition mistakes so you don’t have to!
Working with athletes over the years, I often hear myself saying the same things over and over again. As a matter of fact, these 10 nutrition tips come up so often that they deserve their own article!
Here are my top nutrition tips to help you ace your marathon (or half marathon) and perform at your best.
1. Don’t neglect pre-workout fuel
Whether you’re an experienced marathoner or a first-timer, it’s important to properly fuel for every training run. Carbohydrates provide energy for running, so they are an important part of your diet.
Although the amount of fuel you need varies based on mileage, a good rule of thumb is to eat 30-60 grams of carbs 60 minutes before a run. Focus on simple carbs, otherwise known as foods that are easy to digest, like a bagel, a piece of fruit, or some graham crackers.
These pre-run carbs supply energy for the first 60-75 minutes of running. Marathon training also requires taking in nutrition during the run, which we will touch on in tip #6.
If you have more than 60 minutes before your run, eat a well-balanced meal with carbs, protein and fat. This takes time to digest and will provide long-lasting energy. Use this graphic as a guide for fueling your run:
2. Practice recovery nutrition after every run
Posts-run recovery nutrition is essential for repairing and refueling tired muscles. Proper recovery nutrition is even more important for marathon runners with intense training plans.
Not only does recovery nutrition prevent the tired “dead legs” that often sprout up during marathon training, but it also keeps you from feeling ravenous.
The ideal recovery meal has both carbs and protein to replace glycogen stores and repair worn-down muscles. You should have a recovery meal or snack after every training run, such as a glass of chocolate milk (or soy chocolate milk), a smoothie with fruit and protein powder or a tofu scramble.
3. Eat colorful foods every day
There’s a popular saying in the world of nutrition: “Eat the rainbow.” Different colored foods offer a wide array of nutrients. For example, orange carrots are rich in Vitamin A, green broccoli is a good source of Vitamin C and black beans are full of iron.
Not to mention that different colored plant-based foods have distinct antioxidants. Purple/blue foods are known for their heart-healthy anthocyanins. Red strawberries have a compound called ellagic acid. Citrus contains an antioxidant known as hesperidin.
Eating a varied diet ensures that you get different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to keep the body strong and healthy for your training.
4. Pay attention to micronutrients
It’s normal to focus solely on marcos and forget about micros, aka the micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are vital for staying healthy during marathon training, especially these three:
- Vitamin C. A deficiency can strain the immune system, so make sure you eat plenty of vitamin C-rich fruits and veggies, like citrus, mango, berries, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin D. Most people don’t get enough Vitamin D, especially in the winter when the sun is less potent. This nutrient is important for bone health, and the last thing you want is weak bones during marathon training! Vitamin D is only found in a few foods, like eggs, mushrooms, Brazil nuts, and fatty fish, so you may want to ask your doctor about a supplement.
- Calcium. This bone-building mineral is the best buddy of Vitamin D. Luckily, it’s found in plenty of foods, like dairy, soy products, nuts, and leafy greens.
5. Hydrate often
Most runners neglect hydration because they don’t think it makes a difference. But hydration is one of the easiest things to tweak to reap big rewards.
If you’re not drinking at all during your training, now is a good time to start. Buy a handheld water bottle and bring it with you on training runs.
Remember this– you can tell if you’re properly hydrated by your urine color. If it’s pale yellow, you’re hydrated. If it’s dark yellow, you need to take in more water. Easy peasy!
To assess your hydration status, calculate your sweat rate.
6. Add fuel during long runs
Your body naturally stores fuel for exercise in the form of glycogen, but it has limited storage space. The combination of glycogen and dietary carbs provides energy for about an hour. For runs lasting longer than an hour, it’s necessary to replenish carbs to have enough energy to finish the run.
Ideally, you’ll want to take in 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour of running, after the first 60 minutes. Thirty grams of carbs looks like 20 ounces of sports drink, one sports gel OR one banana. If you’re new to this, use long training runs to start with a smaller amount, like 8 ounces of sports drink, 1/2 a gel or 1/2 a banana. Once your stomach can tolerate the smaller amount, add in more fuel.
These products definitely help, but they may upset your stomach at first, so start slow until you learn what you can tolerate.
Find the type of mid-run fuel that works for you during training and bring that to race day. Don’t rely on what’s on the course, since you shouldn’t try anything new on race day.
[Read more about handling stomach issues while running here.]
7. Test your nutrition on training runs
Because fueling while running can cause digestive issues, it’s important to try it out during training runs. Your digestive tract isn’t used to running and taking in food at the same time.
The constant up and down motion of running coupled with the blood flowing away from the gut and towards the working muscles usually results in a wonky stomach. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Just like you train your muscles to run, you need to train your gut to accept fuel during running.
A good way to practice is to simulate race day conditions on long run days. Figure out when it’s best for you to take in fuel during that practice run.
8. Research the hydration and nutrition stations on the race course
Races vary drastically, based on the location and time of year. Some races, like those in NYC, have a hydration station at practically every mile marker and a fueling station at least once during a half marathon.
Others, in more remote locations, have fewer hydration and fueling stations, and you may want to carry your own fuel of choice during the race. Research this well ahead of time so you know when you’ll be able to drink and fuel during the race, and practice this during your training.
9. Practice your race day morning nutrition strategy
Waking up at the crack of dawn and trying to fill your belly with carbs is not exactly easy to do. You may not be hungry when you first wake up. That’s why you should practice race day morning a few weeks prior, preferably on a long run day.
Wake up at the time you would for a race, eat the pre-race breakfast and start your run at race time. See how your stomach reacts to the food and observe if your muscles have enough fuel to get you through the long run. And don’t forget to drink water before the race!
10. Don’t eat anything new on race day!
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again– don’t try anything new on race day. You wouldn’t use new gear on race day, so don’t try any new food or fuel. The stomach knows what it likes and doesn’t always enjoy new foods. Stick with what you practiced and you will ace your race day nutrition!