Fuel Right Before, During, and After Your Run
Remember this before you start training for a marathon: 26.2 miles is a frickin’ long way, and the last thing you want is a stomach churning like a washing machine while out on the road. Gobbling the wrong grub is one of the main issues runners face. Fortunately, recent research shows that a stamina-boosting food plan can strengthen your gut and boost your performance over the long haul. A smart nutrition strategy reduces the chance of a mid-race mishap, plus it fuels the body with the nutrients it needs to run fast and recover quickly. “It’s simple—runners who don’t eat what’s recommended...
Remember this before you start training for a marathon: 26.2 miles is a frickin’ long way, and the last thing you want is a stomach churning like a washing machine while out on the road. Gobbling the wrong grub is one of the main issues runners face. Fortunately, recent research shows that a stamina-boosting food plan can strengthen your gut and boost your performance over the long haul.
A smart nutrition strategy reduces the chance of a mid-race mishap, plus it fuels the body with the nutrients it needs to run fast and recover quickly. “It’s simple—runners who don’t eat what’s recommended will reduce their ability to achieve their best,” says Nick Morgan, performance nutritionist at awordonnutrition.com. “It’s not about miracle foods but about making the right food choices.” But as a growing body of research affirms, most marathoners are eating too much, too little, or the wrong stuff entirely. Here’s how to prime your body for top performance.
ONE WEEK BEFORE
Now is the time to increase your food intake, or carbo-load. Starchy foods like pasta and potatoes will fill your muscles with energy (glycogen), helping delay mid-race fatigue. You might think this is simple—eat pasta, devour bagels—but you can have too much of a good thing.
While the optimal amount of daily carbohydrate is 3 to 4.5 grams (g) per pound of bodyweight—or about 450 to 675g for a 150-pound guy—trying to go above and beyond with carb intake has no additional effect on your performance. “Your cells can only take a certain amount of glycogen,” explains Martin Sellens, Ph.D., professor of sports science at Essex University in the U.K. “Once your glycogen stores are full, additional carbohydrate will simply be converted into fat.” Worse still, a plethora of research shows consuming over 60g of carbohydrate per hour—that’s three bananas, if you’re feeling peckish—can lead to stomach troubles. And trust us, you don’t want to lug extra weight AND a sensitive stomach around a 26.2-mile course.
THE DAY BEFORE
If there was ever a time to enjoy pasta, it’s now. What you eat the day before a marathon is crucial, a 2012 study at the University of Minnesota suggests. Participants who ate moderate to high amounts of carbohydrate, or at least 3g per pound of bodyweight in the 24 hours preceding race day clocked the fastest times. They even maintained their pace past the 18-mile marker, when the poorly-fueled runners hit the wall.
“A lot of people say that carbo-loading the day before a marathon doesn’t work—they feel lethargic,” says Morgan, “but that’s because they’re eating the biggest meal they’ve ever had the night before racing.” Carbo-loading isn’t about eating as much as possible; it’s about eating a little bit more—an extra banana, a bigger helping of pasta—the day before the event.
ON RACE MORNING
Don’t let the anticipation of the race scupper your fuel strategy. Wake up and drink 500 ml of water, then eat 0.5 to 2 g/pound of carbohydrate—think a large bowl of cereal with two slices of toast with jelly and a big glass of orange juice—over the next 3 to 4 hours. “The nerves can take over. We found in one of our studies that people actually drank more fluid than they needed,” Morgan reveals. This can lead to nausea, bloating, and other stomach troubles.
To avoid upsets, come off solid foods 1 to 3 hours before the race and get your energy needs from sports drinks. “Don’t go overboard. The function of your pre-race meal is only to replace the liver glycogen that has burned overnight,” adds Sellens. “You want food to pass through your stomach by the time the race starts because, once you start running, blood moves away from the digestive tract to working muscles.” The human gut is not used to digesting with such low blood flow, another reason why your stomach may rumble.
DURING THE RACE
It has been known for eons that carbohydrate-rich gels and drinks boost stamina. How much do you need? The science-backed quota is 30 to 60g of carbohydrate per hour, or 1 to 2 gels and a swig of water to maintain hydration. “Our research shows that the average marathoner has just 24 grams of carbohydrate per hour,” reveals Morgan. “Control your pace, too. If you run faster than normal at the start of the race, you’ll burn more energy.”
Be mindful—all gels aren’t created equal. Gels boasting a combination of glucose and fructose increase the rate at which your body can deliver energy (ATP) from the gut into the blood, which is exactly what you want during the race. Try Powerbar’s Performance Energy Blend gel to get your fix.
AT THE FINISH LINE
Newsflash—your nutrition plan doesn’t stop when the race does. Within the first hour of crossing the finish line, rehydrate by guzzling some water and consume 20 to 25g of protein to aid muscle repair. A recovery shake is ideal.
“You need to prime the body’s recovery response as soon as possible,” says Morgan. “Protein and fluid are essential for this, and then eating 50 to 80 grams of carbohydrate will fuel your body until the next meal.” Most people don’t exercise for a few days after a marathon, so you’ll have plenty of time to replenish carbohydrate stores in the meals to come.