Running a marathon is a pretty big accomplishment, no matter what your overall time is. But if you’re looking to improve your future races or want to be successful any time you hit the pavement for over 20 miles, it requires more than just training well in the weeks leading up to the race. You also need to pay special attention to what you put into your body in the months prior to the race and on race day. What we fuel our bodies with can mean the difference between merely finishing a marathon and completing it feeling our very best.
Before the Race
Dr. Janet Brill, a nationally-recognized nutrition, health and fitness expert and certified specialist in sports dietetics says that “timing is everything.” Brill recommends consuming a snack rich in carbohydrates prior to exercise “to increase energy availability and speed post-exercise recovery.” As for how much to eat, she suggests a maximum of one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight times the number of hours before exercise.
“For example, a 220-pound man weighs 100 kilograms (divide pounds by 2.2). He should eat a maximum of 300 grams of carbohydrate if eating three-hours pre-race,” clarifies Brill. But that formula doesn’t exclude protein. You should also enjoy a small amount of protein in that pre-race snack.
“Adequate protein before exercise may help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness,” explained Brill. “Choose foods that are low in fat and fiber to ensure optimal tolerance.” And don’t forget to wash down that snack with fluids in the hours prior to a race to prevent dehydration. Brill divides her snack recommendations into timed tips.
1 to 4 Hours Before Exercise:
- Peanut butter and honey on bread + fruit and yogurt smoothie
- Oatmeal with brown sugar and almonds + banana
- Low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt + granola + fruit
- Lean hamburger or chicken on bun + side salad + fruit and yogurt parfait
- Turkey and Swiss sandwich + fruit
30 to 60 Minutes Before Exercise:
- Sports drink or water (aim for sports drink if last meal was over three hours prior)
- Sports gel, sports bar, sport beans or gummies
- Fruit puree pouch such as applesauce
- Piece of fruit, crackers or jam sandwich
Olivia Wagner, an Integrative Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Chicago and owner of Liv Nourished, LLC, suggests that two to three hours prior to the marathon, runners should consume a “well-balanced meal with mixed carbohydrates, anti-inflammatory fats and clean proteins.” Enjoy fruits, vegetables and “high-quality sea salt” to enhance those pre-race needs for electrolytes.
That meal should include:
- Mixed carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, oats, beans/legumes (complex) and fruit, vegetables and honey (simple).
- Anti-inflammatory fats like raw olive oil, raw nuts and seeds, nut butters, avocado and olives.
- Clean proteins: wild caught fish, pastured poultry and eggs and grass-fed meat is always best.
Wagner suggests a snack that is consumed 90 minutes prior to the marathon consisting of “easy to digest carbohydrates and a little bit of fat,” such as a banana with chia seeds and coconut water. One hour to 30 minutes prior to the marathon, Wagner recommends a small snack with easy-to-digest carbs and electrolytes, such as cherry juice mixed with chia seeds and a dash of sea salt.
Specializing in sports nutrition, self-described “avid runner” Kristen Lakoma is a Registered Dietitian who has been working at Evolution Nutrition for the last four years. Lakoma says runners should choose pre-race snacks consisting of “simple, carbohydrate-rich foods that are rich in vitamin C, iron and sodium.” She cautions that it’s best to limit foods that are high in fat and fiber to avoid stomach discomfort during the race.