Carrying my calories on a Fuel Belt.
Amy left this note for me on Facebook:
“I was just curious if you had any tips or blogs or any help on nutrition for running a marathon! I ran my first Marathon about a week and a half ago. It did not go to well, I got really dehydrated and hit the wall fast, after that ! 17-23 turned into the death zone! Anyway I did train but my stomach is just not that good and cramps a lot! So it is hard for me to drink a lot and eat much of anything while I run! Also I lost weight training which is okay but I do not want to lose weight again! I am going to start my training up again in June for the Chicago Marathon. I would just like to feel good while I run and I know the key to this is nutrition! Distance wise I felt I was prepared! I am pretty sure I did not eat enough food before, looking back now! So if you have any pointers, info, book whatever I would love to hear it!! If it matters I do not run to fast but would love to pick it up for next Marathon! However not feeling like death would be great !!”
Amy, you are not alone! When I first started running marathons, I didn’t even like to drink on the run. The idea of drinking 4-6 ounces of every 2 miles seemed crazy. That is one of the reasons that I had trouble starting at about mile 17 on my first marathon as well.
Marathon Nutrition is a tricky thing. For most of us, our bodies will begin to run out of resources somewhere between mile 15 and mile 17 if we are not careful before and during a marathon. I will split the nutrition advice into three stages: training, tapering, & race day.
Nutrition During Training
Before I get specific about foods and supplements, let me make one comment about weight loss. Marathon training means an increase in weekly mileage and a gradual increase in the distance of your weekly long run. As your mileage increases, your need for nutrition increases. As a result, marathon training is not very compatible with weight loss. You need more carbs during marathon training, not fewer.
As for the specific foods to eat to maximize the benefits of your training, the answer is simple: eat healthy. Instead of cutting back on food to get healthy, you should be changing the kind of food that you eat. As with any time, you need a balanced diet. You also need to eat less and less processed foods while increasing the amount of simple natural foods. Dietician Cassie is always talking about striking a balance at each meal with PFC: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. In marathon training, it is still ideal to balance these three, with an increased emphasis on carbs. While carbs are the focus in the last days of the taper, you must keep eating healthy fat and a good amount of protein at each meal. Here is my blog post about protein for runners.
Some folks, including me, need a little extra help from supplements during marathon training. I need extra the electrolytes offered through capsules, tablets, drinks, & powders. I mostly stick with Endurolytes Capsules from Hammer Nutrition. Each electrolyte supplement has different directions to follow. Personally, I need more than the average person. I know that I need more electrolytes when my leg muscles are twitching a little bit while I am relaxing after my workout. Finding your electrolyte balance during training & especially on your long runs can save a great deal of pain and cramping during the marathon!
Nutrition During the Taper
The taper is usually about two weeks of gradually lowering your mileage and effort as you approach the marathon. Nutrition for most of the taper period is no different from during the rest of training. It is normal and healthy to gain a few pounds, especially during the last week before the marathon. Your body knows what is coming and is storing energy, electrolytes, and water. This weight gain is good. You will use it all during the marathon, I promise!
In the last 48 hours before the marathon, you will no longer stick to the protein/carb/fat balance that you normally consume. You will gradually reduce your intake of protein and fat while increasing your healthy carbohydrates. You also want to shift towards carbohydrate sources that have less fiber.
Jeff Galloway makes the following suggestions:
1. Don’t try anything new.
2. Go through the same schedule and foods that worked for you in training.
3. If you hear sloshing in your stomach, you don’t have to drink for the next 30 minutes.
- 24 hours and before: Plenty of liquids all day long, especially electrolyte fluids. Before marathons you can eat extra carbohydrates.
- 18 hours before race: Start eating small meals, every 2-3 hours. Keep drinking fluids. After lunch, cut out red meat, fried foods, dairy products, fats, nuts, and roughage.
- 12 hours before race: Don’t overeat. Only light, digestible foods like energy bars, bread, small sandwiches, which you’ve tried before long runs and races. Keep drinking water and electrolyte fluids. Avoid salty foods.
Nutrition on Race Day
Before a marathon, you need to have a substantial number of calories in the morning. One expert suggests consuming enough easy-to-digest carbs to provide 200 calories for each hour you are awake before the race. Keep it simple. Avoid fat of any kind on race morning. Whatever you eat that morning, get it in your body about 3 hours before the start. As the start approaches, shift to your race fuel. (gels, sports drink, …)
Water mostly, with some electrolyte fluid, in small, regular amounts. Cold water is absorbed quicker. I recommend 6 oz. every hour, 8 oz. on hot days. If you want Vitamin C, take it two hours or more before the race.
DURING the marathon is even more complicated. For a half marathon, most just need one or two gel packets to make it through. There are mathematical formulas involved in the calculations for marathons and other races longer than the half marathon. At 160 pounds, I know I personally have to consume around 1,100 calories through gels and sports drinks along the marathon route in order to avoid running out of energy.
Here is what Lucia Mahoney from FitBodyNutrition says about fueling during the marathon:
- under “normal” conditions, the average runner needs 16-32 fluid ounces per hour of exercise. For best absorption, drink 1/2-1 cup of fluid every 15-20 minutes. You will require more on very hot or humid days.
- for every pound you lose on a run, 2 cups of water are required to replace.
- 1 pound of sweat = loss of 500 mg sodium (the equivalent of 1/4 tsp of salt)
- dehydration will increase body temperature, reduce blood volume and thereby weaken muscular endurance and strength. Result —-> you slow down
- your gel or sports drink should include electrolytes; studies show that ingesting electrolytes (remember: sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium) during the run will improve performance and help delay fatigue. Electrolytes are important for muscular contraction and for optimal absorption & retention of fluids
- **how much do you need?** Carb intake during prolonged exercise should be approximately .5-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per hour. A 165 lb (or 75 kg) athlete would therefore need 37.5-75 grams per hour. That is equivalent to 2-3 gels or 1-2 gels plus 8-20 ounces of sports drink per hour (most gels contain 20-25 grams of carbs and sports drinks contain 12-14 grams/8 oz)
- important: each gel must be taken with 8-10 ounces of water (not sports drink) to promote absorption and avoid gastrointestinal distress
Start your eating and drinking within the first mile or two.
If you start your fuel and water intake after 2 miles,
you may have already ruined your marathon.
Be careful to consume enough of everything your body needs to succeed at the task that you are asking it to accomplish.
Train hard, eat well, & enjoy the run!
Check out these books by P. Mark Taylor for more advice on running:
The Gift of Running: A Book for Runners & future runners
Wise Running: Thoughts on Running and Life