Updated: July 24th, 2013

In the last few articles, we have examined what to eat around our running workouts for performance and recovery, discussed how top runners can fuel their potential, and looked at some important supplement options for runners.

This article will put these tenets together in the context of your actual marathon race. I will discuss carbo-loading protocol, race day nutrition, and what to eat immediately after your race for optimum nutritional recovery.

Marathon Nutrition: T-Minus 72hrs

With your last long run complete 6-8 days prior to your marathon, now begins a crucial period of glycogen restoration, muscle recovery, and hormone boosting. These things can be accomplished through training reduction, rest, and especially- nutrition.

Starting roughly 72hrs before your race, begin a regimen of high-carbohydrate eating to supplement your normal daily diet. Don’t overdo things at meal time trying to pile-on the plates of pasta, but rather make a conscious effort to have carbohydrate-containing snacks on hand at all times. This is carbo-loading without the purposeful “depletion stage” of old.

Bagels, energy bars, pretzels, baked potato chips, dried fruit, etc. would all be fine to include at this time; even if you wouldn’t normally have a snack at 10am between breakfast and lunch, try to have a handful or two of raisins or dried pineapple to keep your glycogen stores consistently stocked. At meals, reduce protein and fat intake slightly to make room for an extra serving of rice or potatoes. Do not try to eliminate any macronutrient from your diet, but rather switch your normal proportions a bit to include slightly more carbs than usual.

If you were on a diet before your marathon, relax it in this window and for several days after the race.

Marathon Nutrition: T-Minus 24hrs

The day before a major marathon, you will be nervous, perhaps travelling, or walking more than you realize around the bustling expo. DO NOT NEGLECT TO EAT AT REGULAR INTERVALS THE DAY BEFORE A MARATHON! You may be able to still nail a 5K-10K race with too little fuel in the tank, but the marathon is not forgiving in this regard.

Keep light snacks on hand to have while perusing the expo, chatting with racing friends you haven’t seen in a while, and in the car/plane while travelling.

The key meal the day before a marathon is actually not dinner like you may expect. You need 8-12hrs to process digesting food into useful muscle glycogen, so lunch the day before your race is very important. This would be the time to splurge a bit on the pasta, bread, and dessert, as you can use these calories to the max in your race the following morning. After this, you may need a good nap

The night before a race, eat a smaller meal than lunch, but still be sure to fully nourish your body. Avoid spicy foods, exotic cuisine, roughage, or anything you aren’t used to eating before longer runs and workouts. A big deli sandwich, a rice-based meal, light pasta dish with an olive oil sauce, or even a thin crust pizza might do the trick in topping off your glycogen tank at this time, but you have to find the right meal for your particular stomach.

Marathon Nutrition: Race Day…

When your alarm clock goes off at 5am on race morning, the outcome of your marathon may be unpredictable, but your pre-race nutrition doesn’t have to be. If you accomplish the below steps in regard to your nutrition before the race, you will toe the line well-fueled, alert, and ready to perform.

Hydrate

When you first get out of bed on race morning, try to drink 16-20oz of water or sports drink to rehydrate your body after a night’s rest. This fluid will help relax tight tissue after sleep, prime your muscles for running, and help you naturally wake-up as you dress for your race.

Get Alert

For some people, a mug of coffee or tea prior to running gets them ready to go in the morning. The caffeine, aside from helping you fight morning drowsiness, can also aid in performance by making free-floating fatty acids more available as a running fuel, and delaying the onset of fatigue.

If you aren’t a caffeine drinker, then use this time to go through a light stretching/mobility routine to get the blood flowing. This, of course, should be done whether or not you enjoy a morning cup of joe.

Fuel

After you’ve had some fluids, try to eat a small meal 2-3 hours prior to warming-up for your race (yes, you need to wake-up at least that long before your race). Go for some easy-to-digest carbs, a little bit of protein, and a little bit of fat for satiety before the race. Some good options are below that would contain 300-500kcals, a good number to shoot for prior to your 26.2mls.

  1. Bowl of Instant Oatmeal and a Banana
  2. Energy Bar, Banana
  3. Large Bagel w/ Spread of Choice
  4. English Muffin or Toast w/ 1tbsp of Peanut Butter and Honey, Sports Drink

During the Race

On the race course, there will likely be a variety of fueling options available to you. Hopefully you will have experimented with the drink and/or gels provided on the race course in training so you will know how you respond to them gastro-intestinally.

Never take a gel (concentrated carbohydrate solution) with a sports drink to wash it down, as this much sugar on a testy mid-marathon stomach may cause issue; go for water with your gels instead to aid absorption and rehydrate. The below plan should get you from start to finish just fine. The goals with mid-marathon fueling are to enable you to maintain pace, avoid the “wall”, stay reasonably hydrated, and recover faster from the event because you will be breaking-down less muscle tissue to cover the distance.

Pre-Start

Sip on water or sports drink up to ten minutes prior to the gun.

40min or 5mls– 4-6oz Sports Drink
80min or 10mls– 1 Gel, 4-6oz Water
120min or 15mls– 1 Gel, 4-6oz Water
200min or 20mls– 4-6oz Sports Drink
220min or 23mls– 4-6oz Sports Drink

Finish (water as needed along the way)

Post-Race

After you finish the race, expect your stomach to be “off” for a few hours. This is natural, and usually can be alleviated with some aggressive rehydration in the form of water or sports drink. Try to drink 24oz of clear fluid before you go near the beer tent. Grab a snack of your choice even if you aren’t hungry; a bagel, pastry, some fruit, chocolate milk, etc.

Walk around for 10-15min as your cool-down and to relax your leg muscles. Avoid deep stretching for 48hrs after to your race to allow any muscular micro-tears to heal, but you can perform some light range-of-motion work during this time if you are hurting.

As soon as you are able, try to eat a good meal similar to your lunch the day before. It is perfectly fine to splurge a bit after your race, dietetically speaking. You’ve earned a few days of true rest and recovery after your race, so enjoy this time away from a strict routine!

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