Just because running isn't a contact sport doesn't mean there's no risk of injury. The sheer physical and mental fortitude necessary to run 26.2 miles in just a few hours requires intense training and generates a massive amount of physiological stress.
The good news is that nearly anyone can cross a marathon finish line. All you need is the right training, the right footwear, and, perhaps most important, the right foods that give your body what it needs to handle the stress.
A Marathon-Ready Body
Running a marathon taxes your body in ways it isn't used to. Your body typically uses slow-twitch muscle fibers for long distances, but during a marathon, it engages every muscle fiber available, including fast-twitch fibers usually reserved for sprinting. Fast-twitch muscle fibers use up your body's glycogen, and if glycogen is depleted, your liver will start breaking down muscle protein for energy.
Marathoners also put enormous strain on their cardiovascular systems. If you push too hard, you can experience cardiovascular drift, when your heart beats faster without any corresponding increase in oxygen intake or energy expenditure.
Normally, staying well-hydrated can mitigate the risk of cardiac drift. It also helps prevent your blood from becoming too thick, which makes it difficult to regulate your core temperature. Yet too much hydration increases the danger of hyponatremia, or low sodium concentration, which can result in nausea, energy loss, muscle weakness and short-term memory loss.
More than most athletes, marathoners need to make sure their bodies are fortified with the proper amount of water and nutrients to offset the excessive physical stress they go through.
Fueling Up Afterward
Your body goes through several negative post-marathon effects, including muscle soreness, fatigue, reduced skeletal muscle strength, cellular damage and a compromised immune system.
Fortunately, there are a few specific foods you can enjoy after your marathon that will help you recuperate and prepare for the next race.
1. Chocolate. In the midst of fine-tuning your body into an optimal athletic machine, indulging in chocolate might seem counterproductive. However, chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is full of antioxidants and essential nutrients like fiber, iron and potassium, which your body needs to recover from rigorous exercise. Even the sugar in chocolate is vital for repairing muscle tissue and restoring glycogen levels. So relax after your run and enjoy the treat without any trace of guilt!
2. Pasta. When you're training for a marathon, carbs are a good thing, especially right after you've finished running. Carbohydrates provide simple sugars that are easy for your body to process and make it easier to restore your blood sugar levels. Pasta, preferably the whole wheat variety, is an excellent source of simple carbs and is a favorite of athletes for strengthening and conditioning.
3. Beef. Like carbs, your body needs ample proteins to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, and grass-fed beef is one of the most abundant sources. However, for optimal results, you should only consume protein at a rate of about one-fourth the amount of carbs you consume. If you don't like beef, you can substitute fish, turkey or chicken. If you're vegetarian or vegan, be sure you get enough protein with beans, legumes and soy.
4. Probiotic yogurt. Yogurt is a well-known source of protein that works as a great supplement for runners who don't eat meat. In addition, the live active bacteria cultures in yogurt help you maintain a healthy gut. Live active cultures, also known as probiotics, boost your immune system when you need it most, like when your body needs to moderate increased inflammation after strenuous exercise.
5. Broccoli. A cruciferous vegetable, broccoli is a powerhouse of essential nutrients, including well-established antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C and glutathione. Broccoli helps mitigate cell damage associated with intense exercise. Adding cheese and other toppings will also give your calorie intake a necessary boost.
Don't let the so-called "runner's high" cause you to overdo it. If you suffer an injury, be sure to wait until you've completely healed before hitting the pavement again. And make sure your body has the nutrients it needs so you can conquer your next marathon!