Running your first marathon can seem overwhelming. You put a ton of effort into training, likely focusing on just surviving the race and not necessarily on the amount of time it takes you to finish. But all your efforts can go to waste if you don’t have a solid marathan nutrition plan.
A proper marathon nutrition plan ensures that you have the energy and nutrients your body needs to perform consistently for several hours. If you run low on any item, you could cramp up or even be forced to drop out.
Fortunately, marathon nutrition isn’t complicated. You just need to plan ahead using these five steps.
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1. Do Your Homework
There are a number of questions you should ask yourself in advance of your first marathon.
- Where will you stay during the weekend of the race? A hotel or at home? If a hotel, it may be wise to bring food and snacks to keep fueling in advance.
- If you are planning to stay in a hotel, does it provide dinner or breakfast? What options do they offer for breakfast? Is microwave or fridge available? By the time race day rolls around, most participants have a preferred choice for breakfast. Waking up in the morning only to find the hotel doesn’t have your favorite pre-run meal can lead to unwanted stress. Know what foods are available, and how you’ll store or cook any food you bring from home.
- Will you need to eat at restaurants, and if so what restaurants are closest to your hotel? You don’t want to spend all night searching for a restaurant or waiting for a table the evening before a race. This is the time to be resting, not stressing over where to eat. Researching restaurants beforehand will also give you a chance to pick out the entrées that fit your plan and make the most sense. You may benefit from testing an entrée the night before a long practice run to see how it impacts your performance. Make restaurant reservations in advance to avoid a long wait.
- What nutrition will be provided along the race course? If it’s a sports drink you’re not comfortable with, you may need to bring your own nutrition source.
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2. Practice Your Nutrition Strategy
Whatever strategy you choose, make sure to practice it repeatedly. Race day typically brings nerves and uneasiness. Uncertainty about what to eat for breakfast or how many calories to consume only adds to the stress. Test breakfast options, dinner options the night before long runs and different carbohydrate sources during long runs.
3. 48 Hours Prior to Race Day
During long distance runs, your body uses both glycogen (your body’s stored form of carbohydrates) and fat as fuel. Fat is almost a limitless source of fuel for athletes, while glycogen, even when fully stored, lasts only for a few hours of activity. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source, and they supply energy at a more rapid rate than fat. To ensure your body has ample carbohydrates available, focus on consuming them during the 48 hours leading up to your race, including your final pre-race meal. Rather than have one giant meal the night before your race—which could cause you to feel bloated the following morning—try slightly increasing the portion of carbohydrates you have with each meal leading up to the race. As an example, the day before your race, add an extra serving or two of fruit to your lunch, or sip a glass of juice for breakfast instead of water. Increasing the portion size of carbohydrates or making additions such as these during the final 48 hours before a race can increase your glycogen storage on race day.
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4. Carbs During Your Race
As previously noted, the amount of glycogen available in your body is limited, and you may not have enough to last for the entire 26.2 miles. For rapid energy and to conserve your glycogen, consume carbohydrates in the form of gels, sports drinks or even solids (like a banana) during your race. This will allow you to go longer before you feel fatigue. Aim to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate each hour of the race. Remember to test different sources of carbohydrates before choosing your preferred source. Once you decide, practice your routine on long runs to ensure it will work on race day!
5. Limit Protein, Fat and Non-Starchy Veggies on Race Day
For many runners, protein and fat are major focal points for breakfast on race day, or potentially even during the race. Although both of these sources of energy are crucial for daily health, neither provides any significant performance benefit immediately prior to a long race.
Minimal protein is used for energy during a marathon, while ample fat is available within the body. Both of these nutrients are likely to slow digestion, increasing the odds of an upset stomach during the race.
Non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, onions and peppers also provide great benefits for your overall health, but offer little assistance right before a run. Non-starchy veggies provide minimal calories and energy while increasing the potential for gastrointestinal discomfort when consumed immediately prior to exercise.