Nutrition in Marathon Training
It’s that time of year, when all the runners are out. Whether you’re training for a 5-K, half-marathon, or marathon, special attention should be placed not only on training for your runs but also on your nutrition. Maybe you’ve heard that you need to load up on your carbs, drink lots of water, and stay away from the fiber. But the question is, are you doing the right thing?
The food that you choose to fuel you through your run can make a big impact on your performance. Runners tend toward extremes: overdoing food or drink, cutting back on foods that give them fuel, or eating/drinking foods that may cause digestive disaster (aka runner’s trots). Here are some tips to not only help you avoid those common mistakes but also guide you in what to eat and drink. Having the proper nutrition before, during, and after the race can help you perform at your best.
At the end of each tip, I’ll share a few things that I’ve changed up or am consistently doing (trying to do) within my marathon training. What works for me may not work for you, but that’s why there’s a training period – try it out and see if it works. No surprises on race day.
The Mistake: Eating a box of pasta
Runners like to feast on carbs the night before a race. And why not, right? You’re going to burn through them the next day. But overloading your system with more carbs than it can handle may only lead to digestive problems (I’ve actually seen it happen during a race. Believe me, it wasn’t pretty). Running to the porta-potty every mile isn’t performing at your best.
The key is to consume moderate amounts – not huge portions all at once – of carbs several days prior. And make sure before the actual race that you’re trying this out. What works for one will not work for all, but the key is to train this way (no one wants any surprises on race day). You can have oatmeal for breakfast, quinoa for lunch, and whole-wheat pasta for dinner. Make sure you pay attention to your body’s cues – eat to fullness so that you’re not bothered by indigestion.
I always eat whole grains – it’s just been something I’ve been working on to improve my health overall. So daily, I’m rotating my grains – whether it be homemade buckwheat pancakes in the morning, a brown rice bowl at lunch, and then whole wheat pasta at dinner – what’s been working for me is the consistency of having my complex carbs daily and in a sufficient amount. There was a work luncheon the other day in the office – I opted out and ate my own food instead. May sound odd to some, but it was a Friday before my 10 miler, I wanted to make sure I had the right amount of fuel (and those work lunches never have a balanced meal for me) – I had made the whole week count, I wasn’t going to mess it up less than 12 hours to my run. Consistency has been the key for me – it’s crazy to think my 5 and 6 mile runs are a breeze, but they are.
The Mistake: Drinking Gallons of H₂O
If you’re drinking too much water before the race it can leave you feeling bloated and can also dilute your electrolytes (those minerals responsible for muscle contraction). Other side effects from diluting your electrolytes: muscle weakness or cramping, and in extreme cases, can lead to hyponatremia (a life-threatening condition triggered by abnormally low sodium levels).
The key is to stay hydrated days leading up to your race. Make sure you’re taking in enough water (refer to the color of your urine to let you know. The darker, more concentrated in color means you are dehydrated. Urine should be almost clear in color). On the morning of the race, you can have ~16 ounces of water two to three hours before the start, allowing your body time to process this extra fluid; drink another one to two cups right before the start (and of course hydrate throughout the race).
I do drink water and plenty of it (my urine is almost always clear). Here in Miami it is fall, but it has been quite humid even still. The humidity always requires extra hydration. Additionally I talk a lot for my job – that too is dehydrating. I’m constantly taking in water and aiming to stay hydrated, with an ever watchful eye on my urine. What I have been trying to work on is the fluid replacement during the run – with a balance of my fast-acting carbs & then the fluid during – this has been what I’ve been working on, simply trying to have enough circulating glucose for energy but yet not too much to cause the ever loving GI distress.
The Mistake: Loading up on Fiber
Eating healthy means including ~25-35 grams of fiber per day. Fiber should be gradually included into one’s diet – otherwise uncomfortable gas & runner’s trots may ensue. So if you’re used to having a high-fiber diet, all that roughage right before a race shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’ve been living on pizza and burgers, now is not the time (a week before race-day) to try to have 25 grams of fiber in a day. Mix the high-fiber foods with pre-race jitters and well, accidents may occur.
The truth is that one should be training with these foods during your practice runs and then you can see how your body reacts. But if you think that fiber may be an issue cut back on those foods a few days before a major race. If you’re racing every weekend, reduce your fiber intake only on race day to make sure you don’t cut all of the fiber out of your diet. (And if you’re doing races every weekend you really should be eating better).
Fiber is my middle name. I’m a vegetarian and therefore eat plant-based meals. Once when I checked my fiber intake I was taking in anywhere from 40-50g of fiber daily. That’s my norm. I’m use to the side effects. I’d be honest in telling you that I don’t cut back on the fiber as it helps with my regularity – and I want that prior to my runs, otherwise that’s when I have a problem – during the run. So fiber for me is the norm, not having enough fiber is actually what throws me for a loop.
The Mistake: Skipping Breakfast
There are many reasons that runners skip breakfast before a race: too nervous or worried about feeling full, don’t wake up early enough, and as is my case, burping ensues the whole way. Without it, you’re likely to tank in any race. Why? Studies show that a pre-race meal keeps your blood sugar steady and provides energy to power you through. If you skip breakfast there’s no way to get enough fuel mid-race.
If you know you get too nervous to eat before a race, try waking up a few hours before the start. This will allow you to eat slow, letting each bite settle before taking another. Remember, most times the race is quite early morning and there will be some transit time to get to the race. During your training mimic the same schedule – wake up early and wait that time before going for a run - you might lose some sleep, but the key is always to simulate and train to see what works.
Prior to runs these days I’ve been rotating different energy bars/balls. My go to one (because it’s so simple to make) are these Peanut butter balls by Paula Deen. I just don’t roll them in all that extra stuff she does at the end. I wake up and have 1 or 2 (depends on the length of my long run) and then head to my friend’s house to run. That 20-30 minutes in between has been working well. The other thing that I’ve been trialing out is a shot of espresso. I’m not doing it for the possible energy boost it may give, rather I’m doing it to avoid the caffeine withdrawal headache. I know I’m going to be running for a LONG time. I know I’ll get a headache if I don’t have some caffeine. The other reason why I’m testing this out now is to see if/when the laxative effect kicks in. You all know your body. In some people caffeine does exactly that (if caffeine doesn’t do this to you, consider yourself lucky?) Regardless I’m trialing it out so there won’t be any surprises of sorts mid-way through the run. Since it’s not much volume, it’s just a black espresso, it’s worked to help avoid the headache and not cause any GI motility issues.
The Mistake: Trying Something New
If you’ve never had a spicy tuna roll, don’t order it the night before your race. You won’t know how a food affects you until you’ve tried. Last minute experimentation could send you straight to the bathroom and might even leave you dehydrated.
Stick with what you know a week before the race. You can also check the race website to see which drinks and gels (if any) will be offered along the course. Test them out in advance. Don’t be afraid to skip the pre-race dinner or hotel breakfast. Remember if you’re not used to it, stick with something you know. For my race in January it’s here local in Miami. Regardless when I’ve been traveling for races, I always travel with food, just in case.
Call me a creature of habit, but I have the same dinner every Friday night. This training season it’s all about the spaghetti – maybe the obvious choice, but it’s the tried and true. When I walked my previous marathon back in 2008 I had pasta the same way. Since my race was in San Diego I figured I could find the same spaghetti sauce out that way (previous issues with GERD, finally found a sauce that didn’t cause said GERD, not traveling with the sauce GERD ensued). I’m just glad the race is local this time around. Traveling can sometimes create limitations. When I was in Puerto Rico it was actually hard to find pasta. I could have used rice and beans, but let’s be real, beans can be quite gassy. I hadn’t trained with it, so it was definitely not the time to start (the night before the race).
If you can find time to train hard, you can also find the time to fuel-up right! Competitive athletes that don’t show up for meals might as well not show up for training. You’ll lose your edge with hit or miss fueling. Make sure to fuel-up with good nutrition – you’ll always win!
I’ve always eaten well – I’m a dietitian, it’s in my blood. But as I’ve been training for the marathon here’s a few things I’ve done differently – added, changed, or taken away. My work schedule is always depending on what patients show up – that determines what time I’ll get lunch as well as what time I head home for dinner. So for meals I’ve been taking each day as it comes and plan accordingly – I typically have three main meals and 1-2 snacks – again I play it by ear, but I definitely don’t go too long without eating – where before I’d just keep going and not eat. It’s best the patients don’t see me hangry!
Additionally what I’ve been adding into my diet is seafood. I think of myself as a vegetarian and will have fish when eating out (as many restaurants don’t always offer the best available vegetarian options). But eating out is rare, so again I default and most times say I’m vegetarian, even though technically I’m a pescatarian. Training so far has increased my total nutrient needs – carbohydrate, protein, and fat – and while carbs are easy to get, protein from a plant source has been hard for me to get a sufficient amount (I don’t use supplements and already eat nuts in enough creative ways). So I’d say this is one area that I’ve changed in that I’m making salmon, tuna, and/or another white fish (mahi mahi/grouper/sea bass) a staple 3-4x/week – whereas before it was only utilized sparingly. I know that this helps me not to worry about whether or not I’m getting enough protein. I’m already using nuts 2-3x/day – whether in a whole form, nut butter, or a “cheese” of some sort, but that alone wasn’t hitting the mark (in addition to a glass or two of milk, some cheese, and/or eggs). The addition of seafood I believe has helped me to ensure I’m getting an adequate amount of protein.
I have omitted all alcohol. I did have some alcohol a few weeks back (for my birthday weekend celebration), however, since then I haven’t had any. I’ve never been too heavy a drinker, but I know that when I do drink it takes away from my eating – when I drink I can’t eat and if I eat I can’t drink. May sound weird, but that’s the way I’ve always been. So, again, I’d rather eat and not alter the amount of food I’m consuming. I’ll make sure to celebrate after finishing the marathon!
I’m getting ready to enter week 7 of 20 of marathon training. My runs so far haven’t been too difficult – we’ll talk after the 18 and 20 miler! What I know is this: when the right foods are eaten, at the right time, recovery time is reduced, energy is sustained, and the muscles work better. You might have your running training down, but if nutrition is the missing link, definitely take some time to put things in motion. Make the time to eat wisely and well – your body will thank you. Happy running!