Nutrition While Training for Your First Marathon

NutritionM1_fOne of the side benefits of marathon training is eating– a lot. You’ll be burning calories and exhausting your body like crazy, and that requires a steady stream of top-notch high quality fuel. Marathon runners need to eat plenty of healthy natural foods and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. And, to keep the tank from running dry on a long run, runners need to learn how to eat and drink while racing.


Healthy Food Choices for Runners

Bill Rodgers, winner of 4 Boston Marathons and 4 NYC Marathons, once said that “If the furnace is hot enough, anything will burn, even Big Macs.” I wouldn’t suggest a diet of Big Macs or running 140-160 miles each week as Rodgers did. But, it’s definitely OK to give yourself a treat every now and then. That’s part of the marathon training fun.

For the most part, a runner’s diet should consist of healthy foods. Avoid processed foods and eat real foods. Real foods are foods that you make from fresh ingredients, or foods that were once growing before they reached your table. Avoid processed foods.

Processed foods are foods that you microwave or pop in the oven for a quick fix. Processed foods are kept in plastic wrappers and sit on shelves for years at a time. They contain preservatives, sugars, fats, and chemicals that are good for shelf-life, but terrible for you.

Your running diet should consist of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy cuts of poultry, meat or fish. As you begin your training you’ll marvel at how your body and mind work together to support your training by craving healthy foods. For most runners, healthy snacking throughout the day is a good way to keep energy levels steady and fuel the furnace.

Protein is important for muscle growth and recovery. Many runners will use supplements to make sure that they are getting enough protein during marathon training. Whey protein is recommended for runners and can easily be added to smoothies and drinks in powdered form.


Running Super Foods

Here are some of the most popular and healthiest foods that runners enjoy:

  • Almonds
  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Blueberries
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Lentils
  • Pasta
  • Peanut Butter
  • Red Bell Pepper
  • Salmon
  • Spinach
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Swiss Chard
  • Tuna Fish
  • Turkey Breast
  • Whole Grain Brown Rice

Some great recipes are found in the Runner’s World Cookbook

Carbohydrate Loading Before the Marathon

Even non-runners know that marathoners love their spaghetti dinners. I prefer my wife’s homemade Chicken Parmesan, but the carbo-loading theory is still the same. And, while many think it’s a one-time feast the night before a race, it actually takes several days to carbo-load for the marathon.

To understand how carbohydrate loading works, you first need to know that carbohydrates are converted to glycogen by the body and stored for use as energy by your muscles. Years ago, carbohydrate loading included a hard workout followed by a 3-day phase of an extremely low carb diet to deplete glycogen stores, and then a 3-day phase of carbohydrate rich foods to create an extra high level of glycogen storage for race day. Today, most coaches and runners agree that to minimize risk of injury or poor health, runners really only need to follow the last 3 days of the carbo-loading ritual prior to the marathon.

Two important things to keep in mind during carbo-loading time. First, this isn’t license to eat whatever you want. Smothering your pasta in Alfredo sauce and Italian sausage is not a healthy approach. Eating a simple tomato sauce with fresh vegetables over a bed of pasta is a more sensible choice. Second, this is a time to choose white pasta over the more healthy and fiber-rich brown pasta. Your body can digest the white pasta faster and it’s less likely to cause stomach upset on race day.

Fueling On the Run to Avoid “The Wall”

Have you experienced the “bonk” or the “wall” on a long run? Most endurance athletes know the feeling all too well. Your fuel tank runs dry,  your glycogen stores are depleted, and your run turns into something resembling a forced march to the finish line. For me, it happened at the 2013 New York City Marathon. Things were fine until I hit the wall at mile 20.

To make it to the finish, you’ll need a solid fueling strategy that you’ve thoroughly tested during your long training runs. You can try Clif Shots, GU gels, Island Boost, Honey Stinger, Gatorade chews, EnergyBits, or a dozen other commercial products. My friend Tim swears by Swedish Fish, while my friend Kate loves to munch on gummy bears and waffles. Olympic marathon winner, Frank Shorter used to drink flat Coke during his races.

The point is, there is no one perfect way to fuel during your race. But, whatever method you choose must be tested or you may suffer gastrointestinal consequences on race day. A good rule of thumb is the 1-hour rule. If you are running for more than an hour, you really need to eat something. so, once your long runs creep up to the 60-minute mark, you should begin carrying some gels or snacks with you.

You’ll want to have the first one about 40 minutes into you run, followed by another every 30 minutes. You should also plan on drinking a few gulps of water every 20 minutes or so. If you are eating, that usually means you should be drinking. Many of the gels and chews need water to dissolve and enter your bloodstream faster. Be careful not to drink a sports drink like Gatorade Endurance with your gels, it will make digestion difficult.

So how do you carry snacks and water with you on your training runs? You could buy a belt with tons of pockets and little water bottles attached to it. You could run with a hydration pack on your back. Or, you could stash water bottles and snacks along your route before you leave the house on your run.


Personally, I can’t stand the extra weight of a belt or a hydration pack. If I’m in the mountains or on the trail maybe, but on the roads I’d rather take the time to stash my stuff and turn my run into an Easter egg hunt. The drawback is that it takes extra time before and after the run to drive around. Especially if you’re running 20 miles or more.

You may also want to consider repeating some smaller course loops closer to home. This allows you to use your home as an aid station, medical tent, or early exit if necessary. It will also gives your family members piece of mind to see you every so often during a long training run.

Here’s my successful marathon fueling strategy:

  1. Find out what the race is supplying at aid stations (gels brands, water, sports drink)
  2. Try these things out and see if they work for you on training runs
  3. On race day choose energy drinks at each station unless you are eating something or have an upset stomach.
  4. Grab a drink by mile 3 or 4 even if you don’t think you need it yet.
  5. Have your first energy snack by 45 minutes. Follow up every 30-45 minutes with another.

After the race drink plenty of water and eat some protein and carbohydrates. Marathons usually supply runners with a healthy snack mix that fits this nutritional need perfectly. Resist the temptation to drink alcohol until you’ve had at least a few glasses of water.

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