Food holds places in our lives beyond just fuel and is on our minds in so many different contexts. With all the nutrition news, facts, myths, fears, aversions, allergies and unique needs out there, it can feel like somewhat of a mine field to navigate as an endurance athlete. I mean, are starches even “good” or “bad” for us? They’re like the Walter White of the nutrition world! Complex indeed, those carbohydrates.
I’m not a nutritionist, and most of you aren’t professional runners, but I can share my thoughts on the strategies I’ve used to stay relatively healthy through years of hard miles and what I’ve learned so far about marathon nutrition.
My general nutrition strategy for the last decade has been specific to my lifestyle as a professional runner. I focus on targeting food that fuels distance running rather than eliminate food groups or label anything as “off limits.”
At the top of my priority list, I need a lot of red blood cells (cue iron and B vitamins), glycogen replenished (let’s go, carbohydrates), muscle repair (care of amino acids and protein), a good immune system (good work, vitamins), solid bones (thanks to minerals), and to maintain hormonal health (well done, good fats and enough calories). I try to hit these targets every day and work around that framework as far as squeezing in extra things for enjoyment, convenience, catering to any food sensitivities, and general health.
Some great resources for runners of all ages and abilities that I’ve been using lately are Elise Kopecky’s and Shalane Flanagan’s series of cookbooks as well as Roar, a book by exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, with Selene Yeager, that addresses female athletes’ unique nutritional needs.
These have been helpful to me because the cookbooks provide creative, enjoyable, and nourishing meal suggestions catered toward endurance athletes, and Roar helps me understand when and how to focus on one aspect of nutrition over another in order to maximize recovery and performance while inhabiting an ever-changing body.
I have some scientific and nutritionist-backed information at my fingertips, thanks to my relationship with Gatorade Endurance. I met with the lab team of scientists and nutritionists to dial in my training and race-day fueling for three of the four marathons I’ve run, and I regularly search the GSSI database when I have specific questions. Here is what I’ve taken away about nutrition during my marathon build-ups. (I’ll devote a separate article to race-day fueling later.)
Learning the Basic Needs
In the lab, I did a day of treadmill testing while they measured my fuel consumption and sweat rate at a given temperature range, which was really interesting and helpful. I know this isn’t something available to everyone, but I noticed my results did fall into the range of what is suggested for the average person, which is about 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour when at marathon race pace. The sweat test showed moderate fluid and sodium loss, which recommended a certain rate of fluid and electrolyte replacement to prevent losing more than 2 percent of your bodyweight in sweat, after which performance will decline.
Roar actually recommends a more dilute race-day carbohydrate solution of 7-9.4 grams of carb/8 oz, which is roughly half of the amount I take in training and racing. If taken every 5K as per my fluid stops, I take about 20-32 grams of carbs per hour. In training, I take about 20 grams of fuel every half hour or so on long runs that are longer than two hours to keep from getting too depleted. On tempo runs, I take that amount every 5K, or about 17 minutes, to get used to taking in fuel while moving fast.
More Training Needs More Everything
I also got a few helpful tips from dietitian and lead R&D scientist Lisa Heaton at Gatorade Endurance, who viewed a three-day segment of my diet and saw that, despite my efforts, I still needed to take in more carbohydrates, liquid, and calories per day. This was especially true when I had added not only the extra volume of training but was doing so at altitude for half of the buildup.
To address the hydration/carbohydrate shortage in one nutrient packed go, I added a fruit smoothie per day, or switched some of my water to juice. I also tried to add an extra serving of potatoes or rice to my lunch and was happy to have an excuse for maintaining my doughnut a week habit. These were simple tips, but over the months they keep me just above the line of fluid and carb depletion, whereas before I was unaware of being just shy of “enough” and feeling less consistently good on runs.
Another thing I rely possibly too much on in a marathon buildup is coffee. The caffeine by way of a cup of coffee or double espresso has always been a welcomed boost of energy to my longer morning run, but has now also appeared before my evening run amidst the fog of tiredness that happens in the middle of the marathon buildups.
I like to have about one cup of coffee an hour before any run or workout. If I wait much longer than two hours after the coffee to work out I risk feeling a slight caffeine crash that can make me feel sluggish at the start of the run. If I drink too much more than a cup I feel dehydrated and jittery. (That’s me—individual reactions to caffeine are unique.)
The 4 p.m. coffee is usually a guilty trade-off where the desperation for immediate energy wins over that night’s sleep quality. Like the Seinfeld joke says, that 4 p.m. coffee is “morning guy’s problem.” Sometimes I’ll add an espresso shot to my post-workout recovery snack as well, because I looked for an excuse to drink more coffee, and this paper said it helps you restock your glycogen faster.
One side effect of marathon nutrition I did notice is that the sugar that is welcomed by your hungry muscles on long runs and after workouts isn’t so much loved by your teeth, so brush them after every workout where you take on drinks gels or chews!
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In marathon training, I notice a benefit from being more aware of the timing of my meals.
I always knew this to be true, but thought it only applied to hard workout days. However, with marathon mileage, sometimes a “regular” run day has you on your feet for 90 or more minutes. I felt I would gradually sink into a hole of depletion if I didn’t make an effort to refuel within 30 minutes of quite a few of my regular runs.
When I refuel within 30 minutes of workout or a longer recovery run, I feel consistently better in my next few runs. The benchmarks to aim for are 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio or about 20 grams of protein total (depending on your size and workout type).
As an “aging athlete” (I’m 35), I’m trying to be more mindful about maintaining muscle. One strategy is to have some of your daily protein intake at bedtime, as a lot of muscle repair happens as you sleep. Another night time snack I’ve been trying that addresses aging bodies and recovery is tart cherry Jello. The collagen in gelatin is supposed to be good for maintaining tendon health and elasticity, and tart cherry juice has good antioxidant-based recovery properties, as well as natural melatonin to aid sleep. It’s also helpful as a source of vitamin C, which is suggested to pair with the collagen to aid its synthesis in your body. Another helpful trick is to mix collagen into your orange juice in the morning, as it’s also recommended to take it an hour before exercise.
Another adjustment I had to make was to get more creative with my carbohydrate sources and more strategic with the kinds of protein I chose in the marathon buildup.
I love bread, but I felt like I got into a wheat rut with my daily diet. Variety is important in getting a more comprehensive nutritional milieu, so I forced myself to branch out to new carbohydrate sources.
This sounds obvious, but it took some planning to actually stick to the idea. When I’m tired and hungry, it’s common for me to just grab anything or have Doordash carry a pizza to my couch. I still do that sometimes, but I also try to make a large batch of rice, quinoa, potatoes, fruit salad, teff pancakes, etc. so that the ideal option is there when I need it.
After considering that not all protein is the same and that some amino acids are more important in muscle building than others, I’m currently working on targeting those certain amino acids in my post-workout recovery snack. Some essential (not made by your body) amino acids like leucine are harder to find enough of than others in whole foods. Whey protein was recommended in Roar as a really efficient source of this muscle-building block, especially to older athletes. If you don’t have any allergies to it, finding a brand you like could help your body repair and maintain those running muscles you worked so hard to build. It’s also noted that animal-derived sources are the most complete sources of protein.
The scientific nature of marathon nutrition can be as dry and bland as a mouthful of rice cakes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for enjoying a meal mainly to please your taste buds. Like I said, it’s more about setting a general pattern of nutrition in place so you don’t inadvertently fall below what you need while taking on so many miles.
Watch: Saucony unveils another Dunkin’ collaboration.
That doesn’t mean you need to be constantly strict or rigid with meals throughout the multi-month buildup. After the race, burgers and beers may be a part of the celebration as cheers to the awesome way your body can convert food into actual, amazing feats. But you don’t need to wait until you’ve run a marathon to “earn” that—you can do it because your family is in town, you’re on vacation, or just because it’s Wednesday. There’s definitely room for your preferred fun food items in moderation while chasing down a marathon-sized race goal.
Whether you’re trying to max out over 26.2 or get to the finish line at a more leisurely pace, the unique distance of the marathon commands attention to specific fueling strategies. To train enough to make it through the race, you are likely putting more specific nutritional demands on your body than you have before, all while living a life outside of running. Fueling for the marathon is something that just takes a little planning and practice, so when you get to race day, like your PR or proud finish, you can execute it automatically through the emotions and fatigue of the event without any (metaphorical at least) hiccups.