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How To Fuel For Marathon Training and Racing

Amanda Wendorff

As a runner training for a marathon, the journey ahead is as much about fueling your body correctly as it is about putting in the miles. When you're focused on marathon training, nutrition is crucial, as the foods you eat when training significantly impact your energy levels, recovery, and overall performance. That's why we provide nutrition recommendations for every single workout in the MOTTIV training app, so our app users are never left wondering if they ate enough fo the right things.

Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or you're preparing for your first marathon, this guide will help you navigate through the essentials of marathon nutrition.

After reading this article, you'll have a better understanding of the following concepts:

  • The importance of a balanced diet, with a special focus on carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, for all runners.
  • How to incorporate a variety of whole foods into your training diet to meet your nutritional needs.
  • Why hydration is so critical to both your training and race day performance.
  • Special dietary considerations for marathoners, including the importance of meeting your caloric needs, both in the weeks and days leading into a race as well as during it.
  • The importance of recovery nutrition.
  • How to plan your race day fueling strategy.
  • Why it is important to regularly practice your race day nutrition plan during your training runs.
MOTTIV app user Laura Yamasaki holds onto her hydration while running in a hot-weather race on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Nutrition Tips for All Runners

Eat a Balanced Diet

For all runners, whether preparing for marathons or half marathons, training for 5ks, or running for health, incorporating a balanced diet is crucial for achieving optimal health and training and racing outcomes.

To increase the variety in your diet, try to incorporate at least three different food groups in every meal or snack. This will ensure a blend of nutrients—carbohydrates for energy, proteins for muscle repair, and a variety of vitamins and minerals from vegetables to support overall health and recovery.

In terms of food selection, aim to eat whole foods. Opt for natural choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats, which offer more nutrients and fewer additives than their processed counterparts.  By focusing on whole, diverse, and colorful foods, you'll be better able to meet your nutritional needs, support successful training and performance, and help your muscles recover from your training regimen.

Incorporate Plenty of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are often hailed as the most important macronutrient for runners, and for good reason. During running, the body primarily relies on carbohydrates to provide the energy needed for short bursts of speed and long-distance endurance. Stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, carbohydrates are quickly accessible during exercise, making them an invaluable energy source for runners of all distances.

Without adequate day-to-day carbohydrate intake, runners risk depleting their stored carbohydrates, leading to fatigue, decreased performance, and the dreaded "bonk" or hitting the wall—a scenario where the body runs out of fuel and drastically slows down.

Carbohydrates also are key for recovery from training. Consuming carbohydrates after a run helps replenish depleted glycogen stores, speeding up recovery and preparing the muscles for the next workout.

To optimize running performance and recovery, focus on a diet rich in a variety of carbohydrates.  Some good options include:

  • Starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes, squash, or corn
  • Whole grains, like oats, quinoa, brown rice, or whole wheat
  • Fruits, like bananas or berries
  • Natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.

Focus on Protein

Protein also plays a crucial role in runners' nutrition plans, serving as the cornerstone for muscle repair, recovery, and growth. After a long run or a demanding workout, your muscles are in a state of breakdown, and your body needs the right nutrients to repair the micro-tears that occur during exercise. This is where protein steps in; it provides the essential amino acids that act as building blocks for muscle repair and growth, ensuring that your body recovers properly and becomes stronger.

Whether it's through lean meats, dairy, legumes, or supplements, integrating sufficient protein into your diet is essential for fueling your runs, speeding up recovery, and achieving your long-term running goals.

Include Fruits and Vegetables In Your Training Diet

Incorporating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into your day-to-day diet can help optimize your marathon training for a couple of reasons.

First, fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, which are crucial for combating the oxidative stress that running long distances can impose on the body. This oxidative stress, if left unchecked, can lead to increased muscle fatigue, delayed recovery times, and a higher risk of injury.

Additionally, the anti-inflammatory properties of many fruits and vegetables also help to reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery times, which will make training more consistent and effective.

Finally, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of essential nutrients that support overall health and athletic performance. For example, fruits and veggies include:

  • Potassium, which helps with electrolyte balance
  • Vitamin K, which promotes bone health
  • Dietary fiber, which helps maintain a healthy digestive system

Consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can improve energy levels, enhance immune function, and contribute to a leaner body composition, all of which will help you meet your running goals.

Special Fueling Considerations When Training for a Marathon

Eating a wide variety of healthy, whole foods from good sources is great advice for all runners. However, for those running a marathon, there are a few extra dietary requirements to ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to handle the hours of running required during the training process.

Fuel for a Marathon: Ensure You Eat Enough to Support Your Training

Marathon training plans generally involve running many miles, often at a fast pace. That increased mileage and intensity will significantly elevate your energy demands. In other words, you will burn a lot of calories while training for a marathon and will need to consume a lot of food to replace those calories.

Running coaches and sports dietitians speak frequently about the need to "fuel the work" done while training for a marathon because the consequences of falling short can be substantial. If a runner doesn't eat enough to match their caloric needs, they risk entering a state of energy deficiency. This imbalance can lead to glycogen depletion, making it harder to sustain long runs or high-intensity efforts. Over time, consistently failing to meet your energy needs can also slow down recovery processes, increase the risk of injuries, and compromise immune function. All of these negative results could easily derail your training plan and negatively impact your overall health.

Therefore, it's crucial for runners training for a marathon to not only focus on the quality of their diet but also ensure they're consuming enough calories to support their training demands.

To make sure your body is getting enough energy needed to train well, follow these tips:

  • Listen to your body. Pay close attention to hunger cues. If you are frequently hungry or feel weak or drained, increase the number of calories in your day-to-day diet.
  • Plan meals and snacks that are rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats to help meet your caloric needs and keep your energy levels steady.
  • Adjust your overall intake on heavier training days to replenish energy stores and aid in muscle repair and recovery.

Eat and Drink Frequently When Marathon Training

When you're training for a marathon, having frequent meals and snacks and staying hydrated isn't just good advice—it's essential for keeping your energy up and your body properly hydrated.

Eating frequently means you've always got enough fuel in the tank for those long runs and intense training sessions, helping to avoid hitting a wall when your glycogen stores run low. Eating regularly also keeps your blood sugar levels steady, which means you can maintain a consistent energy level and focus during your workouts.

On the hydration front, even being a little dehydrated can make running feel much harder than it needs to be, slow down your recovery, and negatively affect your overall performance. Make a point to drink water and electrolytes regularly throughout the day.

Eat for Recovery

In addition to consuming a balanced menu of meals and snacks, when training for a marathon, it's important to also focus on providing your body with the right foods for recovery.

The "recovery window"—the 30 to 60 minutes immediately following a major workout, like a long run or interval session—is crucial for nutrition. Consuming carbs and protein shortly after training can significantly enhance the body's recovery processes. This timing takes advantage of the body's heightened ability to absorb and utilize these nutrients, effectively replenishing glycogen stores and initiating muscle repair.

For optimal recovery and to prepare the body for the next training session, consume a recovery drink or snack that contains carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Aim for at least 0.3 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and a ratio of 3 grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein.

Avoid Relying Too Much on Processed Foods

Many runners juggling busy training schedules with work, family, and other commitments look to quick and convenient options to meet their caloric needs. If this is you, be cautious about over-relying on processed foods as fuel sources, such as energy bars. While these convenient foods may make it easy to replenish energy pre-or post-workout, they often lack the wide range of nutrients found in whole, unprocessed foods.

Real foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats—deliver a complex array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, which work together to support overall health, enhance recovery, and improve performance. These nutrients play crucial roles in everything from energy metabolism and muscle repair to inflammation reduction and immune system support. Whenever you can, reach for real food over processed sports nutrition.

Hydration for Marathon Runners

While proper nutrition can make or break your performance, hydration is also essential. Staying well-hydrated helps to ensure that the cardiovascular system operates efficiently, allowing for effective blood flow and oxygen delivery to working muscles. This not only improves endurance and delays fatigue but also aids in the recovery process by facilitating the removal of metabolic waste products.

Moreover, good day-to-day hydration habits can prevent the negative impacts of dehydration, such as increased heart rate, reduced sweating, and higher core temperatures, all of which will negatively impact your running performance and increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.

Marathon Nutrition For Training and Racing

While excellent daily nutrition and hydration habits will set you up for optimal marathon performance, the foods you eat while training and racing will help propel you to the finish line of your big race faster.

Race Day Nutrition Plan

Having a race day nutrition plan is crucial for any runner aiming to tackle a marathon.

On race day, start fueling with a pre-race breakfast. For breakfast, aim to consume easily digestible carbohydrates that will top off your glycogen stores and provide the energy needed to power through the race. Ideal choices include oatmeal, a banana, or a bagel with peanut butter, eaten 2-3 hours before the start.

Fueling is equally important during the race. To maintain your blood sugar levels and glycogen, you should consume around 30 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per hour, depending on your pace, the intensity you are running, and how well your gut tolerates carbohydrates while running. Some good fuel options throughout the race are energy gels, which have about 20 to 25 grams of carbs a piece, or chews. Drinking water or a sports drink is also vital to replace lost fluids and maintain electrolyte balance.

For more on how to create a meal plan for before and during a marathon, refer to this article.

Nothing New on Race Day: Practice Your Marathon Fueling During Training

In order to make sure that everything runs like clockwork on race day, you should practice your race day fuel plan multiple times throughout your training. Begin experimenting with different fuels and hydration strategies early in your training to find what works best for you, and then use your long runs as an opportunity to practice with the same products you'll eat on the day of the race.

Practicing your fuel plan during training will help your body adapt to digesting and utilizing fuels while running, minimizing the risk of stomach upset on race day. Many elite runners have effectively trained their bodies to take in a huge number of calories from carbohydrates, which allows them to run at a very fast pace with sustained energy on race day.

Additionally, practicing your nutrition during long training runs helps to gauge how much carb and fluid intake you need to maintain energy levels and hydration over 26.2 miles while avoiding blood sugar spikes or stretches of low energy.

Use your long training days as an opportunity to test and fine-tune the meals you eat before your race. Before your long runs, rehearse the foods you plan to eat the day before the marathon and on the day of the race.

Wrap Up

Training for and running a marathon requires not just physical preparation but also a strategic approach to nutrition and hydration. In this article, we've covered some of the following topics:

  • The importance of a balanced diet filled with a variety of types of foods.
  • Why marathoners must be particularly careful to eat enough to meet their energy needs
  • How to optimize recovery from training through good dietary choices.
  • Developing and practicing a specific fueling plan for race day.

By incorporating these nutrition and hydration tips into your training program, you're setting yourself up for a successful and enjoyable marathon experience all the way to the race finish. Remember, proper nutrition and hydration are not just about the race itself but are crucial components of your overall health and well-being as a runner. Here's to fueling your body right and crossing that finish line strong!

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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