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What To Eat Before A Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

If you want to run your best marathon, it's important to fuel and hydrate well in the days and hours before the race. Knowing what to eat before a marathon will allow you to arrive at the race with your body energized, hydrated, and ready to run fast.

In this article, you will learn how to create a nutrition plan for the days leading up to your race, specifically including these concepts:

  • Why it is important to incorporate foods high in carbohydrates into your pre-race meals
  • What to eat the night before a marathon race
  • What to eat the morning of your marathon
  • Some sample meals that are good to eat before a marathon
  • What to eat before a marathon race in the afternoon
  • What to eat immediately before a marathon running race
  • What to drink before a marathon race

What to Eat the Day Before a Marathon Race

The meals you eat the day before a marathon race can greatly affect how you feel while running and how you perform. Generally, you will want your meals the day before a marathon to have these features:

  • Carb-focused: Center your meals around carbohydrates.
  • Filling: Your pre-race meals, as a whole, should be a bit more filling than usual.
  • Familiar: The day before a marathon, eat foods you know agree with your stomach so you don't experience problems due to poor digestion.


Carbohydrates are the most important pre-race macronutrient for marathon success because the body stores carbs in the muscles as glycogen, an easily accessible energy source.

When running long distances, such as a marathon, your body will rely on carbohydrates and fat as fuel sources. The proportion of carbohydrates versus fat stores used will depend on the intensity you're running, your endurance, and your basic metabolism. But generally, most marathoners will rely heavily on carbohydrates for fuel, in the form of glycogen and the carbohydrates in their bloodstream (blood glucose). Therefore, to maximize your speed, you want to arrive on the start line with your glycogen stores topped up and ready to provide enough energy to get you to the finish line.

Many movies, TV shows, and stories of athletes' habits decades ago might make you think you must "carbo-load" with a mountain-sized bowl of pasta. This is not the case! While you should increase your carbohydrate intake before a long race, it's important to do so in moderation over the entire week before a marathon.

A famous scene from the TV show The Office, where Michael Scott eats a bowl of pasta minutes before his race. (And has terrible results because of it!)

Your dinner the night before a marathon should be a bit larger than normal, focused on carbohydrates, and consisting of foods that are easy to digest and aren't likely to cause stomach upset. For many runners, it's also a good idea to increase the size of your breakfast the day before a marathon, again making it focused on carbohydrates. A big stack of pancakes is a great day before breakfast.

Remember, though, excess is never the answer! Consuming large amounts of food and carbs may leave you feeling bloated or cause gut discomfort during your race, which is definitely not conducive to your best performance. Instead, it's best to include plenty of complex carbohydrates and simple carbs in the meals you eat the week before your marathon - not just dinner the night before.

For more on effective carbohydrate loading in the days leading into a marathon, check out this article.

Proteins & Fats

Although not as much as carbohydrates, your body will also use fat as a fuel source during your big race. However, it is not necessary to "load" up on fat before the race. Even the leanest athletes will have adequate fat stores to fuel activity without any changes to their diet. Similarly, it's not necessary to consume excess protein in the meals preceding your race.

Of course, protein and healthy fats are important macronutrients for day-to-day performance and general health. You can certainly include some protein and fats in your meals the day before your race, but overall, carbs are the most important category to focus on in your pre-race nutrition.

Dinner the Night Before a Marathon

The night before a race is not the time to experiment with food; try not to eat any new foods or anything that you already know gives you trouble. You'll likely be nervous (especially if it's your first marathon), which can make the effects of foods you may react badly to even worse.

Generally, it's best to keep your pre-race meal simple and familiar. For example, Thai noodles may have plenty of carbs, but if you don't frequently eat Thai food, the spices and sauces may not agree with you and have you rushing for the portable toilets during your race. As a rule of thumb, foods that are high in fat and fiber or greasy are not the best choices the night before your race.

Similarly, if dairy products occasionally cause bloating or upset stomach, don't eat cheese and cheese-based sauces. This also applies to FODMAPs, certain forms of carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that cause gut issues for some athletes.

If your race is forecasted to be very hot or humid, add a little extra sodium to your meal, which will help your body stay sufficiently hydrated.

With all that in mind, here are a few sample balanced meals that would be good for the evening before the marathon:

  • A pasta dinner, such as pasta and meatballs with a basic marinara sauce
  • Grilled chicken and rice
  • Pizza, if it's something you eat regularly
  • Steak or salmon and a baked potato
  • A lean burger with a side of sweet potato fries

The goal is not to go to bed stuffed but rather satisfied, with a stomach that is not churning but instead feeling a light case of excited butterflies.

Breakfast the Day Before the Race

For longer races like half marathons and marathons, including breakfast the day before the race in your carb-loading meal plan can also be beneficial. After your short, pre-race workout, consider a breakfast or brunch with plenty of carbohydrates. Pancakes, French toast, whole grain toast, or breakfast potatoes are excellent choices.

Since you'll have around 24 hours between the start of your race and your breakfast the day before, it's alright to make this meal fairly large. Try to eat enough that you never feel as though you are running on empty the day before your race. You'll have plenty of time to digest it before the marathon.

MOTTIV app user Anna Robey is fuelled up and ready to go as she waits for the start of her race.

What to Eat for Breakfast Before a Marathon Race

Fast forward several hours, and it's now the morning of the marathon and time for another meal. By the time you wake up the morning of the race, your dinner will be mostly digested, and your muscle cells will still be storing plenty of glycogen. The pre-race breakfast's goal is to top up those glycogen stores in your muscles and liver so that you have readily available energy in the race.

Compared to your pre-race dinner, your breakfast should be even more focused on carbohydrates and a bit smaller. Some good examples of easy-to-digest pre-race breakfasts are:

  • A bagel
  • A banana with a bit of nut butter
  • A bowl of oatmeal or cereal
  • A couple of pieces of toast with honey

Most importantly, follow the golden rule of marathoning: don't try anything new on race day! Before sure to practice your pre-race breakfast at least a few times leading up to race day, ideally before your longest training runs.

When to Eat Breakfast on Race Day

When it comes to a race morning nutrition strategy, when you eat is as important as what you eat. We suggest that you eat a pre-race breakfast three to four hours before the race. This will give the food time to clear your digestive system before the race begins.

Yes, this may require an early morning wake-up (for example, if your start time is 8 am, you'll have to get up at 4 or 5 am to eat and hydrate), but you can always wake up, eat breakfast, and then go back to bed for a bit. Just remember to set an alarm so you don't sleep through your race!

What to Eat Immediately Before a Marathon

In addition to the carbohydrate-heavy meals described so far, you should have one last bit of carbohydrate shortly before your marathon race starts. The purpose of this snack is to ensure that there is plenty of glucose in your bloodstream, which will fuel your body for your running effort.

We suggest consuming about 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates in an easily digestible form, like liquids or semi-liquids, about 20 to 30 minutes before the race starts. The best approach is to take in a serving of the sports nutrition that you've practiced with. Good choices include:

  • One energy gel
  • Half a bottle of a higher-carbohydrate sports drink
  • A serving of chews, like Clif Shot Bloks

For most athletes, these sports foods, which you'll also use in your race nutrition plan, are better tolerated than solid foods.

Pre-Marathon Hydration

The fluid you drink is almost equally important as the food you eat leading up to the marathon. Your body needs energy sources (from food) and hydration (from drinks) to perform at its best.

The importance of proper hydration can't be understated. Studies have shown that athletic performance suffers from dehydration, and performance begins to decline as you lose more than 2% of your body weight through sweating. A few things start to happen with dehydration, none of which are good for finishing your race in your best time:

  • Your blood volume decreases, making it harder for your heart to pump blood efficiently to the working muscles, like your legs.
  • Your core temperature starts to rise.
  • Your heart rate increases.
  • It gets harder and harder for the body to thermoregulate.
  • You may experience cramping and muscle weakness.

Sounds a little scary, doesn't it? Thankfully, you can avoid these physiological changes during your marathon by ensuring you start the race well-hydrated and paying attention to your hydration needs during the race.

Pre-race hydration is important for the whole marathon week and starts in earnest the day before the race. On that day, make sure you drink a slightly larger amount of fluids than usual. Be careful of drinking exclusively plain water - excessive water can sometimes flush the body of its essential electrolytes. Instead, add some electrolytes you know you can tolerate to your water, or include a sports drink in your rotation.

Also, be careful not to drink too much. If you need to use the bathroom more than once an hour, that means you need to drink less, so slow down your hydration. We can't give you a specific number of ounces of water or fluids to take because that will be different for everyone and will vary depending on the weather conditions where you are. But be sure to listen closely to your body.

It's also good to avoid alcohol the night before your marathon, as it can be dehydrating and also affect your sleep.

What to Drink the Morning of a Marathon Race

On the morning of your race, the trickiest aspect of hydration is finding the right balance between too much and not enough fluid. You want to continue taking fluids as the start time approaches, but not so much that you end up with a sloshy stomach or need to make emergency bathroom stops during the race.

The best approach to race-morning hydration is to have a glass of water with electrolytes or a bottle of sports drink with breakfast three to four hours before the race. (And yes, if your race starts early, you'll need to get up in the middle of the night to eat and drink. You can go back to sleep after that for a while.) Then, between breakfast and the beginning of the race, continue to sip a bottle of fluids with electrolytes.

Hyper-hydrators- usually powders you add to water- are available for extremely hot or humid races. These products have more concentrated electrolytes and are designed to help the body maintain its hydration status by sodium loading before a half marathon. They are particularly helpful for those in the running community with higher sweat rates. A hyper-hydrator product can be helpful before a race in extreme temperatures. Still, we suggest always testing these during your marathon training before using them on race day.

What to Eat Before an Afternoon Marathon Race

While the majority of marathon races take place in the morning hours, there are occasional events that start in the afternoon or late morning, such as the Boston Marathon. Timing-wise, these races can be trickier to prepare for in terms of meals and may have you wondering what to eat. However, the same basic rules apply:

  • On the day of the marathon, eat your normal breakfast three to four hours before the start of the race.
  • Eat something small and easily digestible, like a bagel, upon waking up.
  • In the time before that last meal, focus on light snacks focused on carbs.
  • Avoid high-fat or high-fiber foods that have the potential to cause digestive issues.

Your main goals in eating on the day of the race are to keep your blood sugar levels even, your glycogen stores topped up, and to avoid going hungry. More frequent, lighter meals or snacks achieve this best.

Here's an example of a good day of eating before a race that starts at 12:30 pm (assuming you're an early riser):

  • Night Before: Slightly larger, higher-carb meal such as pasta and meatballs
  • 6:00 am: Small carbohydrate-based breakfast, like a bagel or sports bar, in a sufficient quantity to avoid feeling hungry through the morning
  • 8:00 am: Small high-carb snack, like a serving or two of pretzels
  • 9:30 am/three hours before race: Normal pre-race breakfast, like toast with peanut butter or a small bowl of oatmeal
  • Noon: Pre-race snack with carbs, like an energy gel
  • 12:30 pm: Race!


By the time your marathon is about to start, you've likely already put in many weeks and miles of a focused training plan, dialed in your marathon nutrition, and gotten your mind ready for a strong effort. To maximize all the training you've done, it's important to eat and drink well in the week leading up to the race. In this article, you've learned:

  • Your best pre-marathon fueling strategy
  • To eat a slightly larger, carb-focused meal the night before your race
  • The right foods to include and exclude from your pre-race dinner
  • To have a small breakfast or pre-race snack comprised of mostly carbohydrates three to four hours before the race
  • How to adjust your fueling plan if your marathon starts in the afternoon
  • What, and how much, to drink in the hours before your race

If you follow this article's instructions for planning your meals and drinks before running a marathon, you can be confident that you are setting yourself up for your best race performance.

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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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