Fueling for Your First Marathon
Completing a marathon is one of the most challenging yet rewarding endurance events an athlete can take on. It requires months of rigorous training to prepare your body to run 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers. Proper nutrition is essential every step of the way - from the early training miles to the taper to race day itself. Fueling adequately provides the energy to complete your long runs, aids workout recovery, and helps achieve peak performance on marathon day.
Yet many first-time marathoners are unsure how to eat to support their marathon training. Questions like - how many carbs do I need? When should I eat and drink before runs? What should I consume during the race itself? This fueling guide answers these key questions and more. It provides an in-depth look at the nutritional needs of marathoners and offers practical fueling strategies for training, racing, and recovery.
Whether your goal is to finish strong or set a new personal best, dialing in your marathon diet will get you to that finish line. Let’s explore how to fuel like an experienced marathoner so you can train and feel your best on the road to glory!
Loading Up on Carbohydrates
Complex Carbs - The Best Fuel for Marathons
Complex carbohydrates are the ideal fuel for marathon training and racing. Your body breaks down carbs into glucose which is the preferred energy source for muscles to create power. Complex carbs like whole grains, beans, lentils, potatoes, and sweet potatoes provide a steady stream of glucose without spiking blood sugar. They also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals. During peak marathon training, aim to get 60-70% of your daily calories from quality complex carb sources. Keep your diet high in carbs while tapering too.
How Much and When to Eat Carbs for Marathon Training
The carb needs of marathoners are high. On moderate training days, marathoners need about 5-8 g of carbs per kg of body weight. On long run days, carb intake should increase to 8-12 g per kg. The timing of carb intake matters too. Have a carb-rich snack or meal about 3-4 hours before your long runs. Focus on low-fiber, low-fat, high-carb foods that are fast digesting and easy on the stomach pre-run. During runs longer than 90 minutes, consume 30-90 g of carbs per hour through drinks, gels, chews etc. Refuel with carbs plus protein within 30 minutes post-run to replenish glycogen stores.
Carb Loading Before Marathon Day
Carb loading is a strategy of super-charging your carb stores before a marathon. About 5-7 days out from race day, do a modified carb load by increasing your percentage of calories from carbs to 70% while keeping calories the same. In the final 2-3 days, do a true carb load by increasing total calories by 15-20% and eating high carb foods like whole wheat pasta, rice, potatoes and breads. Avoid high fiber foods. Properly carbing up can give you the energy reserves to stay strong through all 26.2 miles.
Protein for Muscle Recovery After Long Runs
Importance of Protein After 20+ Mile Runs
Long runs of 20+ miles put significant strain on muscles. Consuming protein after these marathon training runs helps repair damaged muscle fibers and facilitate recovery. Shoot for 20-25 grams of high-quality protein within the first 30 minutes after finishing long runs. Then continue eating protein-rich foods throughout the day for optimal muscle repair and adaptation. Good post-run protein sources include Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, lean meats and post-run recovery shakes.
Staying Hydrated for Marathon Training
Daily Hydration Needs for Marathoners
Hydration is crucial for marathon training and race day performance. Increase your daily fluid intake as your mileage increases. Consume at least 12-16 cups of water on moderate running days. On high mileage days, drink 16-20 cups of water. Opt for fluids that contain electrolytes like sports drinks and coconut water which aid hydration. Be sure to hydrate well in the days leading up to your long runs too. Dehydration hampers endurance and thermoregulation.
Hydration Before, During and After Long Runs
Drink 16-22 oz of water or sports drink 2-3 hours before long runs. During runs longer than 60-90 minutes, aim for 4-10 oz of fluids every 15-20 minutes. Carb-electrolyte drinks are ideal. Post long runs, consume 20-24 oz of fluid for every pound lost to fully rehydrate. Continue sipping on electrolyte drinks over the next few hours to restore fluid balance. Weighing yourself pre and post-run helps gauge hydration needs.
Timing Your Fueling During Training
Meals on 20+ Mile Run Days
Fueling properly all day is key on long marathon training run days. Have a big high-carb breakfast 3+ hours pre-run. Focus on easily digested carbs and proteins - oatmeal, bananas, nut butters, yogurt. Eat carb-rich snacks like energy bars and fruit during the day. Consume a carbohydrate-rich meal 2-3 hours pre-run. After your run, refuel immediately then have a substantial meal high in carbs and protein within 2 hours to maximize recovery. Keep taking in carbs and protein at meals and snacks the rest of the day.
Dinner the Night Before Long Runs
Eat a high carb dinner the evening before long runs. Focus on whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta and potatoes plus vegetables. Lean protein like chicken or fish is fine but don't overdo it - carbs should be the priority. Avoid fatty, highly processed foods that can cause GI issues. Limit fiber to allow for good digestion and absorption. Eat until satisfied but don't overeat - fuel up properly but digestively comfortable is the goal.
Race Day Fueling Strategy
Pre-Race Meal for Marathoners
Before the marathon, eat a high-carb, low-fiber, low-fat breakfast 3-4 hours beforehand. Good options are oatmeal, bagels, toast, bananas, boiled potatoes. Include a small amount of protein like Greek yogurt too. Avoid heavy meats, oily foods and excessive protein. Stick to foods you know you tolerate well. Consume plenty of fluids up until an hour before start time. Have a small last-minute carb snack like an energy bar at least 30 minutes prior if needed for hunger.
Fueling During the Marathon
Consume 30-60 grams of carbs per hour once you are on the course to maintain energy and performance. Gels, chews, sports drinks and gummies work well. Take a serving every 3-5 miles starting 45-60 minutes in. Hydrate with 4-10 oz of fluids every 1-2 aid stations. Don't wait until you feel depleted to fuel up - start early and consistently. Customize based on your personal preferences and tolerances honed during long training runs.
Post-Marathon Recovery Foods
Refuel and rehydrate ASAP after finishing the marathon. Focus on a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fluids for optimal recovery. Chocolate milk, smoothies with protein powder, sandwiches, yogurt and granola bars are all good portable options. Within 2 hours have a proper meal high in quality carbs and lean protein to replenish glycogen and help rebuild damaged muscles. Continue refueling at regular intervals for the next 24 hours.
Supplements for Marathon Training and Racing
Gels and Chews for Marathons
Gels and chews provide portable, easily digestible carbs that are convenient to take while running. They provide around 25-30 grams of fast carbs per serving. Use longer training runs to test which flavors and textures work best for you. Consume one serving every 45-60 minutes once you are on the course. Take with water to aid absorption. Alternate between types to provide carb variety. Carry 6-10 servings for the full marathon distance.
Recovery Drinks and Powders
Recovery shakes and powders containing both carbs and protein are beneficial after long marathon training runs and races. Look for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein in recovery formulas. They provide muscle rebuilding protein plus fast digesting carbs for glycogen restoration. Take within 30 minutes after finishing runs for maximum benefit. They are especially useful if you cannot eat a full meal right away post-run.
When and How to Use Supplements for Marathons
Use supplements like gels and chews to complement solid marathon training nutrition. Practice fueling with them on long runs to plan your exact marathon race day strategy. Recovery shakes are ideal for after key tough workouts and long runs when getting nutrients quickly is key. They are not meant to replace normal whole foods which should make up the bulk of your daily marathon diet.
Adequate nutrition helps marathoners complete their grueling training, perform their best on race day, and recover effectively. Focus on meeting increased carb, protein and hydration needs. Time your fueling wisely before, during and after runs. Practice your fueling program during training for race day success.
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