Wise marathon preparation is a holistic endeavor. Sleep, recovery, cross-training, and most of all, nutrition, all play essential roles. Ask any experienced runner: the right foods, eaten in the right quantities and at the right times, can make all the difference when race day arrives. Here are ten nutrition tips any runner would be smart to follow:
1. Winners plan ahead.
Many marathoners wait until a week or two before the big event before thinking about their diet. But race nutrition is much more than five days of carb loading. Start thinking about what you’ll eat at least a couple months before the race. As you’ll see below, there’s a lot to do.
2. Stomachs need training too.
About eight weeks before your race, figure out which brands and types of sports nutrition products settle best in your stomach. The only way to determine this is to experiment. Simulate your race-day nutrition plan during your long workouts. Aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates, 24-48 oz. of water, and 400-800 mg sodium per hour.
3. Plan your final meal.
Within a month of the race you should have your race-day meal plan dialed in as well. General guidelines are 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight 1-2 hours before the race, OR 3-4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight 3-4 hours before. Practice eating a variety of breakfast foods before your long runs to see how they digest. Avoid high fat foods because fat takes a long time to digest. Good options are bananas, toast, oatmeal, bagels, fruit, cereal, potatoes or rice.
4. Be good to your body during race week.
During taper week, the goal is to rest your body and full recover from all the hard work you’ve put in. Replenish with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Avoid processed foods. Shoot for 70% of your total calories from high carbohydrate foods.
5. Don’t worry about your weight.
Don’t be alarmed if you gain weight during taper week. For every gram of stored glycogen, the body stores three grams of water, which is used to help convert the stored carbs into energy once you begin racing. So drink plenty of water and relax.
6. Load up on nitrates.
Everyone knows about carbs, but few realize how important nitrates are to performance. Nitrates, found in plant foods like beets, argula and swiss chard, are converted into nitric oxide, a potent vasodilator that increases blood flow to the heart and working muscles. A good idea is to drink eight daily ounces of a performance juice like Beet Performer for seven days prior to your race, and another eight ounces the morning of the race.
7. Eat your pre-race dinner early.
Eat an early high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal to ensure that your body has enough time to fully digest and eliminate everything. Avoid foods that can trigger heartburn including spicy foods, high-fat foods deep-fried foods, highly acidic foods like tomatoes, chocolate or mint. Foods that are lower in fiber, like regular spaghetti, may help prevent diarrhea, intestinal cramping and bloating.
8. Don’t try anything new on race day.
The biggest rule of thumb for race-day nutrition is don’t try anything new. Eat the breakfast that you have perfected over the last month at the time that works best for you.
9. Fluids matter.
If you normally consume coffee in the mornings, then do so on race day. Hot tea or coffee often helps clear out your bowels before the gun goes off. Hydrate yourself with 1.5-2.5 cups of fluid 2-3 hours before the race. This will ensure you are fully hydrated and allow enough time to void excess fluid before the race starts.
10. Add carbs a half-hour before the gun.
To top off your energy stores, you might want to consume 15-30 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of the event start in the form of a gel, chews, or sports drink.
Following a thoughtful nutrition program will give you confidence once your race starts. So plan early, follow the plan, then get out there and enjoy your day. You’ve worked hard for it!
Tara Martine, overall women’s winner of the 2014 Savannah (GA) Rock ‘N Roll Marathon, is a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian/nutritionist, and founder/owner of Whole Impact Nutrition. She specializes in wellness, sports, and plant-based nutrition.