Carb Loading, Energy Gels & Refuel Meals: Marathon Runners’ Nutrition Guide
Guest Blog by Veronika Larisova
Signing up for a marathon can be daunting, even for the most seasoned runners. The idea that you’ll be running 26 miles is mind-boggling in itself, let alone the sheer volume of training and nutrition information that’s now available. What do marathon runners eat? How should you fuel your training? What do you eat before and after a run? We’ve enlisted the help of ultra-marathon runner, nutritionist and co-founder of Chief Nutrition to help us cut through the confusion!
We know that adopting a whole-foods approach to your diet is extremely beneficial for longevity and overall health. However, typical ‘running fuel’ includes things like energy gels, cereal bars and jelly beans which are loaded with refined sugar and artificial ingredients. So why are we told to stock up on these artificial, processed and high sugar snacks when training for an endurance event?
Much of the advice in magazines and online are either out-dated or based on (old) scientific literature aimed at elite athletes. To put this into context, think about the mobile phone you had 20 years ago and compare it to your smartphone today – that’s how quickly science progresses! The same concept applies to nutrition, you wouldn’t use your ancient ‘brick’ phone today so why follow 20-year old nutritional advice?
The simple answer to all nutrition questions and concerns is that a healthy, balanced diet is always the way to go. Supplements should be used to complement a healthy diet, not to substitute real food. However, there are a few tricks and rules you can apply to maximize your performance and recovery on the big day!
To carb load or not to carb load? This is the main question I get asked by race runners. Whether you are running 10km, a half marathon, or a marathon, you need to increase carbohydrate intake to fuel your training, racing and recovery… but you only need to ‘carb load’ for a full marathon. Carb loading for a 10km run or half marathon will not hugely impact performance and making a habit of over-eating carbohydrates can lead to unwanted weight gain.
Carb loading should not be treated as a ‘’free pass for binging on sugary junk food! The idea behind carb loading is to increase the % of carbohydrates in your diet while maintaining the same energy intake. This means you’re still consuming the same number of calories but with a higher proportion of the calories coming from carbohydrates and less from fat and protein. This process can begin a few days prior to your race in order to maximize your muscle glycogen stores. It’s actually possible to gain fat while training for a marathon if you eat more than your body actually requires (for training and recovery) on a daily basis, so be mindful of the quality and quantity of your carbs.
The Sports Dietitians Australia has some valuable tips on carbohydrate loading – here.
RACE DAY NUTRITION
The main goals of your pre-race meal are to top up your glycogen stores and to optimise hydration levels. The Melbourne Marathon kicks off at 7 am, which is pretty early considering you’re probably not going to wake up at 2:30 am to have a ‘proper’ breakfast four hours before the race. In this case, it’s smarter to have a light, low fibre carbohydrate-rich snack 1-2 hours before the race.
- 1-2 rice cakes with peanut butter and few banana slices on the top
- 1 standard cup chia parfait (recipe below)
- A Chief Collagen bar + a banana
- Half of regular size smoothie with almond milk (to prevent any stomach upset caused by lactose in regular milk), honey, a banana and fruit of choice.
- ½- 1 cup oats/porridge with honey and banana
- Homemade (you guessed it!) banana bread
I like to make my Chia Parfait in an empty jar because you can see all the colourful layers so it looks tempting and delicious!
- 4 tbsp chia seeds
- ½ cup almond milk
- ½ cup fresh berries
- ½ sliced banana
- 25-50g low-fat natural yoghurt (if you can tolerate it)
- 1 tsp honey
- Put the chia seeds in the jar and top up with almond milk
- Let it all soak in the fridge for a few hours or overnight
- Place a layer of banana on the top
- Add a 1cm layer of yoghurt and a little bit of honey
- Add a layer of berries
- Add a layer of yoghurt and rest of the honey
- Leave in the fridge for the morning.
- If you are travelling take it with you and eat 2 hrs prior to the race.
Coffee lovers can have a black coffee but be sure to re-hydrate by sipping on water until the race starts. Avoid drinking large volumes of water before the race – your body won’t be able to absorb it and you’ll end up needing the toilet, which could risk impacting your time and PB efforts! Our body can assimilate only about 500ml of water per hour (unless it’s super-hot and humid). So drinking 500ml in one go is just going to go straight through you even if you don’t drink anything else in the next hour…keep sipping!
Gels and energy drinks do play their part in fuelling for races and very long training runs (those that last over 90min). However, if you’re typically sat at a desk all day and then go for an hour-long jog, you definitely don’t need energy gels and an extra sandwich.
If using gels when racing, you should have one gel (or 30-60g of carbohydrate) every 40-60 minutes to prevent muscle fatigue and to maintain pace and cognition. There are many gels on the market that can cause a gastrointestinal upset so it’s a great idea to practice taking gels on your long runs. Choose the most natural gels (Clif are an awesome option), as too many chemical additives are bad for your health and more likely to cause stomach issues. You can use whole foods instead of gels; just stick to easily digestible carbohydrate-rich options with minimal fat, fibre and protein (as these can slow down digestion).
Standard sports drinks located at aid stations throughout an event usually contain around 6% of carbohydrates and will help to meet carbohydrate and fluid needs simultaneously.
Running at high intensity, or for a prolonged period of time, depletes glycogen stores so consuming a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack soon after finishing will help to maximise your recovery and prevent injury or burn out.
In addition to carbohydrates, the recovery meal or snack should include around 20-25g of high-quality protein (for efficient muscle repair) and some healthy fats (to further assist in reducing inflammation). Inadequate protein intake hinders the recovery process resulting in prolonged muscle soreness (‘DOMS’ for days), fatigue, delayed ability to return to training, and increased injury risk.
Fluids are essential for rehydration and to replace water in the body, lost through sweat. Sodium is also lost through sweat, with endurance athletes typically losing >2% of body mass during training and racing. Insufficient dietary sodium causes muscle cramps, inability to properly hydrate and restore electrolyte balance post-event and it also leads to increased risk of hyponatremia. Pass the water!
Besides covering the macronutrient and hydration needs, a good post- long run snack should contain iron, vitamin B12 and salt.
Iron is a key factor in aerobic capacity and iron deficiency, even without anaemia, can impair endurance performance. Iron is lost not only through sweat but also via gastrointestinal bleeding and due to haemolysis (red blood cell damage) caused by the impact of each foot strike when running. Furthermore, the ability to absorb iron is reduced after an endurance event as a result of hormonal regulation. The best way to replace iron, in this case, is through animal foods as animal iron (haem) is better absorbed than non-haem iron.
Nutrient-rich wholefoods are always your best option. Processed foods are often low in nutrients and high in various pro-inflammatory additives such as: trans-fats, sugar/artificial sweeteners, flavour enhancers, sulphites, nitrites and other nasties. If you don’t have the time or don’t like to eat too many meals per day, aim to plan your training sessions around meal times so that you can use main meals to promote recovery after training.
So, how can we put all of this advice into practice? Here are some of the best recovery meals:
- A big salad or veggie bowl with two eggs and a high-quality carbohydrate such as sweet potato, quinoa or brown rice. You can choose to replace the eggs with fatty fish such as salmon.
- A veggie omelette for a quick meal (remember to add some starchy veggies!)
- Some plain yoghurt with fresh fruit, nuts and a tiny bit of honey if you have a sweet tooth.
- A smoothie with a good quality protein powder and some good fats (avocado, nut butter or nuts).
- A salad sandwich with chicken or tuna – only if you are remote and can’t create and buy any of the above.
Hopefully, that clears up some of the questions and concerns you might have around marathon running and nutrition. The most important thing to remember on race day is to have fun. You’ve done the hard work, now it’s time to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy it!