You’re preparing for a long-distance race, logging miles and miles on the trail and the treadmill to get ready. But have you prepared nutritionally? Good nutrition is important throughout the entire training process, not just the days leading up to the race. Eating the right foods, at the right times, ensures you have enough fuel in your tank to get you through your runs. Here are some guidelines to follow while you are training.
Eat Plenty of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are your muscles’ primary source of energy and should be the basis of your diet when you are training for a long distance race. When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, or sugar, and used for energy. If you aren’t immediately active, some of that glucose gets stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen (the rest gets stored as fat). When you are exercising, your muscles use that glycogen as a source of fuel. The problem is, our muscles can only store so much glycogen at one time. Have you ever hit “the wall” while running, and weren’t able to go any further? This is what happens when you’ve used up your glycogen stores. As your glycogen stores start to deplete, you need to start eating or drinking carbohydrates to provide energy for your muscles.
On an average day, most runners will need 2.5 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. In the days leading up to your race, start to increase this slightly to maximize your glycogen storage. Two to three days pre-race aim to take in 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight; this equates to one to two extra servings per meal.
The Power of Protein
Protein doesn’t always get much attention in marathon training because the excitement tends to be around carbs. But make no mistake, lean protein is essential throughout your marathon and half-marathon training as well. Protein should be eaten post-run to build and repair damaged muscles, getting them ready for your next running session. Luvo Ambassador and multi-medal-winning Olympian Natalie Coughlin shared the importance of consuming protein in her post-competition recovery. Since protein slows down digestion, you want to avoid having more than a few grams pre-run or during your run.
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What to Eat and When
Pre-Run: If you haven’t had a meal in the past two to three hours, and are going to be running for longer than one hour, have a snack within an hour or two before your training run. “Pre-run snacks should be made up of easy to digest carbs, and should be low in fiber, fat, and protein,” explains Registered Dietitian Isabel Smith. “This helps to provide fuel while preventing cramping or stomach upset.” Try these high carb mini-meals one to two hours before your run:
- Banana with peanut butter
- Greek yogurt with mixed berries and a drizzle of honey
- Whole wheat toast with almond butter and apple slices
- Crackers with hummus
- Cottage cheese mixed with pineapple chunks
During the Run: If your run is less than an hour, stick to water. For training runs longer then 60 to 90 minutes, aim to take in 30-80 grams of carbohydrate per hour. This can be in the form of food, sports gels or blocks, or sports drinks. “Sports drinks are good options because they provide fluid, electrolytes, and easy to digest carbs,” says Smith. “Trial different foods and drinks during your training to see what works best for you. What one person feels good with doesn’t always work for another.” Try these homemade energy gels during your next long run.
Post-Run: The best post-run recovery meal contains a mix of carbohydrate and protein.
This combination helps to repair your muscles and replenish your muscle glycogen stores. Aim to consume a post-workout snack within 30 to 60 minutes after your run. Most people need between 10 to 25 grams of protein and 60 to 100 grams of carbohydrate. If you have a hard time stomaching food immediately post-run, try a liquid source of carbs and protein, like a homemade smoothie.
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich with 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
- Turkey and cheese sandwich with an apple
- 6 ounces of Greek yogurt with a cup of fruit and a teaspoon of honey
- Smoothie made with one to two cups of fruit, a cup of Greek yogurt, a handful of walnuts and 10-16 ounces of water
- 16 ounces of a sports drink plus 6 ounces of cottage cheese
Don’t Forget About Hydration
Spring and summer bring warmer temperatures, which impact your hydration, especially during outside runs. The hotter (and more humid) it is, the faster your body heats up and the more fluids you lose through sweat. This makes it all the more important that you stay hydrated throughout the day, including before, during, and after your run. If you feel thirsty, it’s too late – you’re already dehydrated. The best way to tell if you are hydrated is to look at the color of your urine. If you’re well hydrated it will be a light yellow or lemonade color – aim to keep it around here. If it’s darker, more like apple juice color, then you need to drink more. Follow these guidelines for drinking before, during and after your run.
- Drink 12 to 20 ounces of water as soon as you wake up
- Drink 6 to 10 ounces of water ten to 20 minutes before the start of your run
- If you are running or racing later in the day, drink consistently during the day to keep your urine pale yellow in color.
During the Run
- Drink evenly, aiming for 6 to 8 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes to optimize stomach emptying and minimize sloshing in your stomach.
- Gulp fluids, don’t sip – larger volumes of liquid will empty your stomach faster.
- Drink 16 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound you lose during your run. Determine this by doing a sweat test pre-race: weigh yourself pre-run, and then exercise for an hour at race pace without drinking any liquids or going to the bathroom. Re-weigh yourself after an hour; this is your sweat rate per hour.
During a run, you lose electrolytes along with fluid in your sweat. Sodium is one of the most important electrolytes to replace both during and after your run. Sodium helps to maintain our fluid stores, helps with muscle contractions, and, along with potassium, prevents cramps. Sports drinks provide some sodium, however, if you are a salty sweater or are exercising in very hot weather you may need to take in an extra 400-800mg of sodium per hour. You can add salt tabs to your sports drink, or use electrolyte tablets to replace sodium, potassium, and other key electrolytes.
Test, Test, Test
The time to figure out your race-day nutrition plan is during your training, not on the day of the race. Remember, what works for someone else may not work for you. Test all your nutrition and hydration strategies during your training runs and find what works best for your body. Final thought: Don’t introduce anything new in your diet in the days before the actual race. Eat familiar foods that will be easy on your stomach. Then go get that PR—and feel great.
What are your tips for marathon and half-marathon nutrition? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for all things nutritious and delicious!