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Fueling Your Run for Success: Nutrition Tips for Marathon Running

When it comes to marathon performance, training alone is not enough. Proper nutrition plays a critical role in fueling your body, enhancing endurance, and aiding in recovery. In this blog, we share training tips from our physiotherapists and registered dietitians, that will explore the importance of proper nutrition in marathon training, how to fuel for a run, and provide running tips to optimize your performance.

Running a marathon is a huge mental and physical accomplishment and proper nutrition can go a long way in ensuring your success. However, if you’re new to running, the prospect of fueling for longer distances may seem daunting! How soon should I eat before my run? Do I need energy gels? How can I make sure I’m hydrated during long runs?

Not to worry, we’ve got all these answers and more.

In this blog post, we’ll be covering the basics of marathon nutrition with Registered Dietitian, Ruth Burrowes, as well as some helpful training tips from our physiotherapist (and marathon veteran), Yvonne Mery to optimize your performance.

The Importance of Proper Nutrition in Marathon Training

When it comes to the marathon training, proper nutrition plays an important role in supporting training and recovery of this physically demanding sport. From making sure you have enough energy to power through long runs to maximizing recovery after workouts, good nutrition can make the difference between a personal best and not finishing your run. There are three key aspects of nutrition that are essential for marathon training: energy availability, protein for maximizing muscle recovery and repair, and hydration and electrolyte balance.

Energy Availability

Marathon training demands high energy levels to sustain long runs and intense workouts. Consuming a balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats is the foundation of nutrition for running provides the necessary fuel for optimal performance. When we don’t eat enough calories (or enough of the right foods) to fuel our weekly mileage, it can limit our ability to maintain intensity during running workouts and to effectively adapt to training.

For example, if endurance athletes don’t consume enough calories from carbohydrates, it can limit their ability to keep pace during tempo run, speed work, and long runs. Plus, running in a low carb state can increase protein oxidation, making it harder to recovery after exercise.

Dietitian Tip: Maximize energy availability using the Athlete Plate Model to help guide your eating to ensure you’re getting enough of the right foods.

  • For easy training days (<1hr exercise): Fill ¼ of your plate with protein, ¼ with starchy carbs (whole grain bread, pasta, rice, etc), and ½ with fruits and vegetables
  • For moderate training days (1-2hrs exercise): Fill ¼ of your plate with protein, 1/3 with starchy carbs and 1/3 with vegetables
  • For hard training days (2-3+ hrs): Fill ¼ of your plate with protein, 1/2 with lower-fibre starchy carbs (white paste, bread, white rice, quick oats etc), and 1/4 with vegetables

Muscle Recovery and Repair

Did you know that endurance athletes have high protein needs? This is because endurance exercise, particularly running, increases protein turnover (aka the rate at which proteins are broken down). Therefore, getting enough protein intake is crucial for muscle recovery after training and repair. Protein also plays a role in supporting the immune system and preventing illness, which is vital during marathon training.

It's important to recognize that everyone has different protein requirements depending on how often they're training, but on average, endurance runners need anywhere from 1.4-1.7g of protein per kg of body weight, spread throughout the day.  Aim for at least 20-25g of protein at meals and snacks to help support your training and recovery.

Good sources of protein include: lean meats, fish and seafood, low fat dairy products (greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk), eggs and egg whites, soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh), and protein powders.

Hydration and Electrolyte Balance

Proper hydration is essential for maintaining performance and preventing dehydration, however two individuals training for a marathon may have vastly different fluid requirements depending on how much they sweat.

Aim to start runs hydrated by sipping water throughout the day (rather than right before) and always bring a water bottle with you on long runs or to sip between intervals.

A balanced electrolyte level is equally important aspect of hydration support muscle function and prevent cramping. Consuming an electrolyte-rich drink or sports beverages can be beneficial during long runs or hot weather conditions to support muscle function and prevent cramping.

Dietitian tip: a good way to monitor if you’re drinking enough is to monitor the colour of your urine—if it’s darker than the colour of lemonade, keep sipping!

How to Fuel for a Run

Pre-Run Nutrition

Consume a balanced meal 2-3 hours before a run to sustain energy levels. Focus on complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lean protein and fruits or veggies that you know sit well with you.  If you have to eat closer to your run, choose a smaller snack focused on simple carbs that will digest quickly (white bread, race cakes with honey or jam, ripe banana, gummies), and vegetables. Include a moderate amount of protein to support muscle function and a small amount of healthy fats for satiety. E

Dietitian tip: examples of pre-run meals include oatmeal with fruit or yogurt, eggs and toast, or pasta salad with chopped chicken and veggies or a whole grain wrap with lean protein and vegetables.

During-Run Nutrition

For longer runs over 90 minutes, consuming easily digestible carbohydrates during the run can help maintain energy levels. To maintain carbohydrate availability, aim to consume 30-60g of simple carbs per hour. Examples include dates, gummies, energy gels, sports drinks with carbs.

Experiment during training to find the products that work best for you. Remember to hydrate regularly with water to minimize stomach discomfort when eating during your run

Post-Run Recovery

After a run, prioritize replenishing glycogen stores with carbohydrates and aiding muscle recovery with high-quality protein. Consume a snack or meal within 30 minutes to an hour post-run. Optimal post-run nutrition includes a combination of carbohydrates and protein. Examples include a fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt, a protein shake, or a balanced meal with lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables.

Running Tips to Enhance Performance

Once your body has the proper nutrition, it's also important to focus on your approach to training. When it comes to marathon training, it's not just about the miles! Incorporating effective running strategies can make a significant difference in your performance and overall experience. In this section, we will explore key running tips that can help enhance your performance, prevent injuries, and ensure a successful marathon journey.

  • Gradual Mileage Increase: Increase your weekly mileage gradually to allow your body to adapt and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Aim for a 10% increase in mileage per week.
  • Vary Training Intensity: Incorporate different types of runs into your training plan. Include long runs for endurance, tempo runs for increasing lactate threshold, interval training for speed, and recovery runs for active recovery.
  • Cross-Training and Strength Training: Engage in cross-training activities such as cycling, swimming, or strength training to improve overall fitness, prevent injuries, and strengthen different muscle groups.
  • Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to signs of fatigue, soreness, or injury. Rest and recovery are crucial components of training. Take regular rest days and prioritize sleep to allow your body to repair and rebuild.

How can our team at the Nepean Sports Medicine & Physiotherapy Centre help?

As you embark on your marathon training journey, remember that proper nutrition and effective running strategies go hand in hand. Prioritize fueling your body with the right nutrients and incorporating smart training techniques. For personalized guidance, consider seeking running assessment with Physiotherapist and 13 time marathon finisher, Yvonne Mery and a sports nutrition consult with Registered Dietitian, Ruth Burrowes to maximize your potential and achieve your marathon goals!

Are you interested in learning more about how to optimize your diet to improve performance?

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