(5 min read)
Whether you're a veteran of the 26.2 mile distance or a total newbie, there's one thing every marathon prepper has in common: you need to eat properly. When you're racking up the miles for weeks on end, it's vital to fuel with a well-balanced diet to power your body and help you recover optimally.
But if you’re unsure how to fuel correctly to make your next marathon a success, we’ve got you covered. Here’s your essential guide to nailing that marathon training diet.
Important macronutrients for marathon runners
Before we dive into what to eat, you need to know the basic components of your marathon diet: macronutrients. Macronutrients are the building blocks that make up food, namely carbohydrates, fat and protein. More or less every food can be grouped into one of these macronutrient categories, though most foods are a blend (unless you're chugging olive oil, for example).
Here’s what you need to know about each:
Carbohydrates are the most readily available source of energy for a marathon runner, and are essential to fuel any endurance training sessions that last more than 90 minutes (so basically all your long runs) as well as high-intensity training sessions (like speedwork and hill repeats).
The majority of your carb intake should come from complex carbohydrates, like rice and pulses. These take your body longer to break down than simple carbohydrates (fast-acting carbs) like sweets and soft drinks and that makes them a better steady supply of energy than simple carbs that can cause spikes and crashes.
That’s not to say fast-acting carbs don’t have their place. For example, taking simple carbs on board before your high-intensity track session, will provide the immediate energy you need to hit your target paces. And not all simple carbs come in processed form.
If you opt for a natural source, such as the fruits found in the Veloforte Pronto bar, you’ll also pack more nutritional bang per bite than just scoffing down some Jelly Babies. The protein from the almonds also helps to balance out the energy hit so it lasts much longer and won’t leave you running on empty come into your tenth 400m rep.
“As a general rule of thumb in the 24 hours leading into these higher intensity or longer training sessions, aim for around 4-5g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight per day,” says Renee McGregor, an elite performance dietitian who advises Team GB.
In the meal after your run, aim for 1.2g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight. While muscle recovery is typically associated with protein, it’s ideal to eat something with a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein. This is because, after a long run, you’ll need to replenish your body’s glycogen stores which will have been drained – the carbs you take on will do this, while the protein will rebuild any micro-tears in your muscles.
What should I eat to get my complex carbs?
Ramp up your complex carbohydrate intake by eating:
- Wholegrain bread
- Wholegrain cereal
Fat helps boost your overall calorie intake to avoid you landing in an energy deficit, which can damage your hormone function and leave you at risk of injury. It can also help boost your recovery.
"Essential fats are useful due to the high antioxidant content which has been shown to help with reduction of inflammation," says McGregor.
There aren't any specific guidelines for fat, but McGregor recommends no less than 1g of fat per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Saturated fat should only make up a small percentage of your marathon diet as it can make you feel sluggish. The majority of your fat intake should come from healthy, unsaturated fats.
What should I eat?
Pack in healthy fats from foods such as:
- Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout
- Peanut butter & nut butters
- Olive oil
Protein is essential for muscle repair and regeneration after a run – it's definitely not just for bodybuilders.
"Contrary to what you might read, marathon running has higher protein requirements than some resistance training due to the continual need to repair micro-tears that occur through running," says McGregor.
It's recommended you take in 0.4g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per meal, and 0.2g per kilogram of bodyweight for snacks. McGregor recommends protein pulsing, which means including protein at every meal and snack, to make sure you get plenty throughout the day.
A quick portable option is a Veloforte Forza bar, which packs 12g of Complete protein that you can eat on the go.
What should I eat?
Repair those muscles by getting in plenty of:
- Black beans
- Greek yogurt
Example daily meal plan for when you’re training for a marathon
If you're not sure where to start when it comes to meal planning for your marathon diet, here's an example of the kind of meals you might eat throughout the day. Obviously, you can tweak this to fit in with your food preferences and dietary requirements – just make sure you get in the recommended balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein.
Your body repairs and rebuilds your muscles while you sleep, so eating a good breakfast will restore your energy levels for the day ahead. Complex carbohydrates fill you up, while adding some protein helps maintain muscle recovery. Add in some fresh fruit or veg too for additional vitamins.
Try porridge topped with fruit and peanut butter, Greek yoghurt and muesli, or scrambled eggs on toast with spinach or tomatoes on the side.
Basing your lunch around a complex carbohydrate is a quick and easy way to get an energy hit, plus adding fat and a source of protein will round out your meal perfectly.
Try whole-wheat pasta or rice with vegetables for carbs, tuna or chicken for protein and olive oil dressing for fat. If you don't eat fish or meat, you can switch it out for chickpeas or tofu, which are great plant-based sources of protein and will bump up your carb intake too.
Dinner is probably the last thing you'll eat before that all-important sleep, so base it around protein so your body has something to work with for recovery. Try pairing chicken, salmon or beef with lentils or black beans and plenty of salad for a balanced, protein-rich meal. Vegetarians or vegans can try adding seitan or tempeh, or simply add more pulses.
As your marathon training ramps up, the chances are you'll be struck by the dreaded runger (running hunger) between meals. You can keep this at bay by having healthy snacks at hand. These could include:
- Nuts (for healthy fats and protein)
- Bananas (rich in potassium, an electrolyte you lose through sweating)
- Natural energy bars like Veloforte bars (a good natural source of carbs and hunger-busting fibre)
- Peanut butter on crackers or rice cakes (for fat and carbs)
- Greek yogurt (rich in protein and calcium for bone health)
- Smoothies (a source of fruit and vegetables)
Try to plan your snacks and meals around your training plan to stay well-fuelled and improve your running performance.
Unless you’re deliberately running fasted, if you head out on a long run with an empty stomach, chances are you'll be too hungry to hit your goals and may end up feeling unwell.
Have a healthy snack or meal a couple of hours before you start running to ensure you've got energy available to power you and give yourself enough time to digest (and thus avoid any annoying/embarrassing stomach problems).
Try to eat within 20 minutes of finishing your run to help kickstart your recovery. If you don't feel hungry straight after a run, try having a protein shake, a protein recovery bar like the Veloforte Forza bar or chocolate milk to replenish your carb and protein supplies, then have a balanced meal such as those described above, later on.
Hydration, hydration, hydration
Hydration is essential for runners, especially in hot weather. According to the National Hydration Council, being dehydrated while training can lead to poor performance, headaches and nausea – all stuff you can do without on the run.
The NHS recommend six to eight glasses of water per day, though if you're losing a lot of water through sweat in marathon training you may well need more.
“The best way to know if you are hydrated or not is to check the colour and odour of your urine." says McGregor.
"Ideally you want it to be pale straw coloured with no odour. If you are producing large quantities of colourless urine, it could indicate that you are over hydrating and if you are producing urine that has a strong odour, this would suggest that you are dehydrated."
When you're on the road, McGregor recommends around 100-250ml of water per 20 minutes, depending on the weather and how long you’re planning to run. If it's exceptionally hot or you're a particularly salty sweater, you may want to consider adding electrolyte tabs to your water.
Nutrition for marathon race day – your checklist
The weeks before the marathon:
Don't leave it to chance and end up eating something that could spell disaster for you, your race or your bowels.
The days leading up to the marathon:
4 Steps to Race day breakfast:
1. Nothing new on race day:
Have the breakfast that worked best for you in training, far enough ahead of the race that you won't get a stitch or other stomach problems.
2. Aim for plenty of carbs:Go for a carb-rich breakfast like a bagel with peanut butter or porridge with fruit for a final fill of your glycogen tanks and pop a Veloforte bar in your back pocket for a handy way to top up if you face a long wait before the race.
3. Avoid risky foods:
Sidestep anything high in fibre, oily or spicy – no matter how good the hotel breakfast buffet looks.
4. Drink up:
Hopefully you’ll have kept on top of your hydration in the days leading up to the race. Don’t go crazy glugging litres of water in the morning but try to ensure your urine is a light straw colour before hitting the start line.
How to fuel during the marathon
Post marathon recovery... Treat Yourself
Of course, the standard rule about getting that 3:1 golden ratio of protein and carbs within 20 minutes of finishing still stands, but once you cross that finish line you'll be too busy feeling ecstatic/lying down/trying to find your supporters to think about it.
Once you're feeling somewhat human again, indulge in whatever you fancy most – it's one day of many and you've got a marathon finish to celebrate!