Fuelling Your Marathon

Aruna Prasad

Marathons or long distance running is designed to test the human capabilities when it comes to athletic performance and the challenges associated with these are probably as tough as the sport itself. Having said that, most of the marathon runners state that the joy and satisfaction in the accomplishment surpasses the training discomfort, pain or any other physical challenges.  An ideal marathon is when the runner is able to pace the second half of the distance with slightly higher speed  compared to the first half. Dehydration, muscle cramps, loss of good form, low sugar bouts are a few common challenges that a marathon runner faces and majority of these concerns can be taken care with just eating right for your training, before the marathon, during the run and post event.  Your nutritional requirement is dependent on your training schedule since the fuel you take in caters to your workout and the recovery that follows training.

Does that mean your food/nutrient intake should vary from a rest day to a light intensity day to a heavy  training day and finally on the event day?

Yes! Your body undergoes different neuro-muscular and metabolic changes on each of these days and eating to support the body to cope with these changes is the best way to enhance performance.

Nutrition planning for rest day and low intensity (<60 minutes) training days

A rest day or low intensity day succeeds a high intensity training day which means your muscles are  under  constant stress of breaking down and building up  due to the intense training. Such days require you to cut down on your carbohydrate sources (like potato, white bread, pasta, rice) and emphasize on proteins since you need to ensure you are in the ideal weight and fat% which can alter with higher consumption of  carbohydrates during low activity levels. High protein intake (like chicken, egg, paneer, cheese, sprouts) helps you with muscle building and also increases satiety in turn helping in cutting down on excess intake. Choosing a protein-rich snack is a safer option on these days. Omega 3 fatty acids from essential fat sources (like fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, garden cress seeds) help reduce inflammation post heavy training. Remember to  include two-three servings of fresh fruits and vegetables which are naturally rich in anti-oxidants that are required to scavenge the free radicals and reduce soreness post training on a rest/easy training day.

Nutrition planning for normal training days

Your carbohydrate intake can slightly increase on these days when compared to rest days. Remember, your muscles and liver are made up of glycogen that fuels endurance training.  Glycogen is stored carbohydrates. Hence, increasing carbohydrate intake on normal training days helps in faster recovery. Most of the athletes focus on higher protein giving lesser emphasis on carbohydrates which can lead to slower recovery or increased chances of cramps. Including a protein source with every meal will help in growth and repair of muscles. Essential fats are a must to promote muscle function. Including high sources of iron (like chicken, green leafy vegetables, sprouts, cashewnuts, dry fruits) twice or thrice a week helps increase oxygen carrying capacity of the blood thus supporting endurance.

Nutrition planning for heavy training days

The role of carbohydrate is tad higher than protein on the days when you train heavy or for longer duration. Glycogen levels deplete to support long duration intense training which needs to be compensated by increasing the intake of carbohydrates on these days specifically. Including carbohydrate based evening snack will further help in adaptation especially during carb-loading phase before the event. A combination of carbohydrate with slow release protein (like banana and a glass of milk) at bedtime further ensures muscle growth and repair while sleeping and faster recovery from intense training by next morning.

Intake of fat needs to be reduced on these days since it reduces gastric emptying affecting the uptake of carbs by the liver and muscles. Hydration on these days plays a crucial role in preventing cramps and injuries along with supporting muscle growth. Avoiding foods which are loaded with spices or fat or high in fibre prevents gastrointestinal issues further supporting growth and recovery of the cells.

Guide on intake of carbohydrates to prepare for a marathon event based on your training load

Carb-loading phase

Carbohydrate loading is a common strategy used by marathon runners. This allows you to super saturate

carbohydrates into working muscles. Beginners should understand that carb loading is not to make you run faster but to delay fatigue during an endurance event. Increased glycogen stores fuel your run for longer when compared to carb restricted or moderate carb diet before the event. This is usually done three days

before the event day after tapering the training load significantly. 1-2 kg weight gain is expected which is worth carrying to delay fatigue during the run. You can also expect this extra weight to go down after your run. 1.2-1.8g/kg body weight protein is recommended along with carbohydrate for muscle repair and recovery.

Pre-run nutrition

Remember not to experiment on the event day and risk your run. Avoid fatty, spicy and high fibre foods or anything that takes too long to digest. Prefer simple  carbohydrate sources like fruits or porridge or even a smoothie which is well tolerated that a heavy meal. Have this meal 2 hours prior to the event. Fluids are as important as carbohydrates to avoid cramps.

During-run nutrition

Role of nutrition during run is to prevent fatigue, maintain electrolyte balance and prevent hypoglycaemic

(low sugar) episodes. Energy gels or sports drinks containing 5-6% carbs are recommended

considering the ease to carry and save time while running. A few pieces of dry fruits and nuts or fruits like banana or

orange may also be preferred choice by a few runners if they are used to these snacks during their practise sessions.

Post-run nutrition

Post-run meal has to take in to consideration the 3R’s-Refuel, Repair and Rehydrate. Refuelling with a carbohydrate sources like fruit, bread, rice etc. Repair with a high quality protein source like dairy, egg, chicken etc. Refuel with fluids and electrolytes like fresh fruit juices, coconut water etc. Having a post run meal within 20 minutes of finishing the race is the best way to kick start the recovery process. Including an omega-3 source and a calcium sources (like dairy, chicken, green leafy vegetables, oil seeds) can help in faster recovery and reduce inflammation. It is best to avoid alcoholic beverage though tempting to celebrate the accomplishment since it can hinder the recovery process.

Remember, 80% of fitness is contributed by right nutrition. Emphasising on eating clean and eating for your training session can enhance performance, improve overall health and help maintain a healthy body weight along with having the ideal body fat% to further support your marathon.

Aruna Prasad

A qualified Nutritionist & a Gold Medalist in Master of Science (Food Science and Nutrition), Aruna comes with a wide experience of changing the way people eat.  A fitness enthusiast, Aruna has done multiple live media shows on demystifying common food fads and giving realistic tips on weight loss, sports nutrition and lifestyle modifications.

For your queries related to Diet & nutrition, mail at yournutritionist.aruna@gmail.com