Marathon Week Nutrition

We’re gearing up for the Sioux Falls Marathon next weekend, which means most athletes registered for the races are going to be reducing their mileage (tapering) and eating more carbohydrates (carbohydrate-loading). You’ve made it!

This is a great time to look back at all those summer training runs and feel confident that you put in all those sweaty miles in the heat to be able to cross that finish line on race day. In honor of the race being ONE WEEK away (no pressure), we’re going to be  talking a little bit about race week nutrition for marathon runners.

Most of the information applies to runners for all distances, and the Sioux Falls Marathon website has some great videos on Steps to running your first 5K, which have great tips for runners of all abilities, but especially for those who want to start running, or have signed up for their first race. 

Hitting the Wall

In the world of athletics, we hear a lot of information about protein, but runners need to be making carbohydrates a priority, especially in the days leading up to a big race. 

Carbohydrates are our muscles’ preferred fuel source. When you eat carbohydrates, your body stores it as energy in the form of glycogen. When you’re a distance runner, your muscles use up this energy. 

Have you ever hear of a marathon runner hitting the wall? “Hitting the wall” is a term to describe the sudden feeling of fatigue, lack of energy and feeling that you can’t even take one more step when a runner has used up all of their stored carbohydrates, often around mile 20 of the marathon. This is why you often hear people say, “The race is half over at mile 20” because those last 6 miles can often feel like an eternity if you haven’t taken the proper steps to ensure your glycogen/energy stores are filled and ready to push you to mile 26.2. 

Source: Buzzfeed

I’m sure the new runners are panicking at the thought of hitting that 20 mile mark now. Don’t worry! There are a couple steps during this week to make sure you’re getting in some good nutrition to fuel your muscles on race day. 

Carbs are King

Most runners think of carbohydrate loading as eating a huge bowl of pasta in the days leading up  to a race. We’re not here to tell you that that’s not a good strategy – if you’ve been eating pasta for every meal leading up to all your long runs, you probably don’t want to change a good thing. 

A good rule to follow is: “Don’t try anything new in the days leading up to a race!” For many runners, a big pasta meal, especially the night before the race (the traditional “carb loading meal”), is probably not going to digest fully before you start the race, so you may feel bloated and heavy while you’re running. Instead, start thinking about your nutrition plan after your last long run, the week before the race. After you’ve finished this run, you’re in the taper phase, so your runs over the next couple days should be easy – you’ve already put in the work, so pushing yourself too hard isn’t going to help you gain any extra fitness. During the week leading up to your race, many runners feel like they can’t back off the running – they may feel bloated or gain a couple pounds during the week, but just know that tapering is helping your body store the energy it is going to need to fuel your muscles during your big race. The extra weight is from your body storing glycogen (energy) and water, so sit back and try to relax. 

  • 3 days before your race (mid-week) is a great time to ramp up your carbohydrate intake to about 3-4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. 

For a better visual, let’s think about what our plate might look like on a “normal” day, with 45-65% of our calories coming from carbohydrates: 

United States Olympic Committee Sport Dietitians and the University of Colorado (UCCS) Sport Nutrition Graduate Program.

The normal plate is great for every day and easy training days. Our carbohydrates come from vegetables and fruits, which should fill up half of our plate, and the rest from whole grains and quality starches, such as brown rice, whole grain pasta, potatoes and sweet potatoes, etc. 

In the 3-4 days leading up to a marathon, we’re going to want to make carbohydrates the majority of our plate, which we can do by increasing the amount of carbohydrates we are eating at each meal and snack. This doesn’t necessarily mean increasing our portions at each meal to add in an extra piece of bread, but making an effort to cut down on the protein and fats and aim to have carbohydrates make up ~70% of our daily intake

Compared to the above plate, this is a better visual of what your plate might look like in the several days leading up to race day:

United States Olympic Committee Sport Dietitians and the University of Colorado (UCCS) Sport Nutrition Graduate Program.

As you can see, we’ve really increased the amount of grains and starches, so maybe instead of your daily salad for lunch, you choose a sandwich instead, or instead of an egg for breakfast, you have a peanut butter and banana sandwich so you’re just making sure to make the majority of your plate carbohydrate-rich.

Keep in mind that this week is not an excuse to eat whatever you want. Carbohydrate loading is the combination of reducing your activity level and increasing your carbohydrate intake – not eating a full pasta or pizza dinner each night. We also can’t push protein and healthy fats to the side. Your plate should be balanced with quality carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits and healthy fats, which is what we should be aiming to include in most of our meals every day.

Don’t Try Anything New

You want to remember the above rule – to “not try anything new” in the week before the race. If you’ve eaten the same meal the day before every long run during your training, you probably want to stick with eating that same meal the day before your race. If you haven’t really kept track of what you eat, stick with eating foods that you’re familiar with or bland foods you know won’t upset your stomach the day before the race. 

In contrast to the common carb-loading strategy of eating a huge pasta dinner the night before your race, we recommend eating your last larger meal for lunch the day before your race, and keeping dinner on the light side. Keep carbohydrate intake high on the day before the race, but if you’re going to have your pasta dinner, try having it for lunch instead to ensure you have time to digest and feel good on race morning. 

Some examples of this meal include: pasta with red sauce and chicken breast with a side salad, rice and stir-fried vegetables and tofu or chicken, a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato and onion and an apple.

Race Morning 

The morning of the race is your chance to top of your glycogen stores with a quality carbohydrate-rich meal. It is recommended to wake up several hours before the race, if possible, to eat ~150 grams of carbohydates. You want to make sure you’ve tried eating on some of your training runs to know how your body will react to eating before running. Some of the most common go-to breakfasts include carbohydrates and a little bit of protein and fat to hold us over until the race starts: bagel with peanut butter and a banana, granola with milk and fruit, yogurt with fruit, granola bar and an apple. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you’ve tried before a long run and you know will agree with your stomach. 

Source: RunnerUnleashed.com

This breakfast should be substantial enough to get you to the starting line without being hungry, but not so large that you feel heavy and stuffed when you start running. 

If you’ve followed your training plan, tapered, and loaded up your plate with plenty of healthy carbohydrates in the days leading up to the race, you should feel confident that you’ve done everything in your power to cross that finish line. 

Again, if you’re running the half marathon, this information is going to apply to you, too, just on a smaller scale. Marathon runners are going to have a larger intake of total calories, but the percentages of carbohydrates can still apply to those running the half marathon next weekend.