Very few people are able to run a marathon without fueling during the race. In this guide you will find the most important recommendations for designing a marathon nutrition plan.
This guide was developed by MSc in Sports science, Anders Spanggaard from the VO2 Lab test centre, which is part of the Sparta Performance Centre. Anders is a running, cycling and swimming trainer and practices triathlon himself.
A marathon requires preparation
Very few people are able to run a marathon without thorough preparation. This is true not only in relation to training, but also when it comes to intake of energy and fluids, especially before and during your marathon. That is why you need a plan on how to fuel up with energy before and during your marathon – a marathon nutrition plan.
Start out a couple of months ahead
It takes practice and experience to find out which energy supplements that works for you – and your stomach – during a marathon. Start contemplating and practicing your nutrition plan as early as a couple of months before the run.
Long runs are for practicing
Use your long runs during the last couple of months leading up to the race to practice your nutrition plan. You will gain experience with regards to:
- What kind of breakfast works for you and how to time it before the run
- Your morning toilet routines
- How to take in enough fluids, especially before and during the run
- Which energy supplements you prefer during a run
- How to carry and consume your supplements while running
It is important that you practice fueling at your actual marathon pace. There is a big difference between consuming a gel or drinking a cup of water at easy pace compared to marathon speed.
3-4 days before
3-4 days before your marathon you should start taking in more fluids and increasing the share of carbohydrates in your diet. It’s not about taking in more calories but rather increasing the share of carbohydrates while cutting protein and fat. Rice, pasta, fruits or bread are excellent sources of carbohydrates – you don’t necessarily have to eat expensive energy supplements at this point.
Guideline: 80 pct. of your pre-race energy intake should consist of carbohydrates.
Make a list of foods you normally try to avoid and eat them. They are fully allowed now.
Consider it a haven: You can eat toasted soft rolls with jam without a guilty conscience if that is what you like. It is equally acceptable to have soft drinks, lemonade or soda. Adding energy drinks is fine too, if it makes you increase your fluid intake.
Avoid overdoing it, though. The whole purpose is to fill up your carbohydrate stores and with an increased intake of carbohydrates combined with tapering you can be sure to obtain your desired effect.
The day before
If you been carboloading for 3-4 days you can be certain that your stores are now fully fueled. The rest is just to “top it off”, so focus on
- Resting / tapering
- Intake of fluids and carbohydrates
Many enjoy eating pasta the day before a race and that is definitely a good idea. A vegetarian diet can also be beneficiary, not only because it is a little starchier but also because meat is digested very slowly, especially red meat.
Stick to the usual – and add a little extra
Try sneaking the extra carbohydrates into your meals without changing the basics of what you eat. If you are used to eating wholemeal you should avoid switching entirely to white bread. This runs the risk of stalling your stomach because you are not used to eating white bread.
Be careful about completely replacing your meals the day before a race, for instance by switching entirely to white bread. Stick to what you usually do and add a little extra instead.
Trust that your stores are sufficiently fueled the night before your race. There is no need to drain a bag of gummy bears before going to bed. This is nothing but an unnecessary stimulant that, combined with nervousness, could make it difficult for you to fall asleep. Even if difficulty sleeping before a marathon is considered normal, most people will find sleep important, at least mentally so.
Tip! Some people like to a have a beer the night before a race. It helps you relax and there is no harm in it.
Race day morning
On the day of the run it is important to have a good, carbohydrate-based breakfast, one that you know is guaranteed to work for you. The strategy is clear: Do not eat or drink anything that you have not previously had before running.
Suggestions for a good race day breakfast could include:
- Oatmeal with fruits and sugar
- Oatmeal porridge with raisins, banana, sugar, or syrup
- A bun with jam or honey and a piece of fruit
- Preferably drink 1-1,5 litres of water (it does not need to be an energy drink if you had a bit of extra sugar with your breakfast)
- A cup of coffee is a good idea, so you can go to the bathroom before start
Stop drinking, or take only a few sips, about an hour before race start. The water will just slosh around in your stomach and you will need to pee shortly after starting. Besides, many have the need to urinate more frequently urination due to nervousness.
Tip! Oatmeal porridge is easier for your stomach to digest than plain oatmeal because it has already been broken up and mashed a bit.
During your marathon
Unless you are an elite athlete you will need to take in energy during a marathon.
Your carbohydrate stores will last only for 90-120 minutes of running. If you drain your carbohydrate stores completely you will hit ‘the wall’ so you need to fuel before this happens.
Guideline: You can absorb a maximum of 60 grams of sugar (glucose) and 1 litre of fluids per hour – on average! This equals a maximum of 3 gels/bananas and 3-4 cups of water per hour. On warm days the body absorbs less sugar.
However, it takes practice to absorb 3 gels an hour! So, if you are uncertain as to how much you can take in, try with 2 gels an hour. This is sufficient for most and you would much rather do without sugar than get a stomach ache…
If you lack sugar your pace will slow down. If your stomach aches you might not be able to run at all.
Suggestion to a marathon nutrition plan
Here is a suggestion for what to consume during a marathon:
- Some like to top off with a ”carbohydrate-snack” short before race start. Go with a bar, a banana or a gel, preferably caffeinated, and some water
- Take your first gel about 30 minutes into the race (go for the isotonic kind and, if you like, with caffeine every other time). Always take it with a cup of water
- Take an average of 2 gels an hour for the remainder of the race
- If you don’t use gels, take a cup of energy drink at every hydration station (3-4 cups an hour, equal to approx. 60 grams of sugar)
- Drink water at every hydration station
- At 20 degrees Celsius or above your body’s ability to absorb sugar decreases, so increase your fluids (up to 1 litre) and decrease your sugar. This may cause you to lack sugar but this is preferable to dehydration.
Gels, bars, or bananas?
Most people use energy gels during a marathon. They are easy to carry, consume and digest, and you are on top of your amount of carbohydrates. Others however either do not like gels or get an upset stomach from them and in this case bars, jelly candies, or energy drink are excellent substitutes or supplements.
The goal is to find the best and easiest way for you to take in and digest the required amount of energy, and the only way to figure out what works for you is by testing and adjusting.
Consider these factors when choosing your energy supplement product:
- Technique (way of intake, amount of time spent on intake)
- Digestion (amount of time required to digest the product and whether or not it works for your stomach)
- Carbohydrate mix (fruit sugar (fructose) is rough on your stomach and 25 grams an hour is a maximum. Be sure to choose a mix of carbohydrates)
Tip! If gels just aren’t your thing, use jelly candies, bars, and/or fruits. In general, solids take longer for your body to digest and absorb than gels, but unless you are running at a very high intensity, this might work just fine.
Nyd dit løb!
When you have finished testing and settled on what you want to eat and drink in connection with your marathon you are well on your way to a good marathon experience.
Here are just a few final tips and pieces of advice for you:
- Don’t forget that you are allowed to divert from your nutrition plan. If you get a stomach ache you can easily substitute or completely switch to energy drinks or other kinds of supplements.
- If you are a first-timer: Focus on water and carbohydrates, and forget about salt tablets, electrolytes, creatine, and all sorts of other products. Regular energy drink contains both sugars and salts, which is most important.
- Keep it simple. After all, energy is not rocket science.
- Wise words, which can be read online, are often written by people with several marathon in the book and based on their own, personal experiences. Accept the fact that you need to make your own experiences and that you might not get it right the first time.
Have a great race!