Nutrition for Marathon Training

Training to run a half or full marathon is a great athletic achievement. Once you decide to embark on the goal of running a marathon, you probably are wondering how to best approach supporting your body to ensure you stay healthy and injury-free. Ensuring proper nutrition for marathon training is important for anyone considering running a marathon, all the way up to race day and post-race recovery.

Protein

Running is a strenuous activity utilizing all of the body’s major muscle groups. Running long distances breaks down muscle fibers, which need to be repaired in order to grow stronger and become resilient to long-distance running. Protein is an essential nutrient for promoting new muscle growth. 

The typical person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. When training for an endurance event such as a marathon, those protein needs are increased by 50-75%. This means that a 150-pound person would require about 95 grams of protein per day compared to the average recommendation of 54 grams.

Eating adequate amounts of protein spread throughout the day is the best approach, versus eating most of the day’s protein needs in a small window of time. Include protein-rich foods such as the following for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks:

  • Any kind of red meat (beef, pork, wild game, etc.)
  • Poultry (chicken and turkey)
  • Fish
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Soy products (tofu, edamame, etc.)

Eating protein is also important for post-run recovery meals, as it aids in immediate recovery of broken-down muscle fibers.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or “carbs”, are probably the most well-known aspect of nutrition for marathon training and exercising in general. Carbs are the body’s preferred source of fuel, and are used during the majority of a long-distance run such as a marathon.

The body uses carbs from the most recent meal before switching to glycogen, which is sugar stored in the liver. Glycogen stores start becoming utilized around 60-90 minutes into a run. This is why carbohydrate loading is recommended in the days before a long-distance run, and why it’s recommended to consume carbohydrates throughout a marathon (in the form of sports drinks, nutrition gels, etc). Otherwise, after about 1.5-2 hours of running, glycogen stores can become depleted. The body would then switch to burning fatty acids for fuel, but it isn’t as efficient and can affect performance.

Eating complex carbohydrates during marathon training will help support the increased need for glycogen restoration and provide adequate energy for long-distance running. Examples of good sources of carbohydrates to eat while marathon training include:

  • Whole grains such as whole wheat bread & pasta, brown rice, oatmeal
  • Fruits and vegetables; starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas and corn
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Beans and lentils

Fat

Fat is an important nutrient for everyone, despite its history of getting a bad rap. Runners don’t necessarily need to increase their fat intake, but they should make sure they get a balance of carbs, protein and fat to stay well-rounded nutritionally. Fat helps the body absorb certain nutrients, create hormones and help protect organs and joints.

Fat takes the longest to digest compared to carbohydrates and protein. If a runner eats a high-fat meal and then goes for a run soon afterward, they may experience stomach upset as the majority of blood flow will be directed to the heart and muscles and not to the stomach, leaving the high-fat meal to sit undigested in the stomach longer than it should.

Hydration

While it may often be overlooked when focusing on good nutrition for marathon training, proper hydration is an essential aspect of health and performance. Running long distances can dehydrate the body through muscle exertion and sweat loss, which can cause fatigue, muscle cramps and even more serious health complications.

Carrying a water bottle, or storing water bottles along your running route, is a good idea for preventing dehydration during long-distance marathon running. Most organized races have hydration booths for this very reason, but during training it’s up to the athlete to plan for the opportunities to rehydrate.

Water or sports drinks are equally acceptable to consume during a run. Sports drinks are usually the drink of choice during a run because they also provide carbs in the form of sugar, which helps replenish glycogen stores and provide fuel for the run.

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