Friday, 3 June 2016

Marathon nutrition, it doesn't have to be hard. But it is essential...

Nutrition for running doesn't have to be complicated, but is just as important as your training runs. The main thing is you will need to tweak for what suits you one persons routine will not work for another. The information listed here is the knowledge of Becky Wahl of BW Fitness, a seasoned marathon runner and fitness instructor and the thoughts and opinions of and York Rose Runners and the tips and tricks they have picked up during training.

Nutrition starts now...
When you start your training plan you need to look at your nutrition. It does go hand in hand with good run performance. The body uses carbohydrate when we run and we need to ensure we have taken enough on board before we run distances. This does however mean taking on board the right carbohydrates. We also need a balance of protein such as lean meats, nuts or a high quality protein shake after we run to help our muscles grow and heal. And most important is hydration. Good hydration practice can make or break a run.

During training

Best Practice...

The Eat Well Plate, shows NHS guidelines for what a healthy balanced diet should look like and what groups our foods should come from. General good practice is to limit our intake of processed and refined foods to ensure we are taking good quality fuel on board to help us with our training. This does mean limiting saturated fat, sugars,  refined carbohydrates, and processed foods as these foods have little nutritional value for our bodies. A good method to follow is eat foods that don't need ingredient lists (fresh, whole foods) or if they do have an ingredient list look for the least amount.


As we know, not all fats are created equal, and we need to keep our diet low in saturated fat, however when it comes to dairy it is always better to eat a full fat version than low or zero fat. For example a good quality butter rather than 'spread' or natural yogurt rather than the 'low fat' version. Often foods labelled low fat contain high levels of sugar or sweeteners, sweeteners can be harmful for the body and sugar causes the body to crave more, encouraging us to stray from  any healthy eating regime.

Don't overeat...

 One of the biggest mistakes when training for a marathon is eating too much, it's easy to reach for that second piece of cake when you think you are running guilt free. However we need to pay careful consideration to what we are fueling our body with, especially the closer we are to the longer runs... It's a safe rule of thumb to say we can burn around 100 - 140 calories for every mile we run, that's the same amount of calories as a 2 finger kitkat (109) so keep an eye on what you eat based on how much you have run.
During a marathon we can deplete around 2600 calories, more if you are out on the course for longer - That's 26 kitkats! Or definitely a few beers/wines. However you might find that your stomach can't handle it after the long runs...


The foods we consume to provide these carbohydrates need to come from whole food sources, such as sweet potato, wholemeal pasta or rice, vegetables,  potato and grains. The carbohydrate we eat is stored in the body ready to use when we train, slow release carbohydrate such as a wholemeal pasta will help is keep going for longer. Realistically prior to long run or race day, increase the calories from carbohydrate by 100-200 to ensure a full reserve available when required. Carbohydrate is our essential energy source and better quality sources of carbohydrate will aid our performance.


The building blocks of our muscles and essential to ensure that we are physically able to carry out the task at hand. Running is demanding on our muscles especially long distance running. Replenishment is essential. One of the many reasons many people training for a marathon find that their weight becomes static or even rises is due to nutrition depletion during long runs which hasn't been effectively replaced afterwards. The average sedentary man need 55g a day and a woman needs 45g. Add in distance running and the average 12 stone individual needs at least 90 - 120g a day. For reference the average chicken breast has  anywhere from 40 to 60g (size dependant), an egg has 6g. If protein isn't replaced you could start to feel fatigued, have a higher risk of injury, lose muscle mass and become run down. A great way to get essential protein back after a long run is with a recovery shake or a protein shake that includes vitamins and minerals.


If you are not already drinking at the very least 2-3 litres of water a day, start now. Water not only helps keep us hydrated while running but it helps our body's heal and repair after the stress of a run, it helps us sleep better and keeps our metabolism ticking over. Water is the essential part of marathon training. However some of you may find that 2 litres is not enough, especially when you are running in the hotter weather. Good practice is to ensure that you have drunk at least 2 litres a day at least two days before your long run / race and sip little and often, especially on the day of the run / race.

Water vs. liquid...

When it says drink water, we mean water. Isotonics/ energy drinks / coconut water,  fruit juices, tea, coffee and alcohol do count towards your water intake but do not have the same effect on our body. Some may be more obvious than others. It is best to get into the habit of drinking water.

Isotonics / Energy Drinks: love them or hate them they can be a useful part of your training if used correctly. There any many different options available. Some have benefit, some have none whatsoever. Isotonic drinks are manufactured to provide the same level of salt and sugar that is found in the human body and is used to replenish what we lose during training. Ideally you only need to drink isotonic drinks during or after training and beware - if the drink is labelled "Energy Drink" it probably will not have the right combination of ingredients to do the job, look specifically for "Isotonic" or "contains electrolytes" branding.
Some people prefer to water down any isotonic drinks as they are quite strong, or use hydration tablets such as Zero Tabs, these are  electrolyte drink are great ways to keep hydrated. Tesco or have a great range to try.

Alcohol & Teas and Coffee

Alcohol does need to be kept to a minimum during training as it dehydrates you. That doesn't mean you can't have the odd glass of what you like, it's best to avoid drinking the nights before big runs or races as it will have a negative effect on you, even if you don't realise it. Tea & Coffee, as we know it's advisable to minimise intake of these drinks anyway (unless fruit teas) but many a runner uses coffee as pre race/ or long run warm up, caffeine has an energy boosting effect at the start of our runs.

And importantly... Gels

There are many different energy replacement products on the market, for the sake of this hand out we are going to be focusing on gels, many a runners first preference they are the easiest to carry, and actually physically take on board. It's hard work trying to chew down an energy bar whilst running and breathing at the same time (you will soon find this out) gels are available at places like online stores such as, Tesco and Sweatshop

How They Work

Your body uses two primary sources of fuel to feed the muscles when you’re running — fat and carbohydrate. Fat is a largely abundant resource, but is broken down into usable energy slowly, making it an ineffective fuel source when running anything faster than about 60-70% of your VO2max (roughly equivalent to your aerobic threshold or marathon pace).
Simply speaking, energy gels are designed to replenish carbohydrate stores that are depleted when running. Sounds like energy gels are a saviour, right? perhaps, but they do have their downfalls, hard to digest and not always pleasant tasting. It is best to practice with these before the event, when you need to take them, how many you need, what brand works best etc. The body generally runs out of readily available carbohydrate 90 minutes into training, which is when we need to start taking our gels, but take them too late and they will be ineffective, too soon and they will run out. This is a balance that varies by individual but depending on your pace, mile 7 onwards is often a good place to start.
There are plenty of gels available, but it can be costly to find out which ones agree with you the best, start with the gels that the marathon race are offering and go from there, most of you will find these sufficient.
Runners tummy...

Sorry, but it has to be mentioned. When you run long distance your body has to work hard to keep you cool, it does this by diverting blood supply away from non essential functions, one of these being the digestive system. This means your body stops processing what is in your stomach, so if you are taking a lot of gels on board you may start to feel a little bit like a washing machine. This is why we practice taking gels and how many we need to keep us going without making ourselves feel sick. Keeping hydrated is the key, the better hydrated you are the minimal the effects of these seem to be on your digestive system.

Another reason nutrition is so key isn't just for performance but to help our bowels, as running is such a demanding sport on our body it can cause our bowel to become agitated. Eating less fat in our diets prior to long runs will help ease this, keeping hydrated, smaller, low fibre  meals before your run will help.

Nutrition before/ during long runs

Before runs - the day before

The day before a long run is almost as crucial as the run itself, we need to be rested, hydrated and have adequate fuel reserves we can call on during our run. We would advise no alcohol the night before, a heavily carbohydrate loaded evening meal such as pasta or rice and a restful day. Consume at least 2 litres of water throughout the day before and eat at regular intervals.

Before runs - the day of

Most of us choose to run our long run at the start of the day so breakfast is the meal that will set us up for our run.
Eat a low fat, high carbohydrate, but not too much fibre based breakfast in good time before your run, usually around 200 - 300 calories. This is where personal preference comes in but many of us will eat porridge with banana and honey or wholemeal toast with peanut butter. Try to eat slow release carbohydrate like porridge or wholemeal foods as this will help keep energy levels up.
Timing of food before run - this really does vary per individual, food can lay heavy on your stomach if you don't leave enough time to be digested, however you don't want to leave it too long that you become hungry again. A good starting time is about 1 1/2 hours before your run, then you can tweak as you learn your own digestive patterns.
Eating a banana about 15 minutes before running is also a helpful idea.
Remember to sip plenty of water before your run, try and drink at least 500 ml before you start running from when you wake until you run.

During Runs

On your long runs you will need nutrition and water / isotonic fuel on board with you, it is best at this point to start considering a good running belt that can hold water bottles as running with a water bottle is bad for posture. If you attend any of the organised runs by York Rose Runners we will provide adequate water stops for you so that carrying water is not essential
Nutrition: gels, shot blocks, isotonic drinks, energy bars, jelly babies etc, there are a myriad of these running supplements available that we need to take with us. How many we need will vary on the product and what you require to fuel your body, as it will vary by individual. As we have mentioned you need to start taking on gels round about mile 7, then a good rule of thumb is one every 3 - 4 miles, again depending on your preference. This is a good time to say that using the gels that are being given out at the race is good practice so you don't need a wheelbarrow to carry them all around for you.
It is rare that we will manage to consume the recommended amount of gels that they packaging advises for marathon running, you will usually find that your stomach tells you when it can't take anymore, it is usual to take about 5-6 gels during a marathon.

After runs

Once you have finished running it is advisable to sip on some water whilst stretching. Then most importantly we advise that a carbohydrate replacement is eaten that is high in protein, this is where the nutty flapjack comes in handy or you can use a recovery drink such as Sports in Science REGO Rapid recovery drink, or other such brand, different to a protein shake it contains an essential mix of nutrients and minerals to help put back what you have lost through endurance training.
 You may also find coconut water a helpful way to rehydrate after your long runs, we can lose up to 1 litre of sweat per hour during training, and this will need to be replenished afterwards, hence why recovery drinks are so important, keep drinking an increased amount of water long after you have finished your long run.

Nutrition before/ during marathon day
By now you should have perfected what works for you on your long runs, don't treat race day any differently. Stick with what you know works for you in the days before the marathon, get plenty of sleep, keep rested, no alcohol, eat well and up your carbohydrate intake. Lay out your kit the night before.
Eat your breakfast of choice on the morning, give yourself plenty of time to keep nerves to a minimum. Remember, there will be water stops en-route so you don't necessarily need to run with your water, you will need any isotonic/electrolyte drinks with you that you want. Take some spare gels with you if you are planning on using the gels provided by the race organisers, if you use your own make of gels/bars etc make sure you have enough to see you round.
Remember to sip water prior to the race start or zero tabs if you have been using them during training. Don't change anything at this point.
Remember to start taking your gels before you need them during the race, as to maximise the effects.
And most importantly enjoy the race, soak up the atmosphere, you have worked hard to be here. When you cross that finish line and give yourself a hearty metaphorical pat on the back you will have entered that special 26.2 club, of which less than 1% of the population can claim credit to. So get your bragging rights ready and remember to have fun...   

See you at the finish line!

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