The months of pounding the pavement, aching muscles, blisters and feelings of general fatigue are almost over; this Sunday (23rd April) sees over fifty thousand runners attempt to complete the London Marathon. The 26.2 mile marathon distance gives the elite athletes, club runners and fundraisers views of famous landmarks including Tower Bridge, Big Ben and The London Eye. Due to the sheer demand of the marathon, it’s unlikely these famous landmarks will ease the physical or mental pain of running 26.2 miles. At this stage, is there anything that can be done to make things a little easier?
One aspect many athletes will neglect is nutrition. Of course, training is the absolute priority to progressively condition the body to the rigours of a marathon. However, the days leading up to a race are not the time for hard training sessions – it’s a time for recovery. Nutrition plays a fundamental role in both recovery and race day performance.
Nutritionally, the main aim should be to ensure that the muscles are appropriately fuelled. To use a simple analogy, think of your muscles as the fuel tank in your car. You wouldn’t attempt to drive your car 26.2 miles without any petrol/diesel in, so it stands to reason you shouldn’t attempt to run a marathon without giving your body the fuel it needs. Simply speaking, the fuel your body needs for the marathon is carbohydrate – foods such as pasta, rice, oats, potatoes, etc. You want your body’s fuel tank to be filled to the top. Starting the race with low fuel (carbohydrate) levels will result in the feeling many runners term as ‘hitting the wall.’ This is where the body (muscles) runs out of carbohydrate and needs to rely exclusively on fat as a fuel. While this may sound appealing, it takes longer to convert fat into energy which results in period where you feel like you can’t go on – the ‘hitting the wall’ part. A marathon is hard enough as it is – hitting the wall is definitely something to avoid!
A study looked at various predictors of marathon performance in novice runners – 2 mile time trial time and carbohydrate intake the day before and morning of the race were associated with faster marathon times (Wilson et al, 2013). Practically, those that had a higher carbohydrate intake in the 24-36 hours before a marathon had the fastest times.
In the days leading up to the race, increased carbohydrate intake is required. A figure of circa 10g carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight is often recommended. For example, for a 70kg runner that would be circa 700g carbohydrate per day. Example 1 shows an outline of foods that provides circa 700g carbohydrate.
Another important consideration is appropriate hydration, both pre and during the race. Many runners rely on water to get them around the course – while there is merit in water for rehydration, a long duration event such as the marathon is better suited to a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink. Many runners will have a high sweat rate – meaning they’re losing lots of water as well as vital electrolytes. Paradoxically, water can make matters worse by further depleting electrolyte levels and, in exceptional circumstances, can contribute to hyponatremia (dangerously low sodium levels). A carbohydrate-electrolyte drink not only provides additional fuel during the race, but also replenishes the vital electrolytes lost through sweat as well as rehydrating the body.
During the race, a carbohydrate intake of 30-60 grams per hour would be recommended. A typical hydration drink contains 30-40grams carbohydrate in 500ml fluid – drinking one per hour would deliver both fuel and fluids.
Putting the above together, pre/during race nutrition could look a little like this:
Example 1 – Example of foods that provide circa 700g carbohydrate
Breakfast: 150g Oats + Mixed Berries + Whey Protein Shake
Mid-Morning: 3 slices of wholemeal toast with Scrambled Egg; Apple
Late-Morning: Large Jacket Potato with Tuna
Lunch: Sliced Salmon Pasta (150g) Bake with Mixed Vegetables
Mid-Afternoon: Yoghurt; Banana; Cereal Bar; Handful of Mixed Nuts
Late Afternoon: 5x Ryvita with Sliced Ham; Pear
Dinner: Chicken and Mushroom Risotto (150g rice) with Mixed Vegetables
Pre-Bed: 2 Slices of Wholemeal Toast with Mashed Banana; Cottage Cheese
Aim to consume similar to the above, on Friday and Saturday before the race. As well as the above, aim to drink adequate water throughout the day. At least 3 litres per day would be a guideline amount. While it may seem like a lot of food – don’t lose sight of the fact that the carbohydrate you consume is needed to fuel 26.2 miles of running.
Example 2 – Morning of the Race
06:00 – 150g Oats with Honey and Sliced Banana with 1 litre of water
08:00 – Start of Race: Sip on Complete Hydration Drink™ (aim for at least 1 drink with 40g carbohydrate)
Example 3 – During the Race
Try to take on fluid/carbohydrate intermittently throughout the race.
Aim for 30-60g carbohydrate per hour with 500ml fluid (one carbohydrate electrolyte drink fits this criteria).
Providing the muscles with the fuel they crave won’t result in a pain-free race, but it will make it a whole lot easier – you might even be able to raise a smile as you pass many of the famous landmarks along the famous London Marathon route. Good luck!
Wilson, P.B, Ingraham, S.J., Lundstrom, C. & Rhodes, G. (2013) Dietary Tendencies as Predictors of Marathon Time in Novice Marathon Runners. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 23, 170-177