Sports Nutrition Tips for Marathon Training

I hear you are inspired to train for a marathon. Hydrating, fueling, and recovering are going to be critical to achieving your training goals and finishing strong the day of the big event. Below are cutting-edge sports nutrition tips to help you train at your best and perform the day of your marathon.

Tip #1:

Practice makes perfect

These tips are based on information from the American College of Sports Medicine. This is solid information, but it’s general advice. Your job during training is to work with these recommendations and adapt them to what’s best for you as an athlete. That means regularly tuning into how your body feels and keeping notes in a training log. Use this information to make adjustments to your sports nutrition and hydration regimen during training so that weeks from now, on the day of your marathon, everything you do is fine-tuned and well-practiced. You want no surprises on event day. Instead, you want a proven hydration and sports nutrition regimen.

Tip #2:

Stay in your hydration zone

Most runners lose anywhere from 1 to 4 pounds (17 to 67 fl oz) of sweat during each hour of exercise. You give yourself the chance to train and compete at your best when you don’t lose anymore than 2% of your body weight due to fluid loss during exercise. This 2% rule is called your hydration zone. Calculate your hydration zone and weigh yourself naked before and after training to make sure you’re staying in your zone (eg; the hydration zone for a 150 lb person is 147 to 150 lbs). If you find that you gain weight during training, you’re over-consuming fluids. Cut back on volume. If you’re dropping below your zone, try increasing the volume of fluids you consume each hour.

Tip #3:

Don’t skip meals

If you’re carrying a few more pounds than you’d like, skipping breakfast before a workout won’t help you burn significantly more fat. In fact, it may cause you to burn fewer total calories because you get tired sooner and may not be able to train at your usual intensity. Keep in mind that after a night of sleeping you’ve been fasting for hours. You need breakfast, or at least a high-carb snack (eg; fruit, energy bar, energy gel), to help fuel the exercise you plan to do. Skipping breakfast can make it harder to maintain your blood sugar level and can deplete your limited stores of carb muscle fuel (glycogen) even faster. This can hamper your ability to get in a full workout and reduce the effectiveness of your training. So, don’t be in such a rush to lose that extra weight that you compromise your ability to train. As you continue to train the pounds will drop.

Tip #4:

Train with a sport drink

If you’re not already doing it, consider training with a sport drink. As you increase your miles, you’ll benefit from the carbs and the electrolytes. Use the sport drink that you will use at the marathon you are training for. On low-mileage days you might want to switch off between a water bottle with plain water and a water bottle with your sport drink. For longer training runs, rely more on the sport drink. Routinely monitor your pre- and post-exercise body weight to make sure you remain in your hydration zone. Remember, staying in your zone means not losing anymore than 2% of your body weight due to fluid loss during exercise. If you’re falling below your zone, bump up your fluid intake. To increase your access to fluids while training, run in a loop past your car or home, run a route where you have ready-access to water fountains, or consider investing in a fanny pack with a hydration bladder.

Tip #5:

Gels for variety or as a sport drink alternative

If a sport drink doesn’t suit your needs, or you’re feeling the need for a little variety, an energy gel taken with water can work as an alternative. Often at marathons, gels are handed out at an aid station late in a race. This reinforces the mistaken notion that gels are only a late-race option. In fact, energy gels can be consumed before, during, and after an event to help meet your carb and sodium needs. So, if a sport drink isn’t working for you, or you’re looking for some variety, try a gel.

Tip #6:

Start each workout fully fueled

Start your workouts fully fueled. For afternoon or evening workouts, consume a pre-workout meal somewhere between 2 to 4 hours before you start your training. The idea is to replenish carbohydrate fuel stores without overtaxing your digestive system. Stick to high carb foods. A moderate protein intake is fine. Keep slow-to-digest fats and fiber to a minimum before exercise. About an hour before you start your exercise, top off fuel supplies by eating a carb-rich snack. Fruit, an energy bar or an energy gel are all good choices. The carb-snack strategy also applies if your training starts early in the morning when eating a full meal isn’t feasible. Finding the right pre-race meal and snack, and the timing of each that works best for you may take some experimenting. Try different approaches during training to identify which ones leave you feeling your best.

Tip #7:

Use glycemic index wisely

Glycemic Index (GI) has to do with how fast the carbs in a food are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. Lower GI foods are generally not ideal in the pre-exercise meal. Since these foods are processed more slowly by your digestive system and typically contain more fiber, the danger is that you could end up with gastrointestinal discomfort while running. Your best bet is to stick with pre-exercise meal recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine: high in easily-digested carbs, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber for quicker digestion. Most importantly for race day, stick to foods that you’re sure work for you. Save the lower GI foods for post-recovery after training.

Tip #8:

Monitor your hydration status

Start your workouts fully hydrated. Try not to carry fluid deficits from one workout to the next. Checking your body weight can help you monitor your hydration status. If you are at your normal pre-exercise weight it’s a good sign that your hydration status is in good shape. As a general guideline, and when the timing is feasible, drink approximately 16 fl oz of fluids (ie, a sport drink, water, or similar beverage) about 4 hours before working out. If you are well hydrated this should lead to urine production. If it doesn’t, or the urine that is produced is dark in color, drink another 8 fl oz of fluid about 2 hours before exercise. This will allow sufficient time for urine to be eliminated before you start training. The same principles apply the day of the marathon. Consume enough fluids before hand to be fully hydrated, but allow sufficient time to eliminate what you don’t need.

Tip #9:

Don’t forget about electrolytes

You not only lose fluids when you exercise, you also lose electrolytes such as sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. The electrolytes you need to be concerned with most are sodium and chloride, which together form salt. These two are by far lost in the greatest amounts in sweat and need to be replaced during endurance exercise. Well-designed sport drinks and energy gels should include both of these electrolytes, usually in the form of salt. Consuming sodium and chloride during training and competing can help sustain your fluid-electrolyte balance and stimulate your thirst so you are better able to meet your hydration needs. As for those other electrolytes, their levels in sweat are low and they are generally easily replaced by the meals and snacks you consume after exercise.

Tip #10:

Fueling during exercise

Carbs and fat are your primary fuel sources as an endurance athlete. Unfortunately, we have comparatively little in the way of carb stores. That means you need a strategy for consuming carbs during training or on course to spare your limited reserves. Consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs every hour during endurance exercise. If you weigh closer to 100 pounds shoot for 30 grams per hour; try 45 grams per hour if you’re closer to 150 pounds; and target 60 grams every hour if you weigh in near the 200 pound mark. Your primary carb sources during exercise are your sport drink and/or energy gel so adjust your intake of these accordingly. If you’ve met your carb needs but require additional fluids to stay in your zone, hydrate with plain water. And don’t forget to test and refine these strategies during training.

Tip #11:

Promote optimal recovery

Recovery after exercise begins in earnest as soon as you provide the nutritional components. To speed recovery, start with carbs plus a little protein as soon as possible after exercise. This will provide the building blocks for replenishing muscle glycogen and for muscle tissue repair and building. In the first 30 to 60 minutes after exercise consume 0.75 grams of carbs for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. That’s 51 grams of carbs for someone weighing 150 lbs. Eat this amount of carbs hourly for up to 4 to 6 hours after long, strenuous workouts where you have another tough workout coming up, or for 2 to 3 hours after lighter workouts. For many athletes, drinking carbs in beverage form (such as a recovery beverage with carbs, protein, and electrolytes) right after exercise is more convenient and tolerable than eating a meal.

Tip #12:

How fast to rehydrate post-exercise

How fast to rehydrate after a workout depends on when your next training session takes place. For once-a-day training, normal meals, snacks and beverages will generally rehydrate you within about 24 hours. If you’re doing two-a-day workouts and need more rapid rehydration in order to be ready for your next run, you may need a more aggressive hydration plan. If you’re doing two-a-days, weigh yourself before and after your first training session. Drink about 23 fl oz of fluid for every pound of weight lost during exercise, but drink it gradually between the end of your first workout and 1 to 2 hours before the start of your next one. Also, remember that consuming some sodium (e.g., salt) while rehydrating can help you retain ingested fluids and help stimulate your thirst. You can obtain sodium from your recovery beverage, sport drink, energy bar or gel, salty snacks, and meals.

Tip #13:

Plan ahead for race day

It’s time to start finalizing your race day plan. Think through your sports nutrition and hydration strategy for before, during, and after the marathon. Utilize your long training runs as an opportunity to put your race day plan into practice. That means doing in practice exactly what you hope to do on race day. Assess how you feel at each stage of a long training run as if it were the actual marathon. Fine-tune your approach by making adjustments one step at a time and then testing those tweaks during training. Allow yourself adequate time to dial in a regimen that works for you.

Tip #14:

Caffeine

Coffee is a beverage-of-choice worldwide, but is that caffeine kick a help or hindrance to endurance athletes? So far the scientific consensus seems to be lining up on the side of helpful. For reasons that aren’t yet fully understood, caffeine may help you work out or compete at a higher intensity without actually feeling like you’re working harder. Also, concerns about caffeine causing dehydration haven’t panned out. So, if you want to see what impact caffeine has on your ability to perform athletically, use it during training first. Stick to a moderate intake, somewhere in the range of 100-300 mg. Too much caffeine may detract from your athletic performance by leaving you feeling uncomfortable, jittery and anxious. Also, keep in mind that the caffeine level that’s beneficial for your training partner may be too much for you, or vice versa. Individuals vary in their ability to metabolize caffeine. If the caffeine dose you’ve been trying leaves you feeling too buzzed, cut back or skip it altogether.

Tip #15:

Carbo-loading

All else being equal, the more carb muscle fuel (glycogen) you start with, the better you will be able to perform in a marathon. Carbo-loading is the term used for maximizing your stores of carb muscle fuel before a big endurance event. Typically, athletes gradually taper their training the week before an event. In the 2 to 3 days before the marathon plan to increase your carbohydrate intake. For optimal glycogen reloading over this period of time, you need to consume about 8 to 12 grams of carbohydrates daily for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. For someone weighing 150 lbs, that equates to (545 to 818 grams of carbs each day). Males can usually achieve the higher carb range simply by substituting carbohydrate-rich foods for other foods that tend to be higher in fat. If you’re female, it’s not so simple because you probably consume fewer calories than your male counterparts. Effective carbo-loading for women may require adding foods to the diet. In fact, you may need to increase your total calorie intake by 30-35% in the 2 to 3 days before the event in order to boost your muscle glycogen stores. The bottom line is that the plate of pasta the night before your marathon should be the finishing touch on your carbo-load, not the entire plan.

Tip #16:

Stick to what’s tried and true

When the marathon is a week away, make final preparations for the big day. Remember to stick to the routine you’ve worked so hard to fine-tune; nothing new. Find out the marathon start time and review your pre-race meal or snack and hydration strategy. Also, make sure it works relative to your transportation arrangements. Confirm the number of aid stations on course and plan your sport drink and/or energy gel-plain water consumption accordingly. If you are using gels, set aside the number you will need and devise a plan for carrying them comfortably or resupplying enroute. You’ve done the hard work of training and you are ready. Congratulations on what you have achieved and best of luck on race day!