Should you worry about carbohydrate loading before your marathon? Is the pre-race pasta party the best answer? Specifically what should I eat the morning of the race? You can find all these answers here.
Marathon Diet – Carbohydrate Loading
Most marathoners, even first timers, have heard of carbohydrate loading -“carbo loading”. Though most have no idea what it really means, beyond a vague notion of eating a lot of pasta the week before their marathon.
The old thinking was that you would starve your body of carbohydrates for several days and then stuff yourself with carbohydrates. The goal of this approach was to get the muscle to store as much glycogen as possible.
The rationale behind this thinking is that the body tends to hold onto and store nutrients that it is deprived of for a period of time. (Another reason not to skip meals but that is a story for another day.) So.. if you deprive the body of carbs for a few days, then when you feed the body carbs it will store them.
However the problem is that severely depleting carbs can lead to severe fatigue, irritability and even sickness.
Quite a few years ago I was determined to complete the 12-week Body for Life program. I decided I needed a kickstart to my training so I went on a popular bodybuilding diet called the “Tuna Fish Diet”. This is a hardcore fat loss diet used by bodybuilders to “lean up” prior to a contest. You consume nothing but tuna and water daily for 3 days. I lasted 1 1/2 days. I thought smelling a can of tuna first thing in the morning would be the hard part but the hard part was midway through the second day when I was stumbling around my office in a stupor. Granted this was an extreme case of carbohydrate depletion but I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of carbohydrates.
Severely depleting carbs could potentially lead to some crappy last week workouts which is not the mindset you need for the last week.
Carb loading new thinking
Now that you have been dissuaded from the old carbo-loading approach, what should you do?
Firstly you should reduce the amount you eat during the last week. You have reduced your training volume, therefore you have reduced your calorie requirements. You don’t want to gain weight the week before your race. Imagine trying to run carrying 3-4 lb dumbbells.
Don’t worry if you do gain a bit of weight. Most likely this is water weight and this extra water will be beneficial on race day. For every gram of glycogen your body stores, it stores 2.6 grams of water. As you are not training at the intensity you were, your body is storing the glycogen – along with the water.
If you have been following a solid marathon training diet, you won’t have to change much the week before the race beyond reducing intake. Maybe make a conscious effort to replace one protein or fat serving a day with a carbohydrate serving. Going through the mental gyrations to calculate Monday – 60% carbs, Tues – 50% carbs – Wed – 60%… is just too much for even your competitive age grouper. There are more important variables that will make a difference in your performance in the marathon.
Several years ago a friend of mine (who is now a very competitive Ironman) was trying to break 4 hours in the marathon. He followed strict diet rules for carbo depletion and loading during race week. And bombed. A few weeks later while visiting his parents, he signed up for a local marathon on a whim. And easily broke 4 hours. We both firmly believe the difference lay in eating his mother’s cooking without stress that week.
Don’t walk around with a spreadsheet, simply make good choices that week.
Traveling to a marathon often throws off even the most prepared marathoner. If you are flying to the race, you will want to prepare yourself for the potential dehydration of the aeroplane air. Carry sports drink powder such as Gatorade or Accelerade in baggies onto the plane with you. (Don’t worry, I have never been stopped by security with baggies of white powder.) After you go through security, fill up your empty water bottle at the fountain and pour in the powder. Sip your carbohydrates and electrolytes all the way to your race city.
Plan your marathon race travel to ensure you don’t get thrown off your schedule.
What should I eat the day before my marathon?
This is the day you can positively (or negatively) impact your race performance.
The pre-race expo is a land mine of gastro-intestinal upset. Don’t eat all the free stuff at the expo, save it for the day after the marathon. You want to sample all the new stuff being shown but you don’t want to sacrifice your race for it. Bring it all back to the hotel to enjoy later.
The day before your marathon you want to take in slightly more carbs than usual. Your best choices for the increased carbohydrates are fruits and vegetables, specifically:
- sweet potatoes, and
Snack on dried fruit.
Dried fruit is easy to carry around with you on the last day and also easy to carry on the plane.
To moderate the glycemic index of the fruit, eat protein and fat with the fruit. Peanut butter can be added to a banana, you could make a smoothie with fruit and protein powder.
Skip the pasta party. It’s just not your best bet. More than likely what you will be eating is white flour and sugar. Eating cold-water fish for dinner instead such as tuna, mackerel and salmon will supply good fats and oils.
Choose foods low in fiber for the day before the marathon. Your nerves might be high today and you don’t want to give your digestive system any extra work.
The next step in your pre-race planning is the pre-marathon breakfast.