I am not a nutritionist. But I’ve been running for a while, and I’ve tried a lot of different things during my training, races, and recovery. Here are my best tips for marathon nutrition (or nutrition for any race or athletic event!), with links to some other reading that might be helpful.
A is for Alcohol. Yes, I abstain from alcohol during training and taper. Because I just don’t need it, and it’s not helping me improve my performance. That said, a cool beer to celebrate post-race or a glass of wine that evening can be a fabulous and well-deserved reward.
B is for (Chipotle) Burrito Bol and BGR (Veggie) Burger. These are my favorite post-long-run lunch options. They aren’t greasy and are the perfect portion size. Think you can go to brunch and eat whatever you want post-run? Think again. By the time you are done that OJ and halfway through that stack of pancakes, you’ve probably eaten about the number of calories you burned, but you haven’t had much protein, fiber, or other nutrients that will help you recover and keep you feeling full. I try to resist sugary and fried foods for my post-run meals.
C is for Candy Corn. After a few races (the Harrisburg Marathon and the Philadelphia Marathon) where I couldn’t stomach any GUs and ended up super hungry towards the end of the race, I decided to change my strategy for Freedom’s Run Marathon (recap here). I trained using sport beans but ran out before the race. So, since it was October, I decided to “eat seasonally” and use candy corn during the race. I put about a quarter of a bag of Brach’s in a plastic baggie, and stuffed it in my FlipBelt. I had a few kernels before the race start, and grabbed some more about 5 times during the race. They worked fine!
D is for Donuts. During the Philadelphia Marathon, I hadn’t eaten appropriately and was absolutely starving around mile 20. Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw someone holding a Dunkin Donuts box along the edge of the street. I instantly veered over (luckily it wasn’t crowded at that point in the race, so I didn’t cut anyone off) and asked the holder of the box “ARE THOSE REAL?” He laughed and told me “Yes” and I said “Oh my gosh, bless you!!!” and grabbed a donut. Best donut of my life? Probably.
E is for Eggs. The day after a race, I sometimes crave eggs. Like, a lot of them. When this happens, I eat as many eggs as my body wants to fuel its recovery–my body is speaking, so I am going to listen! After my half Ironman, I had no fewer than six eggs for breakfast, and a few more for dinner. I didn’t even get sore! (Not sure if that was because of the eggs, or because the race was flat, or because I walked so much of the run.) And ICYMI, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has suggested that cholesterol should no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern” because dietary cholesterol bears little impact on a person’s risk of heart disease.
F is for Fruit. Carb-loading can be really hard. On the one hand, you feel like you need to get those carbs LOADED. On the other hand, you don’t want to feel bloated and heavy, and you don’t want to stray too too far from your lovely clean diet you’ve been enjoying while training. Enter: Fruit. I usually eat at most two servings of fruit per day–a banana in my smoothie and an apple in the afternoon. But the week before a race, I usually double that. Grapes! Mangoes! Peaches! Pears! Berries! You don’t need junk carbs.
G is for Gels. Obviously. I’ve used GU or Clif brand gels for many of my races and sometimes on my training runs. In some races, I’ve eaten as many as six gels in a single race–one every three miles or so after the first 7 miles. Gels usually don’t upset my stomach, but I sometimes can’t stomach the thought of eating a gel during a race. So I’ve been trying out other options for recent races. For a rundown of the gel options, check out this post on Runner’s World.
H is for Honey Stinger Waffles. These are a little tough to carry on runs but good for biking or for snacking before a training run or race.
I is for Innovation. Scared to gel? Have a dietary restriction? Check out Pinterest, blogs, and Instagram for race fuel ideas. Here is one example from No Meat Athlete. Lots of folks are experimenting with homemade gels and race snacks to fit their needs and dietary preferences.
J is for Jelly Beans. Sport Beans are a good alternative to gels because they are more solid and thus have better mouth feel. I also like that they are a little sour, and you can take as many or as few as you want and then re-seal the package. I use them often in my training.
K is for Kale. I am a firm believer that some pre-race fiber isn’t going to hurt you, but rather will help your belly feel good on race morning. Don’t cut out the kale during your carb load.
L is for Lasagna. Pasta is the classic pre-race meal. But don’t limit yourself: there is a whole world of delicious carb-rich meals out there! I love baked potato filled with veggies and scrambled eggs for dinner before a race. Or Chipotle (black beans, rice, yum yum yum). Or pizza with only a tiny bit of cheese. I’d suggest avoiding anything you know is likely to upset your stomach, and I personally stay away from things that are very spicy or lentil-heavy (such as Indian or Ethiopian food) the night before a race. Eat until you feel satisfied, but don’t stuff yourself.
M is for Morning Of. The morning of a race, I like a banana, a small peanut butter sandwich–either on one slice of bread or an English muffin, and a cup of coffee or tea. I don’t force myself to eat all of my breakfast if my stomach isn’t feeling it, but I do try to eat something. I like my breakfast to have some fat and protein, which are slower-burning fuels. I usually eat before I leave for the race, or on the way to the start, to give myself plenty of time to digest. The coffee gives me a caffeine boost, which has been shown to have positive effects on performance. I am really sensitive to caffeine so one cup is all I need. I might also have some Sport Beans or a Stinger Waffle just before the start if I ate my breakfast several hours ago.
N is for Nuun. Nuun is the quiet, gentle cousin of loud and rowdy Gatorade. If it will be offered on course, try a little beforehand to see how you feel. You can also try hydrating before your race with Nuun, and then just sticking to water during the race. Personally, I try to avoid most sports drinks during a race because they can sometimes unsettle my stomach, but I will take Nuun, especially if it is hot on course and I feel like I need a little extra hydration. The Nuun website has a nice explanation of how electrolytes affect hydration.
O is for Oranges. A lot of races offer oranges toward the end of the course. TAKE ONE! But be prepared to get a little sticky… I find oranges to be refreshing and sweet and energizing on course. Real food is soooo good when you’ve been eating sugargel for 20 miles. Plus, gimme those ELECTROLYTES!
P is for Pretzels. At the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, race volunteers handed out small bags of pretzels during the second half of the race. I luckily was wearing a zip-up with pockets, so I stored the pretzels there and ate them as I ran. The salt, the crunch of the pretzels, the nostalgia of low-fiber snack food–perfect in that moment, and just what I needed! I’ve since thought about bringing a bag of pretzels with me to a race to try it out, but I haven’t actually done it yet.
Q is for Quinoa. I once did a triathlon with a quinoa salad at the finish. YUM! So many races have brownies, pizza, bagels… all of which can be fine after a long run. But that quinoa was so good and refreshing. Plus, it had protein, which has been shown to help recovery when ingested right after a workout.
R is for Rice. Fabulous carb that won’t weigh you down or make you feel bloated. Brown is great, but I promise even white won’t kill you.
S is for Sushi. Avocado rolls with some soy sauce after a long run–yum yum yum. I often crave Asian food–ramen, sushi, Thai curry–after races because my body is looking for some SERIOUS SALT. Here’s an article from Runner’s World about the importance of salt for athletes.
T is for Taper. Taper is an important part of race prep–it is when you scale back your miles and start getting your legs ready for race day. But nutrition should also change during your taper. First, you don’t need to eat as much if you are running less. Second, you can start increasing your carbs during the last taper week. I highly recommend NOT trying to diet or lose weight during the taper period. Instead, focus on what you’ve accomplished and what to do to make your body perform at its best.
U is for Unprocessed Foods. When we are super hungry or in a “I can have treats” frame of mind, it might be easy to reach for those packaged cookies or crackers. But I promise that a mega bag of Knotts Berry Farm shortbread cookies staring at you from inside the vending machine will not make you feel great and will likely not improve your performance or recovery.
V is for Vega. My favorite shake powder. I make smoothies with chocolate Vega and a bunch of other yummy things (more on this later) and drink them just about every day when I am training, whether I run or not. Vega is vegan and gluten free, if you’re into that sort of thing. It is a nice constant in my life.
W is for WATER! I drink a few sips about once every 3-4 miles during a marathon. Remember to drink before you get thirsty, especially on hot days. But be careful not to drink too much–that can upset your stomach. I also up my water intake in the few days before a race to make sure I am not starting out with a deficit.
X is for… let’s be serious. Nothing begins with X.
Y is for YOU. Ultimately, eat what makes you feel good. (Like, what really makes you feel good, not what your mind thinks will make you feel good but ultimately makes you feel not-so-good.)
Z is for Zebra?
What are your favorite meals before you run? Has anyone tried making gels or other race snacks at home? How about after a big run–what is your favorite celebration meal?