I am preparing the nutrition presentation for the half and full marathon training groups at Running Wild this evening. I want to share the information with y’all as well, since it is such an important topic. Your nutrition and fueling can definitely make or break your training or your race. There is not one magic formula to determine what, when and how much you need to eat. There are lots of guidelines, sure, but different approaches work for different people. I will share what has worked for me. Something different may work for you, and that’s okay!
I am going to start off with some general information (about carbohydrates, fats, protein and hydration) and then break the post down into what to eat before, during and after your run. I will wrap it up by sharing my race-day fueling plan.
Your body needs more carbohydrates than any other nutrient, but not all sources are equally nutritious. Eating a diet composed 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates helps to ensure positive energy levels and increased exercise performance, mood and overall function. Carbohydrates pass through the digestive system and are broken down into glucose, which is your body’s primary source of fuel. There are two main categories of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates such as enriched flour, found in refined breads, pastas, and sugary foods, provide calories but few nutrients. Complex carbohydrate sources, such as whole-grain breads, starchy vegetables and beans, deliver fiber, as well as valuable amounts of vitamins and minerals.
At least half of the grains you consume each day should consist of whole grains. You can consume whole grains on their own, in dishes such as oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa, or as an ingredient within a food, such as whole-grain breads and pastas. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, beans, peas and lentils, also supply complex carbohydrates.
When the label on a specific food claims that it has been “made with whole grains,” it is important to know what to look for. A better label to look for states “100 percent whole grain.” Exploring the ingredient list unveils sources of fiber and other nutrients in a packaged food. Look for foods that list whole grains within the top few ingredients. Additional examples of fiber-containing grains include brown rice, whole-grain sorghum, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, whole-grain barley, oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat and rolled oats.
Here are some good examples of healthy, complex carbohydrates:
- Raw and lightly steamed vegetables,
- Legumes, beans, nuts and seeds,
- High fiber 100% whole grains,
- Raw, whole, fresh fruits,
- Most low-fat dairy
Your body also needs fat because it is an important energy source and help maintain our immune system. Fats are our secondary source of energy (behind carbohydrates). They also help us manufacture hormones, like estrogen and thyroid, and help us regulate our metabolism. Be sure to include plenty of healthy fats in your overall diet. Runners NEED fat to lubricate and protect their joints and organs, to aid in recovery, to help their body with temperature control and the absorption of nutrients, and to keep their body fueled and appetites satisfied. Low-fat diets for runners can be very damaging. Make sure to include nuts, seeds, avocado and real butter in your daily intake.
Your body needs protein because it helps us build and repair muscles and it is the building block of many of our major organs. Protein is also an important source of iron.
Water is the main component of every cell and tissue in your body and if you don’t get enough, you’ll feel rundown and tired. It is estimated that under normal condition the average person loses 8 cups (2 liters or 64 ounces) of water per day. We sweat off several more cups during every hour of moderate exercise. The rate we lose sweat depends on a variety of factors including individual sweat rate, and the temperature, humidity, and length and intensity of your run. Determine your sweat rate by weighing yourself before and after your run. For every pound you lose, you need approximately 16 ounces of water. On a hot humid day an average sized person (110-165 lbs) can lose 1.6 to 2 liters of fluid, or 2.5% to 3.5% of body weight. So assuming we lose 2 pounds of water in sweat, we would need to replace at least 96 ounces or 12 cups per day.
As your mileage and training intensity increases, you will need to consider adding pre-training nutrients to your regular routine. How much you should eat before a run depends on your distance, your personal tolerance/preference and the timing of your run. Some runners can eat right up until the second they hit the pavement, but others need to let their food digest and stomachs settle first.
It is recommended that you take in easily digested complex carbohydrates one to two hours before exercise. Complex carbohydrates are higher in fiber and lower in simple sugars, which means that they provide a good source of long-lasting energy. An ideal pre-run snack combines complex carbohydrates with low-fat and moderate to high protein foods.
Select pre-event meals and snacks that are 1) familiar, 2) high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat and 3) quickly digested. Steer clear of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols (these can cause extreme irritation to the gut, even hours after consuming them because the body does a poor job processing them).
It is important to have a fueling plan going into your race. Fueling refers to the intake of fluids, electrolytes and calories during the course of a race. Practice in training what you plan to do in the race and don’t try anything new on race day.
In general, runners need to add in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate for each hour that they are running longer than 75 minutes. You need to start fueling earlier than 75 minutes into a run. It is estimated that your body can hold about two hours of fuel while running at marathon effort. However, you can’t just wait until that point to start taking in fuel. By that time, your energy stores will be depleted and once you are empty, it is hard to recover. As you run farther and harder, your body becomes increasingly distressed and as your effort continues, your body diverts energy away from non-essential functions (such as digestion) to your muscles and brain to keep you going at the pace that you are running.
There are a multitude of nutritional products designed to help you fuel during endurance events (gels, sports beans, shot blocks, sports drinks, etc.). It is important for you to find out which type of product works best for you. Some people don’t like the taste or consistency of gels, but some people love them and don’t like the idea of taking in anything more solid. Once you find the right type of fuel, you also need to find the right flavor, as sometimes different flavors don’t sit the same in your stomach. Do some research on the official race website and find out what will be offered along the course, so that you can practice the exact flavors and brands that will be available on race day.
It is recommended that you start taking in fuel within 30 to 45 minutes. If you wait until you are thirsty, dehydration or glycogen depletion might already be setting in and it will be more difficult for your body to process the fluids and energy you are taking in. When you take a gel, sports beans, shot blocks, etc. (basically anything with calories and sugar), take it with water, not with Gatorade. Most fueling products and Gatorade contain high amounts of simple sugars and so combining the two means you are getting too much sugar for your digestive system to process at once. I learned this the hard way, so just trust me on this one.
It is recommended that you drink at regular intervals during your run at a rate that replaces fluid loss, which would be approximately 5-7 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes. Try to select running routes that have water fountains along the way and carry a water bottle or drop a bottle along the route if possible. On race day, try to get a sip of water at each aid station, especially early on in the race, even if you don’t feel thirsty. I would recommend alternating water and something with electrolytes (Nuun or Gatorade) at the aid stations. Take water and the first one, something with electrolytes at the second, etc. and then just be sure to plan your gels, beans, blocks, etc. around an aid station where you take water.
As you try out fuel during your training runs, keep track of how much you took in and how your body responded. Keep track of answers to questions like: Did you feel totally energized? Were you able to keep your pace constant but then hit the wall towards the end of a run? Did your stomach not agree with the fuel?
It is important to refuel post-run with both protein and complex carbohydrates and replenish your electrolytes. It is recommended that you eat carbohydrates as soon as possible (within 30 minutes) of the event. You can begin with sports drink after you finish your run. I like to use Nuun or G2 for my post-run electrolytes. It is also recommended that you eat a high-carbohydrate meal that also combines a lean protein source and a healthy fat source within 2 hours after runs to maximize muscle glycogen recovery (i.e., rebuild your energy stores) and to support protein synthesis in the muscles.
Taking in protein after running helps you to recover more quickly. When you run, microtears occur in your tendons, muscles and other tissues throughout your body, but specifically in your legs. After your run, these microtears elevate your body’s demand for the amino acids found in protein; these acids help with tissue repair and rebuilding. Protein shakes provide a rich dose of these amino acids your body can absorb faster than through whole foods. This can help enhance the speed at which your body repairs those tears, reducing the recovery time needed after your run.
What Works for Me
Now that we know the general guidelines and have some recommendations on what to eat before, during and after our runs, I am going to share my “magic formula.” After my PR marathon in New Orleans, I made sure to make note of my fueling before and during the race because it worked well for me and I felt great (for the first time) after the race! Here is what I did … Pre-race (1 hour before): 1 packet UCAN Vanilla Cream Protein w/ 12 oz. water (160 calories, 27g carbs, 12g protein) and 8 oz. coffee; Mid-race (Mile 15): 1/2 packet UCAN Lemon w/ 6 oz. water (55 calories, 14g carbs); Mid-race (Mile 20): 1/2 packet UCAN Lemon w/ 6 oz. water (55 calories, 14g carbs). I also took water at various aid stations along the course.
I am not a UCAN ambassador (I would love to be), but I 100% believe in this product. It is absolutely amazing! UCAN’s main ingredient, “SuperStarch,” provides sustained natural energy levels without spikes and crashes. SuperStarch is a complex carbohydrate that breaks down slowly over time, keeping you above baseline significantly longer. It enables you to perform better by allowing your body to use fat for fuel. UCAN stabilizes blood sugar and minimizes insulin response, delivering several scientifically validated benefits:
- Optimized performance with steady energy when you need it, without the spike and crash of sugar and maltodextrin based products.
- Sustained energy with time-released delivery of glucose, keeping you above baseline longer.
- Enhanced fat burn allowing you to improve body composition as you burn fat for fuel during your workout and keep burning fat while you recover due to suppressed insulin response.
- Speedier recovery as your body is able to use protein to repair and restore your muscles rather than for energy, since blood sugar is stable.
- No gastric distress, because SuperStarch is a large molecule that passes through the stomach quickly and is digested slowly in the intestines.
Lots of information here. Hopefully you all learned something. Anyone have any other helpful tips or good marathon fueling strategies to share?