Sports Nutrition Tips for Marathon Training
By: Christopher D. Jensen, PhD, MPH, RD
Nutrition & Epidemiology Researcher
You are training to compete in a marathon. Regular workouts will get you in shape for the challenge ahead. This article provides cutting-edge sports nutrition tips that will help you maximize the benefits of your workouts and be at your very best on the day of the race.
Practice makes perfect
The sports nutrition tips that follow are based on the latest information from authorities such as the American College of Sports Medicine. But your job during training is to use these recommendations as a starting point and to refine them to determine what works best for you. That means regularly tuning into how your body feels and keeping notes in a training log. Use the information that you gather in order to make adjustments on how you hydrate, fuel, and recover during training, so that weeks from now, on the day of your event, everything you do is dialed in and well practiced. No surprises on the big day. Instead, you want a proven sports nutrition regimen that is tailored specifically for you.
Start each workout fully hydrated
Dehydration will make your workouts demonstrably harder and put your health at risk, so don’t carry fluid deficits from one workout to the next. You can make up for any previously incurred fluid deficits by consuming 14–20 fl oz (400–600 mL) of water or sports drink about 2–4 hours before your workout. If you are well hydrated, this should lead to urine production that is light in color (like the color of lemonade). If it doesn’t, or if the urine that is produced is dark in color (like the color of apple juice), drink another 8 fl oz about 2 hours before you start pounding the pavement. Keep hydrating as needed prior to your training session, especially when conditions are hot or humid.
Start your training sessions with a full gas tank
The harder and more intense your training sessions, the more you rely on carbohydrate reserves (glucose in your bloodstream and glycogen in your muscles and liver) as muscle fuel. But these reserves are in short supply and can be significantly depleted during long and intense workouts. If you don’t replenish these carb reserves on a daily basis, deficits grow from one workout to the next, and you’ll end up running out of carbohydrate muscle fuel. When this happens, you become fatigued and you’re forced to curtail your training.
To prevent this early onset of muscle fatigue, top off your muscle glycogen fuel stores before working out. You can do this by consuming a meal 2–4 hours before exercise. The goal is to start exercise fully fueled but also feeling comfortable. Choose familiar high-carbohydrate foods and beverages and avoid slow-to-digest fatty and high-fiber foods prior to running. Carbohydrate-rich foods include pasta, rice, bread, cereal, vegetables, fruit, and sweetened dairy products such as flavored yogurts and milks. And if you get hungry again as the workout approaches, or if your training session is early in the morning and time is running short, have an easy-to-digest, high-carbohydrate snack. Good snack examples include a fruit smoothie, a meal replacement drink, a PowerBar® Performance Energy bar, a PowerBar® Fruit Smoothie Energy bar, PowerBar® Energy Bites, a PowerBar® Gel, or PowerBar® Gel Blasts™ energy chews.
The best time for a snack is generally about an hour before exercise. If you don’t have much of an appetite or you tend to experience gastrointestinal distress when training, try liquid carb sources, such as a fruit smoothie or a meal replacement drink, in place of solid foods.
Finding the right pre-exercise meal and snacks — and the timing for each that works best for you — may take some experimenting. So try different approaches during training to identify which ones leave you feeling your best.
Now is not the time to skip meals
A word to the wise if you are carrying a few more pounds than you’d like: Skipping meals before a workout won't necessarily 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 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 may 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 gradually drop off.
Match your hydration and fueling plan to the workout challenge
For training runs up to the half-marathon distance, your existing fuel stores should tide you over, and your focus can be on staying hydrated. Try to consume fluids at a rate that keeps pace with your sweat rate. This generally requires 13–26 fl oz (400–800 mL) every hour of exercise, preferably in smaller amounts taken every 15 minutes or so. However, your fluid needs can vary based on factors such as the intensity of your workouts and weather conditions. Therefore, calculate your sweat rate for the various conditions in which you train, using the PowerBar® Sweat Rate Calculator at PowerBar.com.
Over-hydration is the flip side of dehydration. Both can impair your ability to exercise and can have serious health consequences. To monitor how effectively you are hydrating when training, weigh yourself before and after workouts. If you find that you tend to gain weight when training, it’s a sign that you’re consuming too much fluid during exercise, so cut back a bit on your fluid intake during exercise. Conversely, if you find that you pretty consistently lose more than 2% of your pre-exercise body weight — about 3 lbs (1.4 kg) for someone weighing 150 lbs (68 kg) — that’s a sign to take in a bit more fluid when training.
Water is usually fine for workouts of less than an hour in cooler weather. For longer training sessions and anytime you’re exercising in the heat and humidity, a sports drink that provides carbohydrates, fluids, and sodium, such as PowerBar® Endurance sports drink, is a much better option than plain water. The advantages are many. A sports drink provides carbohydrates to help sustain your blood glucose level during exercise. And athletes typically consume more fluids when their hydration beverage is flavored, as is the case with a sports drink. Also, the sodium and carbs in a sports drink cause the fluid in the beverage to be absorbed more quickly. And the sodium also helps maintain your drive to continue drinking fluids during exercise, which is crucial to meeting your fluid needs. Finally, the sodium also helps you retain the fluid that you’ve consumed.
Another option for rehydrating and refueling, especially during longer training runs, is to consume an energy gel and chase it with water. Make sure to select an energy gel that provides sodium along with carbohydrates, such as PowerBar Gel. These gels are designed to be consumed every 20–45 minutes during exercise, and they provide the carbohydrates and sodium of a sports drink. Energy bars, bites, and chews, such as the Performance Energy bar, PowerBar Fruit Smoothie Energy bar, Energy Bites, and Gel Blasts Energy chews can also be used to increase the hourly intake of carbs during longer training sessions.
Promote rapid recovery
Recovery after exercise will begin in earnest as soon as you provide the nutritional components, including carbs, protein, fluids, and the key electrolyte sodium.
To speed recovery, consume some easy-to-digest carbs as soon as possible after exercise (within about 30 minutes). This will jump-start rebuilding your depleted glycogen stores. Eating high-carb meals and snacks over the next 24 hours will generally fully replenish your fuel stores.
In addition to carbs, taking in protein after a workout provides the amino acid building blocks needed for repairing muscle fibers that get damaged during exercise and to promote the development of new muscle tissue. Although protein requirements vary between individuals, in general look to consume a minimum of 15–25 grams of protein within an hour after exercise to maximize the muscle rebuilding and repair process.
Weigh yourself before and after exercise to gauge the extent of your fluid loss. Replace this fluid by gradually drinking 16–24 fl oz (475–700 mL) of a recovery beverage, sports drink, or water for every 1 lb (0.45 kg) of weight lost. Consume sodium sources such as crackers and pretzels along with your fluids, as rehydration will be more effective when sodium is included. Remember, if your loss of fluids consistently exceeds 2% of your body weight, try to increase your fluid intake a bit during exercise. If you find that you tend to gain weight during exercise, cut back a bit on fluid intake.
PowerBar® Recovery beverage is a fast and convenient option for jump-starting the recovery process. Just pour the Recovery beverage powder into your sports bottle, add water, and shake. In seconds you’ll have the carbs, protein, sodium, and fluids to start reloading, repairing, and rehydrating. Go to PowerBar.com to learn more about other recovery product options.
Know the buzz on caffeine
Coffee is a beverage of choice worldwide, but will that caffeine kick be a help or hindrance to you as a budding endurance athlete? So far, the scientific consensus seems to be lining up on the side of helpful. Caffeine may help you work out at a higher intensity without actually feeling like you’re working harder. Also, concerns about caffeine’s 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 of 0.45–1.36 mg caffeine per lb body weight (1–3 mg per kg). For a 150-lb (68-kg) athlete, that equates to a dose of approximately 70–210 mg of caffeine per event or workout, taken in the hour before exercise or in a single or divided dose during exercise. 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. For more information about caffeine in foods and beverages, see the article “Using Caffeine to Improve Athletic Performance” at PowerBar.com
Consider carbohydrate loading
All else being equal, the more carbohydrate 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 glycogen muscle fuel before a big endurance event or a particularly difficult stretch of training. If you’re planning on walking the marathon at a comfortable pace, carbohydrate loading is unnecessary. But if you plan to go all out over the 26.2 miles, you might want to consider it.
Typically, athletes interested in carbohydrate loading gradually taper their training a week to a few days before the event. In the 2–3 days before the marathon, plan to increase your carbohydrate intake. For optimal glycogen reloading over this period of time, you need to consume about 8–12 grams of carbohydrates daily for every 2.2 lbs of body weight. For someone weighing 150 lbs (68 kg), that equates to 545–818 grams of carbs each day. Men can usually achieve the higher carb range simply by substituting carbohydrate-rich foods for other foods that tend to be higher in fat. For women, it’s not so simple because they generally consume fewer calories than their male counterparts. Effective carbo-loading for women may require adding foods to the diet for those few days. In fact, they may need to increase their total caloric intake by 30–35% in the 2–3 days before the event in order to boost their 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. Late in your training, you may want to experiment with carbohydrate loading prior to one of your long distance runs.
Plan ahead for race day
As the big day approaches, 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 during training 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.
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 that it works relative to your transportation arrangements. Confirm the number of aid stations on course, and plan your consumption of sports drinks and/or energy gels with plain water accordingly. If you are using gels, set aside the number you will need, and devise a plan for carrying them comfortably or resupplying on course.
Good luck with your training and on race day!
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