Marathon Fuelling

Running nutrition is a thorny and challenging topic. We all have different tastes, schedules and preferences which affect how we fuel our training and racing.  

We work with Renee McGregor, dietitian to some of the top Marathon runners in the UK, and author of a series of books about Sports Nutrition.

On a recent podcast she talked through 2 universal rules you can follow to help maximise your chances of fuelling success.

  1. When, is almost as important as what.

While it is important to always try to eat a healthy balanced diet, there are times during the week when you will need certain nutrients more than others. This is particularly true of Marathon runners- where the training is structured with one or two big training sessions each week. To get the most from these sessions or long runs and to ensure we recover properly from them- it’s important that we structure our meals over the course of the week.

In the days leading up to long runs, it’s important to make more carb based choices in our meals. You should start this process early - 48-72 hrs before key long runs or races, keeping it simple on the day before the run.

Most people are aware that it’s important to ensure you get some good quality protein in your diet after long runs or races but they fail to understand the importance of getting sugar levels back up as quickly as possible. It can again take 48- 72 hours for in stores to be replenished after a hard session.

Sugar has had a bad press over the last few years,  but as runners we can probably get away with a bit more sugar and we probably need a bit more after long or high intensity sessions.

There has been some recent research into the benefits of caffeine and its role in the refuelling process - with evidence suggesting it helps restore glycogen levels more quickly. Why not have a latte for that extra protein kick!

Recovery can be difficult for those who have to train at night as it can be hard to digest a big meal after training. In these cases Make sure you get a decent lunch in, and make a special effort to drink a recovery drink/ milk  shake immediately post run. This can be followed by light, easily digestible meal high in protein.

2. Practise Your Strategy.

It’s really important to make sure you have practised a ‘fuelling strategy’ before the big day. This doesn’t just apply to the type of gels you use in the race- you should practise how you feel eat the night before and the morning of the race too. Your longest training run provides a great opportunity to practise this. Why not even start this run at the same time as your Marathon goal race to truly simulate the experience?

Here’s a few simple rules to follow in the days leading up to the event to avoid gastro-intestinal distress

  • Reduce your intake of fibre in the days leading up to the race. Fruits and vegetables high in fibre are usually great- but they do hang around in the stomach. Cutting down on them a day or two before race day will reduce the residue in the stomach. Large quantities of fructose can also lead to problems so stay off the juice.

  • Reduce dairy and fat intake within 24 hrs. Though not universal-there is some evidence to suggest that diary can aggravate the gut so its good to remove it in the hours before a big race

  • Stay clear of red meat- it’s very slow to digest. A steak or spaghetti bolognese might look appealing but its a big no no.

What does that mean in practise? Well, a day or two before the race we recommend very bland, carb based meals. The focus should be on things that are easy to digest a baked potato, cous-cous, or roasted veg might be a good option for an evening meal ( but not root veg), and a plain bagel (white not wholemeal) with honey would be a winning breakfast.

How about gels? These days, because everyone is trying to move away from gels, sugar and sweet stuff, people are starting to use ‘real food’; such as date bars, or other dried fruit. The problem with that is its such a high fructose load and our bodies can only absorb 30grams of fructose an hour when we are exercising. It’s inevitable if you start pilling in the fruit, that you’re going to have an upset stomach because your body can’t absorb it.

In fact, there is no such thing as a healthy gel. If you think about what’s going on a physiological level during the Marathon, the only fuel your body can use to maintain the pace is carbs, and the quickest way of getting carbs in your body is glucose. Your body likes glucose, it’s the currency it enjoys. We need glucose for almost every process our body undergoes from brain function to the production of energy itself. Even the process of breaking down fat, believe it or not, takes energy in the form of glucose to make that happen.. So embrace it- and find a brand of sticky goos your stomach can best handle!

Nutrition is a very personal experience- and if you have had issues in the past we would recommend consulting a professional dietitian.