Home Health & Wellness Eating Healthily Boosts Your Performance in a Marathon – Here’s What You Should Eat

Eating Healthily Boosts Your Performance in a Marathon – Here’s What You Should Eat

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Understanding what to eat before, during, and after a marathon can significantly influence your performance and recovery. The right nutrition strategy helps you maintain energy, prevent muscle damage, and accelerate recovery, ensuring you’re ready for your next challenge.

Before a marathon, it’s essential to focus on carbohydrates, as they are your body’s primary energy source. Eating a meal rich in complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, or whole grains, about three to four hours before the race ensures your energy stores are topped up.

During the marathon, staying hydrated is crucial, and you should consume easily digestible carbs like energy gels or bananas to maintain energy levels.

Immediately after the marathon, your focus should shift to recovery; consuming a mix of carbohydrates and protein, such as a recovery shake or a meal with chicken and vegetables, can help repair muscle tissue and replenish energy stores.

Continue hydrating and consider electrolyte replenishment to offset any potential imbalances caused by sweat loss during the race.

Before the race: fueling up

The meals you consume in the days leading up to a marathon are crucial for stocking up on glycogen, your muscles’ main energy source. Carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, rice, bread, and fruits should dominate your diet. It’s recommended to start carbo-loading two to three days before the event, increasing your carbohydrate intake to about 8 to 10 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Athletes who increase their carbohydrate intake before a marathon can improve their performance due to better glycogen stores. Avoid high-fibre and fatty foods the day before the race to prevent digestive issues.

During this carbo-loading phase, it’s also important to stay hydrated, as proper hydration helps maintain blood volume and muscle function. Drinking fluids consistently, rather than all at once, allows your body to properly absorb the carbohydrates and nutrients.

Light meals or snacks should be integrated throughout the day to keep energy levels stable without causing gastrointestinal distress. On the eve of the marathon, a familiar, easily digestible meal can help ensure a good night’s sleep without stomach upset.

On the morning of the race, a small, carb-based meal like oatmeal or a banana with honey can provide a quick energy boost without weighing you down.

During the race: staying energised

Hydration and energy are key during the marathon. Sports drinks, gels, and even small, easily digestible snacks like bananas or energy bars can be beneficial. The goal is to consume 30–60 grammes of carbohydrates per hour to maintain blood glucose levels and delay fatigue.

Consuming a mixture of glucose and fructose can increase carbohydrate oxidation rates, potentially enhancing endurance performance. This is why many marathon runners prefer sports drinks that contain multiple types of sugars.

To optimise intake, runners should plan their nutrition strategy around their race pace and personal tolerance, timing their consumption to prevent dips in energy. It’s crucial to experiment with different types and brands of sports drinks and gels during training runs to avoid gastrointestinal issues on race day. Hydration should also be tailored to individual needs, as overhydration can lead to hyponatremia, a condition where blood sodium levels become dangerously low.

A good rule of thumb is to drink to thirst and supplement with electrolyte-enhanced beverages if the race is particularly long or in hot conditions. Small amounts of sodium in sports drinks can help retain fluids and maintain nerve and muscle function throughout the marathon.

After the race: recovery nutrition

Post-marathon nutrition focuses on replenishing energy stores and repairing muscles. Within 30 minutes of finishing, try to consume carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio. A smoothie with fruit and protein powder or a sandwich with lean meat can be effective choices.

A 2018 study emphasises the importance of protein in post-marathon recovery, showing that it speeds up the repair of muscle damage. Additionally, hydrating with water and electrolytes is crucial to restoring fluid balance.

Continuing to eat small, balanced meals every two to three hours after a marathon can also help maintain a steady recovery. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries and leafy greens, can aid in reducing inflammation and muscle soreness. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon or in flaxseed, are another excellent choice to help reduce inflammation and support cardiovascular health, which is crucial after the physical stress of a marathon.

It’s also beneficial to include whole grains in recovery meals to provide sustained energy and aid in glycogen replenishment. Getting enough sleep and allowing for active recovery, such as light stretching or walking, can further enhance the body’s ability to repair and strengthen for future activities.

Quick recap

Nutrition plays a crucial role in a marathoner’s success, influencing not only performance during the race but also recovery afterward. The days leading up to a marathon require a focus on carbohydrate-rich meals to build glycogen stores.

This preparation fuels the body to withstand the marathon’s demands and reduces the risk of hitting “the wall.” During the race, maintaining a steady intake of carbohydrates, hydration, and electrolytes is key to sustaining energy and preventing dehydration.

After the marathon, the emphasis shifts to recovery, where a mix of carbohydrates and proteins helps repair muscles and replenish energy stores. Consuming antioxidant-rich foods, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains can further aid in reducing inflammation and supporting overall recovery.

Proper sleep and light physical activity post-marathon contribute to a smoother recovery, preparing you for the next challenge.

Samuel Kingston is a seasoned marathon runner and freelance nutrition writer who specialises in sports performance.

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