Marathon training: The what, when and how much you must eat to prepare for a race | fitness | Hindustan Times
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Marathon training: The what, when and how much you must eat to prepare for a race

Planning to run the Airtel Delhi Half-Marathon on November 19? Here’s our complete guide to proper marathon nutrition: From how and why to stay hydrated to what to eat a week before the race and more.

fitness Updated: Nov 14, 2017 09:35 IST
Neha Ranglani
The food you eat is very important because it will provide you with the energy your body needs to keep running.
The food you eat is very important because it will provide you with the energy your body needs to keep running.(Shutterstock)

Running a marathon is no small feat. Training for one is a process that requires time, dedication and proper nutrition. What you eat, in fact, plays the most important role in training for a race. Add to it when you eat -- whether before or after the race. If you get it all right, breasting the tape on the finish line, in good time, would be one of your life’s most memorable feats.

Simply put, watch out for what you eat in order to power through a long run. You also need to plan your nutrition so that you don’t run out of steam before the finish line.


The food you eat is very important because it will provide you with the energy your body needs to keep running, even when it seems like you are never going to finish the race. Start your marathon diet by ensuring you take the required number of calories: This comes to about 20 to 28 calories per kilogram of body weight. It also varies depending on your gender and age. Once this is decided, the focus shifts to consuming the right food in the correct ratio as well.

Let us take a look at what should be consumed while you begin your training for the big day.

The exact measure of carbohydrates a runner needs to consume on a daily basis vary from individual to individual. (Shutterstock)

Increase your consumption of carbohydrates

While all three micronutrients -- fat, proteins and carbohydrates -- are important, the last one deserve extra emphasis because they are the body’s preferred source of energy. Your body uses glycogen while you are running, and carbohydrates convert to glycogen stored in the muscles. When its level goes down in the body, you start slowing down. Carbs, therefore, play the most important role in your daily nutrition.

How much carbohydrate would you need on a daily basis? There is no fixed amount, and it varies from person to person. The count also depends on how much you’ll run on race day: If it’s an ‘easy’ day, say running for only 30-45 minutes, 4-5gm per kilogram of body weight would suffice. If you plan to run the full marathon, which may last for anywhere between 120 minutes to 150 minutes (sometimes even longer), you must factor in 8-10gm of carbs per kilogram of body weight in nutrition plan.

Protein helps muscles repair and heal themselves, while fat is necessary for a variety of bodily functions. (Shutterstock)

Don’t ignore fats and proteins

While we agree that carbohydrates make up the bulk of your energy requirements while running a marathon, it does not mean that you leave fat and protein from your diet. These micronutrients are equally essential as protein helps muscles grow, repair and heal themselves, and fat is necessary for a variety of body functions. Marathon runners, on an average, require nearly 50% more protein than adults living a sedentary lifestyle. Your marathon diet should include at least 15% of total calories from proteins and 30% should be from fat.

In case your stomach is unable to handle too much of solid food before a training run, then you can also opt to have a fruit smoothie made with a banana and milk. (Shutterstock)

Have a diet plan that revolves around your training

It is important that your marathon diet plan remains focused around your training runs. Many dietitians and coaches say a light and energising snack or a small meal at least an hour before going for a training would do your body good. In case your stomach is unable to handle too much solid food before a training run, you could opt for a fruit smoothie made with a banana and milk. Avoid foods that are high in fat content, are fried or contain rich sauce. Also stay away from high-fibre foods. All these can lead to stomach problems during your running session.

Water should be your choice of beverage for daily drinking. It is important that you carry a bottle of water with you whenever you are going out or exercising. (Shutterstock)

Do not underestimate the importance of fluids

Being properly hydrated is super important for any marathon runner. Even losing 2% of your body weight through loss of hydration or water can have a severe effect on your performance and muscle recovery following the marathon. Don’t forget to carry a bottle of water even while training. Water should be your choice of beverage for daily drinking: You should ideally drink 4-8 ounces of water in a span of every 20 minutes or so.

During the training period, 20-30% calories should come from fats such as avocados, nuts, oils. (Shutterstock)

What should your diet look like on training days?

The number of calories you need corresponds directly to the duration and intensity of your training. For example, if you know that you will burn approximately 100 calories for every mile you run, you must replenish your body sufficiently so that you don’t feel weak or faint by the end of your training session. However, do not use running as an excuse to eat anything and everything.

During the training period, your calorie breakdown should look something like this:

· 60-70% calories should come from carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, grains

· 20-30% calories should come from fats such as avocados, nuts, oils

· 10-15% calories should come from proteins such as chicken, meat, fish, beans

You should ideally eat within an hour of finishing your training because timing plays a big role in your diet plan. Post-training snack should contain protein and carbohydrates in a ratio of 4 is to 1. For example, you can opt to have a whole grain toast with peanut butter and jelly. You can also eat a fruit along with a cup of yogurt. This kind of a meal will replenish your glycogen stores and get you ready for the next training session. It is necessary to have a snack within 30 minutes of completing your training because the maximum uptake of glucose in the body happens in the first 30 minutes after your training.

Your training period is also the perfect time to practice your fluid-replacement strategies. During a marathon, you need to hydrate regularly. You can experiment with hydration strategies as you train and get an idea which beverage works best to keep your energy levels high.

With just one week left for the marathon, you can consume complex carbohydrates, including oatmeal, tabbouleh, and other whole grains. (Shuttrstock)

What to have one week before the marathon

One week before race day, slow down on training and allow your muscles to heal and store glycogen. This will help you build your energy for the race day. Consume nearly 3-4gm of carbohydrates per pound of your body weight in this period. Increase your intake of complex carbohydrates as they will provide your muscles and your brain the fuel necessary to complete the race. Complex carbohydrates that you can take include oatmeal, tabbouleh, and other whole grains.

A day before you run a race, you can also include a small portion of protein like grilled chicken, lean red meat, or even fish. (Shutterstock)

What to have one day before the marathon

Do not experiment with new foods the night before the marathon. Stick to your normal diet routine and have food that you are familiar with and that works for you. A new food or a new sauce is likely to leave you feeling off or even cause a stomach upset. It is best to consume a nutritious meal the night before the marathon. This should be made up of whole grains such as whole wheat pasta or brown rice; steamed or grilled vegetables accompanied by a salad; you can also include a small portion of protein like grilled chicken, lean red meat, or even fish.

Once the race is finished, you can choose to eat a mixture of proteins and carbs. An example of this would be a fruit smoothie made with protein-rich yogurt or even chocolate milk. (Shutterstock)

What to do on the day of your race

Plan your diet for race day in advance. You could begin your day with a light, carbohydrate-rich breakfast. This may include foods such as a whole-wheat mini-bagel and a banana. You can also top off your bagel with peanut butter. After 90 minutes of running, refuel your body with high-glycemic index carbohydrates like oranges, dried fruits or honey. Aim for consuming around 140 calories of carbohydrates per hour of running. Once the race is finished, eat a mixture of proteins and carbs. An example of this would be a fruit smoothie made with protein-rich yogurt or even chocolate milk.

Some of the best foods for marathon runners: Let us finish off with a list of ideal foods that any marathon runner should consume. Take a look:

· Almonds

· Eggs

· Sweet potatoes

· Whole-grain cereals with protein

· Whole grain bread

· Whole grain pasta

· Stir-fry vegetables

· Mixed salad greens

· Mixed berries

· Dark chocolate

· Oranges

· Black beans

· Salmon

· Chicken

· Yogurt

· Bananas

Remember, a good diet full of nutrients forms the basis of any workout routine. However, this is especially important for marathon runners or endurance runners. By following these tips you will surely be running in top form towards that finish line.

Dietitian Neha Ranglani is a Mumbai-based nutritionist with 10 years of experience. She could be reached at www.neharanglani.zest.md