Training and eating for endurance races is quite different from most sports. It takes a lot of additional planning and can be a time-consuming process. You can’t just wake up and decide to run 15 miles on an empty stomach, or do your long run in the middle of the day after eating nachos for lunch (trust me- I’ve experimented with this and it did not go well). Training for endurance, rather than strength training, requires a bit more planning than simply going to the gym to get a good lift in. Since it is something I have experienced personally and marathon season is now upon us, here are a few tips on fueling your body for success!
Before the Race
Whether you’re running first thing in the morning or after work, it’s important to be focusing on hydration and getting the proper meal composition before your run. If you run in the morning, wake up earlier than normal to prepare your body with at least 8 ounces of water, preferably 16 ounces. Make sure to have a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates, low in fat and fiber, and a moderate about of protein. Some good options could be a bagel with peanut butter, cereal, a granola bar and fruit, toast with peanut butter, etc.
If you have the majority of the day to get ready for your run, make it a focus to be drinking water steadily throughout the day. 3-4 hours before running, have a meal that is high in low-glycemic carbohydrates, low fiber and fat, and moderate in protein (ex. a grilled chicken wrap with fruit, turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with milk, etc). Then, 30 minutes to an hour before you’re ready to go, snack on something that is easy to digest and high in carbohydrates, like fruit or a granola bar.
During the Race
Eating while exercising is a concept that takes people a while to get the hang of. If you are just beginning your training, I recommend experimenting with different foods and timing for your body to get used to eating and exercising.
During my first marathon, I found that having a plastic water bottle and a pack of sliced fruit or even fruit snacks during my long runs seemed to work well for me. You don’t need to eat a ton, but just having a few fruit snacks or a Gatorade gel can really bring you back to life when you feel like stopping. Practicing with different foods as you train is a good way to experiment with your body so you know exactly which snacks and drinks to grab come race day!
I stopped at every station after the 5 mile mark for sports drinks and/or water (even if it was just a sip or two) to continue fueling my body. Sports drinks come in handy because they help replenish your electrolytes while also providing simple carbohydrates for energy as your glycogen stores begin breaking down.
Now as I’m training for my second marathon, I’ve been experimenting by carrying a bag of peeled clementine wedges and having two or three every 45 minutes, or about every 6 miles. Drink 1 cup of fluids every 10-20 minutes (ex. every 2 miles) as you run long distances and aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour (sports drinks, energy gels, fruit snacks, fruit).
After the Race
As soon as you cross the finish line, take a second to catch your breath, grab your medal, and grab a free snack that the volunteers are handing out! NOW is the time to refuel your body and reward it for carrying you through a long race! It’s common to not feel super hungry right after finishing a long race because your sense of hunger is often temporarily reduced during exercise. Try to have at least a few bites of something with quality carbohydrates and some protein so your body can work on recovering. It’s always better to have something to eat rather than nothing at all. Your body needs some source of quick carbohydrates right away. (Note: it’s also normal to have some digestive discomfort after long races, so don’t worry too much if your stomach is a little upset shortly after your race is done).
Here’s the really important part: once you have a snack, your metabolism will go wild the next few hours and you may notice that you feel hungry right after eating a full meal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating meals in 2-hour intervals for up to 6 hours. These meals should have 1.0-1.2 grams of carbohydrates and 0.25 to 0.3 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight (ex. 150 lbs/ 2.2 = 68.2kg x 1.2g carb = about 82 grams of carbs; 68.2kg x 0.3g= 20.5 grams of protein).
Great snack and meal ideas include lean protein, whole grains, and moderate fat. Examples include cottage cheese and fruit, whole grain toast with peanut butter, a berry smoothie made with yogurt or milk, cheese and crackers, chocolate milk, grilled chicken sandwich, etc.
Some post-exercise foods that are not recommended are foods high in fiber (beans, cruciferous vegetables), high-fat foods (cream sauces, high-fat meats, fried foods, large quantities of nuts or nut butters), and fluids like pop, juice, or energy drinks.
How much is enough water? It may seem like you’re drinking water all day, but I can’t emphasize the importance of hydration. When you are working hard during a race, you need to replace your fluids and electrolytes before, during, and after the race. The guideline for fluid replacement is 16 to 24 ounces of water or sports drinks for every pound lost during a workout. This may not be applicable for those who do not frequently weigh in before and after a workout. One way you can tell if you have hydrated enough is checking to see if your urine is a pale yellow, lemonade-like color throughout the day (Note: you don’t want your urine to be completely clear- this could lead to hyponatremia, which means you are overly hydrated and have essentially diluted your electrolytes). Sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade come in handy for runs longer than an hour because they have carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium.
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