Marathon & Distance Running Nutrition & Sports Supplements
Long distance runners require a considerable amount of training and race preparation to be both mentally and physically equipped for an endurance event such as the marathon, and nutrition plays a key role in this process.
To prepare for such long distance running events you will need to undergo one of the most intense training programmes in the field of endurance sports.
And to do it successfully you will need huge amounts of carbohydrate for energy, protein to maximise muscle strength and sufficient fluids to maintain good levels of hydration.
So, whether you are a debutant runner whose aim is merely to finish – however long it takes! – a club athlete looking for a personal best, or an international seeking gold medal glory you need to make sure that you are eating the right foods and taking in the appropriate fluids.
Distance running nutrition
Leading up to a long distance event like a marathon you should make sure that you load up with carbohydrate.
Carbohydrate loading like this will not make you run any faster, but it can certainly help to delay fatigue during the race.
Most runners require at least 5 to 7g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight per day, but for longer training periods and for three days before a marathon this should rise to between 7 and 12g per kg of bodyweight per day.
Always remember that liquid carbohydrates such as fruit smoothies, natural yoghurt with added fresh fruit and specially formulated sports drinks are also very useful in topping up your carbohydrate levels.
In the week before the race you should also cut back significantly on your training work-load.
Increased carbohydrate intake and reduced training activity will mean that you can expect to put on a little more weight, but don’t worry too much, you will soon be back to normal after the event!
Meanwhile, your protein intake should ideally be between 1.2 and 1.8g per kg of bodyweight per day and you can achieve this by eating skinless chicken, lean red meat, fish or high protein vegetarian alternatives for both lunch and dinner daily.
Add to this three servings of dairy foods per day, and that should be enough to provide you with sufficient protein.
Hydration for long distance and marathon runners
It is impossible to over-emphasise the need for good hydration when it comes to running long distance events, marathons and ultra-marathons.
Dehydration places an enormous strain on an athlete’s body and even a very small fluid deficiency can mar your performance significantly.
Ideally you should start drinking fluids early on in the race to minimise this risk rather than trying to compensate later on.
Sports drinks and gels can be a good way to replace fluid and carbohydrate at the same time and are highly recommended.
They are also an excellent aid in restoring the balance of the three essential electrolytes – sodium, chloride and potassium – which make up sweat.
On the day of a race, ideally one or two hours before the start time, it is important that you eat something that is easy to digest and contains both carbohydrate and fluid.
Some runners have found it better to avoid an intake of fibre; otherwise they suffer varying degrees of gastro-intestinal upset during the race itself.
To help boost stores of glycogen you can’t go wrong with breakfast cereal and low-fat milk, fresh fruit and natural yoghurt, or toast with a generous topping of jam or honey.
The following are typical examples of a pre-race meal that you may wish to try:
- A chicken or tuna sandwich, plus fruit
- Two crumpets with either peanut butter or a cheese topping
- Two slices of toast with a small portion of baked beans
- A couple of sports bars
- One portion of fresh fruit with low fat yoghurt
- A portion of breakfast cereal with low fat milk
- Fresh fruit smoothie
During a long distance or marathon run most of the fuel required to power your body comes from muscle and liver glycogen, and this needs to be topped up at regular intervals throughout the race.
It is recommended that you take in between 30 and 60g of carbohydrate every hour – even more if racing in hot weather or when it is unpleasantly humid.
You can do this either by consuming small, lightweight foods or nutritional gels that you carry with you or eat what is available at the feeding stations along the route.
Sports drinks, sports bars and gels are popular and efficient ways of maintaining both energy and hydration levels and are highly recommended.
Post-race nutrition and recovery
After a race or an intense training session it is essential that you recover body carbohydrate and fluid stores before the next session.
The recovery process is vitally important and there are no two ways about it; long distance runners need to recover properly, especially if they want to keep their body fighting-fit and in the best possible shape.
There are three golden rules to a long distance runners successful rehabilitation; and we refer to them as the three R’s:
Bodily carbohydrate stores (glycogen) must be quickly restored to allow performance levels to be maintained – the optimum time to restore muscle glycogen stores is during the first hour after competition or training and this is when you need to consume carbohydrates.
If you do not replenish glycogen stores adequately however, recovery may well be affected leading to unwanted fatigue and poor performances may then follow.
You probably will not feel much like eating too much immediately after a race or heavy training session so you could opt for a liquid meal replacement or a low fat flavoured milk drink.
However, it is essential that you eat something to kick-start the recovery process because muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen within 30 minutes of the end of a run.
Note that they also refuel quicker if protein is consumed at the same time.
A warning… you might be very tempted to celebrate, especially if you have achieved some personal milestone, but make sure that you drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids to rehydrate and foods containing carbohydrate and protein to help your recovery before even thinking of drinking alcohol – however small it might be!
Finally, do not forget to give consideration to two key minerals – calcium and iron.
The extra stress runners put on the skeletal system, and in particular the bones in their legs and feet can cause the bone mineral to dissolve and as such it needs to be replaced.
In order to maximise the calcium replacement process you need to eat sufficient calcium-rich foods such as dairy foods, fortified soy drinks, natural yoghurt, almonds and the like.
You should also ensure you consume sufficient Vitamin D which will help your body absorb this extra calcium.
As a long distance runner iron is also a key mineral that you need to fully understand.
Did you know that as an active runner you will require up to 1.7 times more iron than someone who does little or no exercise, and low iron stores are particularly common in your sphere of athletics.
An iron deficiency can have a number of unwanted effects, it can lead to decreased immunity, a faster heart rate, low energy levels and an inability to train effectively.
In order to maintain your iron levels you should eat plenty of iron-rich foods including animal protein.
You could also consider taking iron supplements.
If you are vegetarian you must take extra care to make sure that your nutritional requirements are met, because most plant sources of iron, such as green leafy vegetables, whole -grains and legumes, are not well absorbed by the human body.
Want to get involved in long distance running?
If you’re not currently involved in marathon and long distance running and are keen to learn more about taking part then read on. Here we’ve brought together a number of useful links to athletics and road running organisations that may be able to help you.
Want help with nutrition?
Get in touch now for more information about marathon and long distance running nutrition and the use of sports supplements to improve your speed, fitness and endurance for quicker times and better race performances. Our team of sports scientists and nutritionists are always happy to help.