Marathon is a mythical race even in the eye of sportsmen! Especially for those used to run occasionally as a leisure activity, but not only… Indeed, it is frequent to see runners used to run races of 10 or 15km, semi marathons, and dreaming about achieving a 42,195km race. The word « marathon » being sometimes hard to say at first :D.
Then, it’s totally possible, if you have time, courage and will… general and specific training, intense and/or voluminous, to achieve this race! Ah! I forgot, raising the distance doesn’t only mean to adapt training but also to take into consideration alimentation before, during and after the effort! In other words, concerning these stamina races, it is important to approach the sportive nutrition in an optimal and fun way as the athlete’s body’s energy is limited.
People used to run those races and utltras will all tell you: training is good, training + nutrition is better! Have you ever seen an electric car functioning with no energy? No, because you need at least a minimum of it!
Runners diet, marathon foods: what is it?
Regarding the road and marathon runners, we often see imbalances such as:
- An « anarchic » and unbalanced alimentation, including a bad repartition and variety of meals.
- A far too small intake of food associated with small lipids, minerals and vitamins supply.
- Not enough hydration, badly distributed through time.
Not about hydration: the amount of water needed depends on the outside temperature, the hygrometry (level of humidity: the lower it is, the higher the evaporation is, the more the athlete needs to hydrate), the wind (raising the loss of water), the intensity, the time of the exercise and the level of training of the athlete => the sweat glands are more developed as the athlete is well trained. Thus, the evaporation is faster and more important, which reflects the adaptation of our body towards training, in order to regulate our inside temperature.
Obviously, it is compulsory for marathon runner, amateur or professional, that his diet is adapted to his personal parameters (age, gender, height, fat mass rate, medical records…), to his type of activity (sprint, marathon, middle distance), to his level of intensity (leisure, competition), to volume and training frequency (1/day, 3/week…), to his familial rhythm (family, work, friends…), his tastes, his habits, his culinary education… and of course, to all other life factors.
Alimentation before the competition
First of all, daily food has to be diversified and varied, balanced, based on healthy and natural products, preferably not coming from the agro alimentary industry (refer to: good daily alimentation). I always try to remind people about the 3 pillars of life that are alimentation, hydration and sleep. If you have those three managed, it’s already a very good start! 😀
The week before the race
There are some key moments in the preparation of a marathon that you can optimize. Before the effort, it’s about optimizing the hydration, maintaining the energy stocks and particularly the glycogenic stocks (glucose) in order to promote the duration of the effort! Then, the dissociated combining diet several days before the race (usually 3 to 4 days) allow us to ally stocking and having optimised digestibility.
Several basic parameters have to be respected during this final stage! Indeed, it is about the athlete objectifying several nutritional points essential to the achievement of a good performance:
- Insure the formation of optimised energy stocks (glycogen);
- Insure a good muscular state and anticipate good recovery;
- Limit every digestive disorders: choice of individualised and wise aliments;
- Avoid to neglect environmental conditions during the effort.
Interest of optimised glycogen stocks
Note: There is a real interest in having high levels of glycogen stocks as they allow us to perform a high speed exercise during a longer time. This is called capacity. Factors influencing positively glycogen stocks are:
- The initial stock of glycogen: a muscular fibre that is « empty in glycogen » is going to pump more « sugar », it is the Overcompensation phenomenon.
- The level of training: the more trained is the athlete, the better is its ability to stock (better sensibility to insulin)
- Alimentation: eating carbohydrates (8 à 10g/kg/day) during the first hours following the effort enhances the resynthesis of glycogen. Benefit from metabolic windows of previous trainings, usually qualitative (weaker in intensity), to optimise your glycogen stocks.
Good glycogen stocks are closely linked to a good hydration : 2 litres minimum! 1g of glycogen is stocked with 2,7g of water!
Last meal before the marathon
The last meal usually takes place in the morning (between 8 and 12 hours after the previous meal), for a morning start (it’s breakfast). During fasting time, muscular and hepatic glycogen stocks get low and athlete’s hydration is lower than the normal rate. It is essential to bring digestible aliments in order to raise glycogen stocks, and to drink to rehydrate our organism. Intake has to be done 3 hours before the start of the race and include low glycemic index food. Always keep a good hydration level by taking small quantities (150 to 200 mL corresponding to a glass of water) regularly. There are different types of breakfast such as:
- Normal breakfast with bread, butter… Here are some optimised examples : Breakfast examples.
- Sport cake, from the shop or homemade : here is my own recipe of Sport Cake, more complete and less expensive than those sold in shops.
Then, a few hours before the start, you need to avoid hypoglycaemia and preserve hydration. Indeed, hypoglycaemia is a major problem during the last waiting hours. It’s the result of precompetitive stress regarding the importance of the challenge. I highly recommend waiting drinks during this phase, adapted in quantity and quality.
During the effort
During the race, the marathon runner needs to insure an exogenous energy supply in order to:
- maintain hepatic and muscular glycogen stocks,
- preserve an optimised level of hydration and minimise mineral losses,
- delay the appearance of muscular and nervous fatigue,
- lower muscular damages.
The intake of an sports drink is interesting in order to rehydrate and to limit the decrease of « sugar » stocks (refer to : recipe homemade sports drink)! A minimum supply of 500 mL/hour has to be respected. You can raise these quantities if the atmospheric conditions are hot, dry and windy! The latter has to be preferably isotonic (neutral to cold) or hypotonic (neutral to hot) in order to facilitate the assimilation (the hydration) and lower the digestive disorders. Here is my comparative chart of commercial drinks.
Concerning the eating or drinking matter during the race, I essentially recommend the intake of drinks as it is full in macro and micro nutrients. Solid (essentially energy bars) is not vital considering the duration of the pretty short duration of the effort (less than 5 hours). An intermediate would be the energy gel, which can be considered but only as an extra to sports drinks. About this matter, I invite you to read my bars comparative chart (updated in 2016) and the one concerning energy gels of the French market, in order to help you in making the right choices regarding your needs. You can find more information in this article about marathon refuelling.
After the effort
The effort being done, the recovery phase is as important as the waiting and effort times. It is about recharging in quantity and quality :
- Rehydrate and remineralise the organism,
- Insure the resynthesis of muscular and hepatic glycogen stocks,
- Favour muscular reconstruction,
- Evacuate body waste,
- Acid base balance
The consumption of carbohydrates (glucose + fructose) after the effort is important for muscular (glucose) and hepatic (fructose) glycogen stocks repletion. This is all the same regarding proteins whose aim is to limit catabolism (« breaking ») and favour anabolism (« construction or reconstruction ») of damaged proteins (especially on the muscular level). This consumption has to be done as soon as possible right after the effort. Indeed, the faster is the consumption, the more important is the quantity of resynthesis. We often mention the « metabolic window« . I therefore invite you to read the article dedicated to recovery.
Note: In order to minimise the acidosis, it’s recommended to drink alkalinising drinks (including bicarbonates or citrates, those being pretty well digested). Regarding the intestinal equilibrium, I advise to take probiotics during several weeks in order to regenerate your intestinal flora.
At last, I recommend complete and specialised recovery drinks to optimise this recovery phase of our body. Here is my comparative chart of recovery drinks of the French market.
Runners diet, marathon food preparation requires to follow a minimum of basic rules necessary to manage a performance while enjoying it. Alimentation and hydration are both key complementary vectors to a good preparation. An energetic deficiency (carbohydrates and lipids), structural and physical (proteins, branch chained amino acids, essential fatty acids), psychological (branch chained amino acids, essential fatty acids) and physiological (essential fatty acids, minerals, micro nutrients , vitamins, probiotics, spices, plants) enhances the diminution of the effort’s efficiency, recovery capacity and performance.
Always keep in mind that every athlete is unique and its individual characteristics create a different environment for everyone (diet, psychology, technique, tactic..), so « what is right for someone is not necessarily right for your training partner ». There is no standard model for everyone!
Sports Dietitian Nutritionist