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Marathon nutrition: Avoiding the wall

Marathon nutrition: Avoiding the wall

When it comes to marathon nutrition, Alex Cook says meticulous preparation is vital for a successful outcome

The marathon is the ultimate goal for many runners and at 26 miles 385 yards there is no doubt there is something charismatic about the adventure of training, the event itself and the ensuing recovery period. No matter what your level or experience, preparation is definitely the key ingredient.

Careful thought about training and nutrition is imperative and there is such a fine line between achieving goals and hitting the dreaded wall. The metabolic demand on the body over this distance is immense. Correct fuelling is essential, and if done wrongly, the last few miles may be painful!

The main nutrients used to power runners over the distance are carbohydrate and fat, with the relative contribution of each depending upon factors such as training status and pace. Carbohydrate is required not only to fuel running, but also to restore muscle and liver glycogen levels during recovery.

The week before

Adequate fuelling the week before a marathon race is vital, as poorly fuelled muscles cause needless fatigue. The aim of pre-race nutrition is to optimise fuel stores (muscle glycogen) and hydration status. Reducing training load while consuming a high-carbohydrate diet (8-10g per kg of bodyweight per day) for 2-3 days before the race will ensure muscle glycogen levels will be replenished and ready for racing. Putting on some weight in this phase is common. Every gram of glycogen stored holds 3g of water, but don’t be too concerned as this stored fuel will help power you through your race.

Experiment during training to see what suits you and once you have a race-day plan, you can stand at the start line with confidence

The high-carbohydrate intake and reduction in exercise the week leading up to the event can leave an athlete feeling full and sluggish, so eating little and often will help to avoid this. Trying new foods on the days leading up to a race is not advisable and could lead to disastrous results on event day. On the morning of a marathon race, a light and carbohydrate-rich breakfast such as cereal and toast or pancakes with jam will top up energy stores and ensure enough time is left for digestion.

An hour before the race topping up with a high carbohydrate snack will ensure energy stores are maximised. If gut tolerance is an issue, try an energy gel or sports drink in addition to 500ml of fluid to ensure maximum hydration at the start.

During the race

Staying hydrated is vital. In average temperatures, aim to drink 150ml every 15 minutes (average a cup every two miles). The drink stations can be crowded, especially in the early stages, so be prepared!

During the marathon, intake of carbohydrate is advisable. As a general rule, 30-60g/hr of carbohydrate should meet race demands (one energy gel = 27g carbohydrate and a 500ml sports drink = 32g carbohydrate).

Studies have shown that ingestion of even small amounts of carbohydrate can improve performance, so if you can’t manage much, a little is better than nothing. Solids and liquid carbohydrate will provide the same in terms of fuel, with sports drinks and some gels having the added advantage of replacing lost electrolytes lost through sweating.

Energy gels or bars can be used, but may be less well tolerated by the gut. Intake should start soon after starting and continue at 15-minute intervals. With sports drinks, it is impossible to measure how much you are having so 6-8 mouthfuls every 15 minutes is a rough guide. You can test all these approaches during training and see what works best for you. Remember the golden rule: “Never do anything new on race day”.

After the race

After you’ve completed the distance your energy stores will be empty. It is common to lose your appetite for the first few hours, but try to eat something within 30 minutes of finishing. Muscle glycogen is slow to replenish, so follow this up as soon as you can with a carbohydrate and protein-rich meal to help start the recovery process.

Continuing to hydrate is important, so drink water regularly for a few hours post-race. The week following your gargantuan efforts, focus on a balanced diet rich in carbohydrate and protein to continue the recovery process and, if you are craving something, listen to your body!

The most important thing to remember is we are all individuals and, although there is generic advice, one plan does not suit all. Experiment during training to see what suits you and once you have a race-day plan, you can stand at the start line with confidence. Relax and enjoy – the marathon is a race you will never forget!

Top tips

» The week before, reduce training load and follow a diet high in carbohydrate (10g/kg bodyweight) two to three days before you race (high carbohydrate foods include, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and remember plenty of fruit and vegetables)

» If you suffer from GI problems when you run, you may want to reduce your fibre intake a few days before (limiting fruit and vegetables and opting for such things as white bread or pasta)

» On the day, have a light breakfast that is high in carbohydrate, leaving plenty of time for digestion

» Start hydrating as soon as you wake up. During the race aim for 150ml every 15 minutes

» Take on carbohydrate during the race (30-60g/hr). Sports drinks, bars and gels provide the same in terms of fuel, but sports drinks and some gels replace electrolytes lost in sweat

» The focus on nutrition doesn’t stop post-race. Eat a snack within 30 minutes of finishing and make sure this is followed up by a carbohydrate and protein-rich meal as soon as you can tolerate it. Keep hydrating!

» Alexandra Cook BSc P.g. Dip RD is a sports dietitian and a club runner with Thames Hare & Hounds. Alexandra Nutrition is a private dietetic and nutrition consultancy covering Rutland, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. See alexandranutrition.co.uk.

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