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Competition Nutrition: Meal Planning for Marathon Training

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When training for a marathon, you're literally putting your body through its paces. And you simply cannot do so effectively without adequate nutrition and fluid intake. Planning your food and drink ahead of schedule helps to focus your mind on the competition ahead.

Not to mention, it also give you the confidence of knowing that you're 100% prepared and ready to go . . . and that you can fully recover afterwards. This article will layout the best strategies and ideas for your nutrition and fluid intake pre-competition, during the competition, as well as after the event.

Competition Nutrition: Meal Planning For Those Training For A Marathon

Pre-Race Nutrition

Carbohydrate Loading

The idea behind carbohydrate loading is to provide plenty of glycogen to your muscles with the intent of delaying muscle fatigue so you can stay at a high intensity of exercise for longer than you otherwise would.

When you're racing for over an hour and a half, your normal glycogen stores won't be sufficient to sustain you for much longer.

However, by carbohydrate loading, you can increase your glycogen stores to between 200 and 300%, thus delaying muscle fatigue, and enabling you to run for longer periods.

Carbohydrate loading is only necessary for long stints of exercise, and you'll find no real benefit for short duration exercise. In fact, it may work against you in certain sports where there's a strict weight criteria.

What to Consider When Planning Pre-Race Nutrition

1. Have you fully recovered from your previous exercise session?

If not, then your pre-race nutrition must also be part of your recovery nutrition plan.

2. What time is the event?

It's best to have a meal about 3 hours prior to the event that contains at least 200 grams of carbohydrates.

Most marathons start fairly early in the morning, so you'll either have to get up even earlier to eat, or have a smaller carbohydrate heavy meal one to 2 hours prior, followed by consuming more carbohydrates during the actual race.

3. Will you get stomach and gut upsets?

When you're running, your stomach gets jiggled around, and this could lead to gastrointestinal symptoms, which leads us nicely to our next section.

Strategies to Reduce Gut and Stomach Upsets

1. Cut down your fiber intake

Choose low-fiber carbs such as white pasta, white rice, white bread. Or cereals such as cornflakes, or rice puffs.

2. Don't have too much fat

Don't have a fried breakfast before the race, and if you decide to have toast, try to do so without butter, and use only skimmed milk in your morning drink.

3. Try a liquid meal replacement drink

There are many brands that make meal replacement drinks for weight loss. These are typically highly nutritious, and they empty from the stomach quickly.

They're perfect for runners who struggle to eat solid meals before a race.

4. Make sure you're fully hydrated

5. Test out your pre-race meal during your training sessions

Muffin with Jam

Pre-Race Meal Ideas

  • Cereal such as cornflakes or rice puffs with skimmed milk
  • Yogurt with either fresh or canned fruit
  • White toast topped with low fat butter
  • Muffins or crumpets topped with jam
  • Liquid meal replacement drink
  • Oatmeal made with skimmed milk
  • Rice pudding topped with fruit
  • Fruit salad topped with yogurt
  • White bread sandwiches or rolls
  • Baked potato topped with sauce
  • White pasta with a low-fat sauce

Pre-Race Fluids

In addition to keeping well hydrated on race day, you also need to ensure you're fully hydrated on the days leading up to the event.

On race day itself, you'll need to drink a minimum of two 500ml (16.9 oz) glasses of fluid with your pre-competition meal.

This could be plain drinking water, a sports drink, diluted fruit juice, or a diluted soft drink that has been left to go flat.

You should continue to drink fluids right up until start time, and of course, during the race.

Nutrition During the Marathon

Pre-competition nutrition planning is not enough on its own, you also have nutrition goals to meet as you run. Preventing dehydration is key, and so is the prevention of glycogen store depletion.

Then there's maintaining an electrolyte balance, the prevention of stomach upsets, and maintaining your body's blood sugar levels.

Strategies for Competition Nutrition

1. Write down your competition nutrition plan and be sure to practice it while in training

2. Plan how you're going to keep fully hydrated throughout the race

You'll need to take into account the time, the expected temperature, and the humidity levels.

Start drinking early in the race, and continue to drink frequently at consistent, set, repeated intervals as the race goes on.

Some racers set an alarm on their sports watch to remind them to take a drink every 20-minutes.

3. Keep up your carbohydrate intake during the race

You can either keep up your carbohydrate intake during the race by eating snacks or by drinking sports drinks.

A liter of sports drink can supply you with a whopping 70 grams of carbohydrates.

If you decide to use snacks, aim for ones with a moderate or high glycemic index. Good examples include bananas or cereal bars, both provide about 20 grams of carbs.

4. Test the effectiveness of your sports drink when training

The ideal sports drink would be one with between 4 and 8 grams of carbs per 100 ml (3.4 oz), and between 500 and 700 mg of sodium per liter (33.8 oz).

5. Drink your sports drink at regular intervals throughout the marathon

6. Consume solid foods during the race

Endurance events require some solid foods. The best ones to choose would be ones with a moderate-to-high glycemic index.

Examples include: Jam sandwiches, bananas, cereal bars, raisins, and jelly beans (yes, jelly beans!)

7. Experiment with sports bars during training

Sports bars can be a particularly handy means of getting more carbohydrates during a race. You could consider splitting the bar into bite-sized pieces if that makes it easier for you.

8. Research what foods are going to be available at the aid stations of the marathon

You can either familiarize yourself with the available options provided at the aid stations, or simply pack your own snacks.

Shoes with electrolyte drinks

Recovery Nutrition Post-Event

A marathon can be quite hard on the body, so it's important that you take proper care of yourself after the event. Your post event goals should be as follows:

  • Replenish your depleted glycogen stores
  • Restore your fluid and electrolyte balance
  • Consume nutrients to repair any muscle damage

It's imperative that you fully recover from your marathon before you go into your next training session.

You'll need to play an active role in this recovery and plan in advance what you're going to consume. You must make your recovery plan your top priority after the event.

The best recovery foods would be ones with a relatively high glycemic index.

Strategies for Restoring Fluid Levels and Your Electrolyte Balance

1. First and foremost, you need to drink fluids

Regardless of how well you planned your fluid intake before and during the event, you'll be somewhat dehydrated from the exertion. And you must replace the fluids you lost.

2. Start drinking straight after the race and continue to drink

You should keep drinking until your urine runs clear, and your body weight has returned to its pre-race level. Don't underestimate how much you need to consume.

To replace the fluid lost from the marathon, you'll need to consume about 1.5 times the amount of body weight you've lost over the course of the marathon.

3. Replace your loss of sodium

Replacing any sodium losses is the best way to ensure optimum fluid retention.

Fortunately, this is easy enough, you can simply eat a salty snack with added salt, chicken noodle soup (many events have this available), or by drinking a suitable sports drink.

4. The best way to rehydrate after a marathon is with a sports drink

One of the advantages of sports drinks is that they feature sodium to rebalance your electrolytes, which in turn helps the body to retain the fluids consumed.

5. Drink something you enjoy so you'll be motivated to drink more of it

6. It's a good idea to avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages after a race

Runner tying shoe with bottle of electrolytes

Strategies for Replacing Glycogen Stores

1. Eat and drink within the first 2-hours after the race

During the first few hours after the race, you'll still have a lot of blood rushing to your muscles, and the muscle cells remain receptive to sucking up more glucose.

The enzymes in the muscle cells are still receptive to turning that glucose into glycogen, making it the perfect opportunity to maximize your muscle recovery by eating and drinking foods with a moderate-to-high glycemic index. This will get the glucose moving swiftly to your tired muscles.

If you don't do this within the first 2-hours, your post-race recover will be considerably slower.

2. Consume plenty of carbohydrates in the 24-hours after the race

In the 24-hours following the race, you should aim to eat and/or drink at least 7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of your body weight.

The best way to do this is to eat 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight as soon as possible after the race. Then, consume a meal that's high in carbs within 2 hours of the end of the race.

After that, you can continue with your normal meals and snacks for the remainder of the day.

If, for some reason, you are unable to have a high carbohydrate main meal during the first 2 hours after the race, then you should at the very least, have some high carb snacks until you can get your hands on a full meal.

Your aim should be to consume at least 50 grams of carbohydrates every couple of hours until you can eat your main meal.

3. Sports drinks are a great way to boost your blood glucose levels

Sport drinks are a great strategy for replacing lost glycogen stores.

Strategies for Repairing Muscle Damage

Any exercise that leaves you feeling fatigued the next day is one where there's been some muscle damage.

When this happens, the damage in the muscle fibers means that they're less capable of storing glycogen.

Keep in mind, you will not be able to run at your best again until all of your muscle glycogen stores are properly replaced.

When you have a particularly difficult race, and let's be honest, most of them are, then you may even have severe muscle damage or bruising.

If this occurs, you'll need to take extra care to meet your body's post-race carbohydrate needs.

When you find yourself in this unlucky position, you should refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages for at least 24 hours.

This is because alcohol will cause more blood to flow to the area, which will increase swelling, which will worsen the injury and slow down your recovery.

Tips for the Post-Race Diet

1. If you find it easier to eat high carbohydrate snacks after your race rather than a full meal, that's fine

Your recovery will be just as quick.

2. Concentrate on moderate or high glycemic index foods

These are better for glycogen storage compared to ones that are lower.

3. You can consume carbohydrates as solids or liquids

Or you can consume a combination of the two.

4. Aim to include some protein in your recovery plan

This will help increase the rate of glycogen storage.

5. Choose foods high in glucose and sucrose rather than fructose

Glucose and sucrose are much quicker for muscle recovery.

Fructose, is the sugar found in fruits, and although it can enhance glycogen storage in the liver, it does so much more slowly. You can include it in your recovery snacks and meals, but it should not be your main source of carbs.

6. Choose foods you enjoy

You've certainly earned it!

Wrap Up

Here's a summary of the main points:

  • Carbohydrate loading is important before a marathon. You should increase your carbohydrate consumption in the 3 to 4 days prior to the race.
  • Pre-race nutrition is essential for keeping glycogen stores topped, keeping hydrated, and preventing hunger and stomach upsets. You should have a meal about 3 hours prior to the event that contains a minimum of 200 grams of carbohydrates, and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Consume between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrates during the marathon, and replace lost fluids by drink early in the run.
  • Post-race nutrition is also very important. You'll need to restore your fluid levels and electrolyte balance, replenish your glycogen stores, and repair any muscle damage that may have occurred. The better you do this, the quicker you'll recover.
  • Eat and drink immediately after the race. Within the first hour after the race, you should drink some fluids and eat a gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of your body weight, along with some protein.
  • Within 2-hours of the end of the race, you should have a meal that's high in carbohydrates, and follow this up with regular foods and drinks for the remainder of the day.

Example of a Marathon Training Diet

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