If you're running the Philadelphia Marathon, congratulations, the hardest part is over! You've rallied through early morning wake up calls and logged miles on miles in preparation for the big day. Now that the physical training is behind you, it's time to taper and refocus your attention to recovery, replenishment, and nourishment! Follow this nutrition guide to properly fuel your body with nutrients that have the power to maximize your energy, speed, and stamina on race day.
The main objective of this week is to feed your body the nutrition it needs to repair and strengthen muscles and maximize your glycogen storage. Glycogen is simply a reserve of glucose (fuel) stored in muscles and the liver (think of it as your gas tank for the race).
What to eat: Focus on nutrient-rich whole foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and high-quality animal proteins. Avoid processed foods, fast foods, refined sugars and oils, as well as alcohol and excessive caffeine. If dairy is problematic, avoid that as well.
How much: While many runners panic and feel the need to eat excessively during pre-marathon week, you can actually stick to your usual caloric intake. As you taper your training, you will be expending less calories than usual. The unused calories normally expended during training will instead be used to fuel your muscles and build up glycogen stores. While calorically your diet should remain about the same, pay closer attention to the composition of your meals. As the week goes on, progressively increase the percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates (about 70%) while decreasing protein and fat.
Diet rehearsal: Use the earlier part of this week to acclimate your body to the foods and beverages you plan to eat for the race. If you plan on using a sports drink, supplement, or anything "new", ideally you would have done a pilot run already. If not, test it out ASAP in order to determine your tolerability. Work out the kinks now so that you can be confident with your nutrition plan on race day.
Welcome modest weight gain: As your meals become more carbohydrate-centric, you may experience mild weight gain (1-3lbs). This is because for every gram of stored glycogen, the body stores 3g of water. No need to panic - this modest weight gain is temporary and desirable – it means you did a good job fueling your muscles and building a solid reserve of glycogen.
1 week out
Begin diet rehearsal: Most importantly, identify and practice the three meals you plan to eat leading up to the race. Seek out nitrate-rich foods (beets, arugula, swiss chard, basil, cilantro) as they are vasodilators (they expand your blood vessels allowing for faster blood flow to the heart and muscles), which speeds up the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells and increases the efficiency of energy production.
Meal composition: Aim for 60-65% carbs, 20-25% protein, 10-15% fat
Hydrate: Listen to your thirst and monitor the color of your urine – it should be a pale yellow. Anything darker indicates dehydration, while clear urine indicates over-hydration, which dilutes electrolyte levels and can cause muscle weakness or cramping. Optional: Try drinking 16 ounces of beet juice to determine whether you can reap the benefits of vasodilation without digestive distress.
Pro tip: If possible, weigh yourself before and after an hour-long run (without drinking any fluids). The amount of weight loss reflects fluid lost through sweat. A one pound weight loss indicates you lost about 16 oz of fluid. Use this "rate of fluid loss per hour" as a guideline to find out how much fluid you need to drink per hour on race day to stat replenished.
2-3 days out
Reconfigure your plate: Increase your carbohydrates to make up 70-75% of your meals. You can do this by simply adding an extra serving of carbohydrates to your plate — 1 cup pasta, 2/3 cup rice or quinoa, 1 slice of bread, or ½ a bagel. This extra serving will naturally decrease the concentration of fat and protein in your meals. Keep protein lean, and limit high-fat foods, which can cause digestive distress.
Listen to your gut: You know your body best. Depending on what your normal diet entails, you may be able to tolerate fiber better than others. Those who regularly follow a fiber-rich diet may be able to handle whole grains, beans, vegetables etc. For those with a more sensitive digestive system, a low-fiber diet will be your safest best. Here's a free pass to enjoy a bowl of white pasta with no regrets.
Pro tip: To make it easier to digest and absorb nutrients from high-fiber foods, take the mechanical burden off your stomach. The more mechanically broken down your food is, the better. Think cooked vegetables (vs raw), pureed fruits and veggies (smoothies, soups, mashes, purees), soaked beans, and slightly over-cooked grains, or, whole grains ground into flours in the form of whole grain pasta, crackers, bread. Similarly, thoroughly chewing your food helps break down tough fibers to ease digestion.
1 day before
"The meal": Make lunch "The Meal" and aim to eat an early dinner to allow for ample time to fully digest your food and top off that glycogen reserve without disrupting sleep or risk feeling heavy on race morning.
Meal composition: Stick with the high-quality carbs, lean protein, low-fiber/low-fat formula and eat meals you've already tested earlier in the week. Do not introduce anything new or unfamiliar to your body. Limit or avoid spicy foods, high-fat foods, dairy, and foods that can cause indigestion such as tomatoes, peppers, and mint.
Pro tip: If hunger strikes before bedtime, snack on some high-quality carbohydrate-rich foods like a banana or dates.
Morning of race
Meal timing & composition: Allow ample time to eat and digest. Know your body – slow digesters should try to eat 3-4 hours before the race; for fast to normal digestion, 2-3 hours should be adequate time. This should be one of the meals you already tested earlier in the week. Most athletes should consume ~100 grams of low-fiber, easy-to-digest carbohydrates (about 0.5-1 gram of carbs per 1 lb of body weight). Optional: If you can tolerate it, eat another 15 to 20 grams of carbs (a handful or raisins, or a few bites of a banana) within 30-60 minutes prior to the start to delay tapping into your energy stores.
Hydration: Drink 1.5 to 2.5 cups of fluids at least 2 to 3 hours before the race. Optional: Try 8-16 oz of beet juice to increase blood flow and energy production. Continue to sip on water up to 30-60 minutes before the race. However, cap pre-race hydration to 24 oz or less to avoid over-hydration and a full bladder when the gun goes off.
Pro tip: To avoid hitting the wall, a steady pace is the most efficient way to maximize your glycogen storage. Studies have found than an erratic pace will deplete glycogen storage at a faster rate. Make your energy reserves last longer by keeping your cadence even throughout the race.
Hydration: Aim for 3-6 oz every 20 minutes or every other mile (or, follow your pre-calculated fluid replenishment rate). Replenish your electrolytes with coconut water or a sports drink. Nunn makes capsules that you can take with you and dissolve in water.
Fuel: The longer into your run, the less efficient or "awake" your digestion becomes. Anticipate this decline by making sure to get your first round of fuel into your gut at the 1-hour mark. From there, aim for 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. Spread it out evenly in small doses at a time to avoid cramping (i.e. ¼ of a gel packet or a bite of food every other mile). Vega makes a pretty "clean" gel. Real food alternatives: banana, a few pretzels, handful of raisins, two dates or dried apricots, or try this DIY gel recipe.
Pro tip: Always take gels with water, not a sports drink, as combining gels and sports drinks will flood your stomach with excess sugar and cause cramping.
Get to the finish line: The food we eat has the power to make or break our performance, but there's no need to overthink it! If you follow these steadfast strategies and trust your gut, your body will be nourished with powerful nutrients to fuel you across the finish line with a new PR.
For some race week meal inspiration, check out my favorite runner-friendly recipes here.
Lindsey Kane is a Registered Dietitian from Philadelphia.
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