Marathon Nutrition

As you approach your next marathon, you’ll likely have a training plan in place that builds up your weekly miles until you feel able to tackle the 26.2 mile distance. But have you considered your nutrition plan? You may be surprised to learn that how you fuel your run could mean the difference between completing the marathon and a ‘did not finish’ (DNF). In fact, for distance runners, gastrointestinal (GI) distress is the number one reason for them not finishing a race.

So what can you do nutritionally to give you the best chance of marathon success?

To start with, you have to look at your nutrition early-on. Above and beyond maintaining a balanced diet it’s important to recover from training sessions so you feel ready for the next one, and minimise aches and pains. This means looking at your protein levels. Protein is well known in the gym world for building muscles but is lesser known when it comes to endurance. In fact, maintaining a high protein diet is crucial when undertaking a challenging marathon training plan as it rebuilds broken muscle fibres after exercise, and helps to reduce aches, pains and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g per kilogram of bodyweight, however if you’re active the recommendation is 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight every day. You should also take a minimum of 20g of a ‘complete’ protein (containing all nine essential amino acids) after exercise to kickstart muscle protein synthesis, which is the process that repairs torn muscle fibres.

You must incorporate collagen into your diet as well, which is the most abundant protein in your body. Collagen is well known in the beauty industry for reducing wrinkles and strengthening hair and nails, however research indicates that it also plays a key role in strengthening connective tissues such as joints, ligaments and tendons. Although you can get collagen from your diet, it requires eating foods like bone broth, fish skin and gristle. The more palatable option is to take a collagen supplement such as powdered marine collagen, ideally 10 grams (10,000mg) per day. By taking this consistently, runners should notice improvements to their joints and ligaments from about five weeks onwards.

And of course, you need to ensure that carbohydrates are built into your daily diet so that you keep your energy levels up. Although some runners choose to follow a low-carb (keto) diet so that their bodies are trained to burn fat more than carbohydrates, this is not considered the best nutritional approach unless you are being advised to go keto by a qualified dietician/nutritionist. For starters, it can take several months on a ketogenic diet for the body to switch from using carbohydrates as its main energy source to using fats and so if you want your body to be keto-ready for a marathon, you best start early! When marathon training, you should look to consume 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day.

image of a bowl of pasta cut in half showing Ron Hill

British running legend, Ron Hill developed carb loading to fuel his record beating runs

As your marathon approaches, you will probably consider carb loading. Carb loading is a well-known concept but it's more than just a big bowl of pasta the night before. Ron Hill was a British running legend and record holder in the 60’s and 70’s who pioneered this energy fuelling strategy. Starting seven days before the marathon, it’s time to carb load – the idea is that you first deplete your carbohydrate (glycogen) stores by reducing your carbohydrate intake to 30 per cent for five days (the rest coming from protein and fat). For the next two days, you start to refuel by increasing your carbohydrate intake to 70 per cent of your total calories. This restocks your glycogen stores so they are fully available to use as energy on the day of the marathon. There have been a few variations of ‘carb loading’ in recent times, with latest guidelines suggesting that very well trained athletes only need 1 or 2 days of carbohydrate loading with reduced training on those days. But less trained individuals may need a bit longer (e.g. 2-3 days) to carb load following a few days of depletion.

On the big day, have a breakfast containing high levels of carbohydrate and protein at least two hours before the start. Some runners opt for a large bowl of porridge oats or a bagel with peanut butter 3-4 hours before the start and then have a high carbohydrate snack an hour before. We also recommend taking a natural energy gel 20 minutes before the start.

To avoid ‘hitting the wall’, keep refuelling your glycogen stores throughout the race. Look to consume about 40-60g of carbs each hour. This equates to 2-3 Maple Ignite energy gels every hour. Elite athletes will have a trained gut and will be able to consume considerably more than this – up to 120g per hour. Consuming gels that contain electrolytes is preferable to replenish lost salt through sweating, and getting into a habit of drinking water at the same time as taking a gel will help to keep hydration levels up and support digestion.

When choosing your race fuel, it’s crucial that you test it well in advance as many energy gels that contain lab-made ingredients don’t sit well on the stomach and are also missing vital micronutrients that support endurance exercise. Plus, although natural energy gels are more likely to be gentle on the digestive system, honey gels may not agree with those who suffer with IBS as honey is a FODMAP due to high levels of fructose.

With it being made from just pure maple syrup (sucrose) and sea salt, Maple Ignite provides a sustained energy release with low risks of stomach distress. Maple syrup is a recognised running fuel in North America, and we’re now harnessing its performance benefits for U.K. runners.

Once you’ve crossed the line, it’s time to celebrate but you must also remember to recover so that you have more chance of making it out of bed the following morning!  Look to get 20g of protein soon after finishing to kickstart recovery together with some carbs for energy. Plus don’t forget to continue with the daily collagen.

So, as you increase those marathon training miles, increase your focus on your nutrition. Test out what works for you and never try anything new on race day. It’s also important to remember that every runner’s body is different and what works for someone may not work for someone else, with differences according to your sex, age and bodyweight.

The key takeaways are to keep your carbohydrate, protein and collagen levels up in the run-up to the marathon. Focus on restocking your glycogen stores with carbs throughout the race and consider taking a more natural approach to sports nutrition. Not only are natural products gentler on the body, but they’re jam-packed full of micronutrients to give you that extra push over that line!