Preparing for a marathon requires months of hard work, including intense physical training. But the actual workouts aren’t the whole story: When you run 26.2 miles, your body needs the right fuel to sustain it. Proper nutrition for athletes is crucial for them to optimize their performance, improve their times and stay competitive.
Even if you’re just starting on your fitness journey, taking some cues from the dietary habits of marathoners can help you improve your diet. Here’s a rundown of an endurance runner’s typical diet and a look at how you can translate these concepts into your everyday life.
How Much Do Marathoners Need to Eat?
First, it’s important to understand that no two bodies are alike. Every runner has different training demands and nutritional needs, so what may work for one person may not work for another. But there are some general principles that most marathoners follow when it comes to diet.
Generally, runners spend about four months training for a marathon. During that time, they’ll run several times a week, alternating between short-, middle- and long-distance runs. Logging all those miles requires runners to fuel up, and nutrient-rich foods are the best energy sources.
“When you start training for a marathon, it’s important to eat more than you normally would, since you’ll be burning more calories,” said Gillian Arathuzik, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian at Lahey Outpatient Center, Danvers.
Eating more doesn’t mean eating poorly, Arathuzik stressed. Your daily calorie requirements when you’re training for a marathon will be different depending on your weight, height and your level of activity — you can get a good estimate of how many calories you’re burning in a given bout of exercise using an online calculator. Let’s say you normally burn 2,200 calories a day at rest, and your training adds an extra 750 calories a day to that. With these hypothetical figures, you’d need to eat at least 2,950 calories per day to maintain your normal body weight and replenish your muscle glycogen stores, a form of stored carbohydrates that your body uses for higher-intensity activity.
Carbs, Protein and Meal Timing
Runners need plenty of carbohydrates to fill those depleted glycogen stores back up before their next workout. Runners can get this fuel from whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, potatoes, beans, lentils and dairy products like milk and yogurt. Complex carbohydrates are better than refined and processed ones, which cause blood sugar to spike. Good sources of complex carbs include whole-grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa and barley. And don’t forget about protein, which helps repair damaged tissue.
“Depending on a runner’s dietary restrictions, good sources of protein include poultry breast, fish, lean meats, eggs and dairy products like yogurt and even cheese, despite the higher fat content. For vegans or vegetarians, soy based products, such as tofu and tempeh, are good options,” says Arathuzik. “Protein is really important for rebuilding muscle, and if you’re training for a marathon, you need to eat a balanced diet that emphasizes healthy sources of carbs, proteins and fat. This will help you maintain the energy you need to train and compete at your best during the race.”
Meal timing is another crucial part of nutrition for athletes. On training days, runners should have some complex carbs and protein before their workout. On long runs, they should have some easy-to-digest carb sources like raisins, gels or chews on hand, which provide an additional source of carbohydrates and help replenish glycogen. It’s also important to stay hydrated during a long run. Bring adequate fluids — diluted Gatorade, or another electrolyte drink, and water are both important to have with you.
Foods that are high in fiber can keep you fuller longer, but certain high-fiber foods can cause gastrointestinal issues in some people. Trial and error can help you determine which foods are more likely to irritate your stomach, so you can limit them and choose other food sources.
Within an hour after a run, eat a balanced meal with some healthy carbs and protein. Some great post-run meals include a chicken or turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread, a veggie omelette with multigrain toast or a salad topped with whole grains and roasted salmon or chicken. If you don’t have time for a full, sit-down meal, try a shake with fruit and protein powder or an apple with some nut butter.
The Takeaway: Intelligent Eating
What about the rest of us who aren’t marathoners and might not need to follow this exact regimen for health or performance? There are a few good lessons we can take away from how marathoners eat.
For one, focus on eating the right carbs. Complex, nutrient-dense carb sources from whole grains, fruit, milk and yogurt are much better for you than refined alternatives. Lean proteins are also better for your diet than higher-fat cuts of red meat and pork. Runners consume fat strategically, so healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and limited amounts of full-fat dairy like milk, yogurt and cheese can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. This can help to control sugar cravings and keep you fuller for longer.
What you eat plays an important role in your performance, whether or not you ever intend on running 26.2 miles. Food is fuel, and it can give you the energy you need to be your best at school, work and at home. Incorporating the intelligence and care that marathoners bring to their diet can only help you improve your long-term health.
Talk to a physician about how you can improve your diet to perform at your best, day-in and day-out.