Sports Nutrition: The Best Foods for the Marathon
Carbo-loading: Important or not?
Q: I'm doing my first marathoner this winter and I've heard so much about the carbo-loading dinners everyone has the night before the race. Are these as important as everyone suggests? And if they are, what are the best foods for me to eat?
-Glenn Harbor, San Jose, California
A: Yes, carbohydrate-loading before a marathon is important so that your muscles are fully fueled with carbs (called muscles glycogen). Your muscles will rely on this glycogen for fuel during the marathon. Glycogen depletion—also known as “hitting the wall” — is associated with fatigue. Needless to say, not a lot of fun.
I suggest you carbo-load every day during your training. Eat cereal and whole grain bagels for breakfast. For lunch, try sandwiches made on hearty whole grain bread. Snacks can be dried fruits, flavored yogurt and granola. Dinners should be based on pasta, potato, rice and other grains as well as lot of veggies. You can say this same diet the week before the marathon.
I recommend that you run very (if at all) the two days pre-marathon. This gives your muscles the time they need (48 hours) to become fully loaded with carbohydrates.
On the morning of the marathon, enjoy an easy-to-digest pre-race breakfast (300-600 calories, as tolerated) of tried-and-true foods, such as bagel + peanut butter, oatmeal+ raisins, energy bars + banana. This will fuel your muscles and also boost your blood glucose, which fuels your brain. You’ll need a well-fueled brain to have the mental energy you need to get through the 26.2 miles.
Finally, during the marathon, you should fuel with about 200-350 calories per hour (after the first hour), as tolerated. (The faster you run, the less you are likely to consume.) You should have practiced this fueling during training, so you know which foods and fluids work and those that don’t. Some popular choices include: sports drink (50 calories/8 ounces), gels (100 calories/packet) and gummi candy (100 calories for 7 gummi bears).
Sports drinks or Gels?
Q: I have trouble ingesting energy gels during a marathon. Is drinking a sports drink such as Gatorade or PowerAde just as good?
-Joseph Camp, St. Paul, Minnesota
A: Yes, sports drinks are just as good as gels--if not better. Here’s why:
During a marathon, your body needs carbs and water. A sports drink supplies that in a concentration that enhances the absorption of the carbs so they can quickly get absorbed and used for fuel. On the other hand, a gel supplies concentrated carbs that you need to dilute with water to optimize absorption. Some runners fail to drink enough water with gels and end up with a stomach ache, diarrhea or dehydration because they fail to drink enough water along with each gel (16-ounces of water per 100 calories of gel).
Commercial sports candies, gels, bars and drinks are convenient, but not necessary. I recommend you experiment with a variety of foods and fluids to learn what works best for your body (and also to figure out how to carry them with you during the race). Also check out your marathon’s website to learn which products will be available and train with them.
Q: Every time I do a marathon, I put on weight during my final week’s taper. I don't eat differently, but always put on four or five extra pounds that I don't want.
What can I do?
-Frank Cordera, Tempe, Arizona
A: Don’t do anything at all. You are supposed to gain weight before a marathon. It’s a good thing. That’s because for each one ounce of carbohydrate you store in your muscles as glycogen, you also store about three ounces of water. Gaining weight means you are well carbo-loaded. The water-weight gets released during the marathon, and helps provide water to replace sweat losses.
I advise you worry less about weight gain, and simply listen to your body’s appetite in the week before the marathon. Once your muscles are carbo-loaded (this can take two days), you’ll likely feel less hungry and have little desire to eat too many calories that contribute to fat-gain.
Carbo-loading for a half
Q: I have never run a marathon, but of course heard about carbohydrate-loading. I’m doing my first half marathon in Dallas this spring and wondering whether there are there any benefits to carbohydrate-loading before a half marathon?
-John Lucas, Plano, Texas
A: Yes there is a very real benefit. But we need to define what “carbo-loading” means. Here’s my take: Rest your muscles before the half-marathon by taking a few days off from running. This allows your muscles enough time (24-48 hours) to become fully fueled. Then, simply eat carb-based foods at every meal so you are “carbo-loading” every day. (I define “carbo-loading” as eating a carb-based diet.) If you do this, you’ll be fueled and ready for your half marathon. Good luck.
Pizza lover’s lament
Q: My final pre-race meal is always the same: Pizza. I love pizza before a marathon, but I tend to feel sluggish in the morning. Is pizza a good choice or should I try something else?
-Nancy Anne Franklin, San Diego, California
A: It depends. If you inhale a high-fat pizza the night before the race, it’s perfectly understandable why you feel sluggish the next morning. High-fat foods not only sit longer in the stomach, but they also fail to fuel your muscles. You are fat-loading, not carbohydrate-loading. Pizza with extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage and other greasy meats (on the high-fat pizza) just fill the stomach and abate your hunger. Not a good pre-race meal.
But, if you want to enjoy pizza the night before a race, you can eat healthy. I recommend you choose thick-crusted pizza with veggie toppings (and preferably a whole-wheat crust). If the pizza is a bit greasy, use a napkin to blot off the grease, so you can fill-up on carbs, not fat. You might also consider trading your pre-race pizza for a pasta dinner (spaghetti with tomato sauce and a few meatballs, for protein).
For more detailed information, please refer to Nancy Clark’s “Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions” or visit Nancy Clark's websites at: www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com