The Best Foods To Eat Before Running a Marathon

May 24, 2023 | Sports & Fitness, Nutrition | 1 comment

A photo of a man running a marathon through a sunny city street.

Introduction To Marathon Nutrition

As every marathon runner knows, the preparation before the race is crucial. A key part of this preparation is giving the body the correct fuels. Getting the nutrition correct during the weeks before the race can help to get your body in optimum condition for the task ahead.

Exercise metabolism requires carbohydrates, with the primary sources being muscle glycogen, and circulating volumes of glucose and lactate. Exercise increases glycogen utilisation throughout the whole body, and as exercise intensity increases, the breakdown of glycogen in the liver to maintain blood glucose concentrations becomes increasingly important. [1] [2]

A photo of two friends running a marathon, with the runner on the left looking happy and comfortable, supporting his friend on the right who looks exhausted.
Nutrition Is A Key Part of Marathon Preparation, And Can Make A Big Difference In The Second Half of The Race

Total or near-total depletion of the glycogen reserves is the cause of athletes ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’ – the state in which the body enters a state of sudden and extreme fatigue, as it begins to try and burn fat as a backup fuel source. [3]

Typically, such situations can occur with around 6 miles (10km) remaining in the marathon. Runners in countries using the metric system will often discuss ‘the last 10k‘ as a defining sub-section of the main event. [4]

Our guide to marathon nutrition can help you ensure your body is up to the challenge ahead.

What to Eat Before Running a Marathon: A Guide to Marathon Prep

Pre-marathon nutrition can be loosely divided in to three distinct phases. These phases are the training stage in the weeks before the race, the day before the race, and the morning of the marathon itself. Each of these phases has different nutritional requirements, and foods that are suitable during training can be the worst foods to have on the day of the run. Thus, it is important to discuss each of these stages individually to help runners select suitable meal options.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the training stage, and the importance of carbohydrates in this phase.

The Importance of Carbohydrates In Marathon Training

To prevent race-ruining bonks and fatigue, diets aiming to maximise muscle glycogen stores ahead of the race were popularised in the 1970s. Studies such as Jan Karlsson’s ‘Diet, muscle glycogen, and endurance performance‘ were influential, as they were the first to link a high carbohydrate diet during the training period with performance benefits for endurance athletes on race day.

More specifically, such research showed that a carbohydrate rich diet in training led to higher muscle glycogen stores on the day of the race, which directly correlated with improved stamina levels late into long distance races. The techniques Karlsson outlined offered benefits to athletes competing in marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons. [5]

marathon running carbohydrates glycogen stamina
Dietary Carbohydrates Fill The Body’s Glycogen Stores, Which Give You More Fuel For The Last 6 miles / 10km of A Marathon

The effects of high muscle glycogen are not a superpower, with Karlsson’s study noting that there does not seem to be any improvement to early race running speeds among athletes who had supercompensated muscle glycogen levels. Indeed, more recent research has revealed that in shorter form races where glycogen stores are not reduced to near-depletion levels, higher muscle glycogen levels may not offer any significant performance benefit to trained runners. [5] [6]

Where the benefits of carbohydrate loading really shine through however, is in the latter half of long endurance races, and the practice may postpone fatigue by around 20% in events lasting more than 90 minutes. Indeed, a 2018 study on long distance cyclists found that one of the most pronounced benefits for athletes following a high carbohydrate diet was an improved ability for late-race breakaways in long distance cycling races. [7] [8]

Therefore, full muscle glycogen stores are analogous to a full fuel tank in a racecar – it wouldn’t guarantee that you’d drive any better (or faster), but it would give you the opportunity to go further.

A photo of a woman pausing for breath on a hillside during marathon training.
Carbohydrate Intake Can Keep Glycogen Stores High During Marathon Preparation, Leading To Better Training Sessions

It is important to remember however, it is not only on raceday that a marathon runner needs ample glycogen stores. Training while chronically glycogen depleted increases circulating stress hormones including cortisol, and causes disturbances in several measures of immune function, including the volume of circulating leukocytes. These changes can increase an individual’s susceptibility to overtraining, and prevent the athlete receiving the full benefits of the training session. [9]

There has been discussion in recent years about the possibility of a ketogenic diet providing a competative edge compared to the traditional focus of maximising glycogen stores through carbohydrate intake. Such diets flip conventional marathon preparation on it’s head, and comprise of a low carbohydrate intake combined with high dietary fat intake. The goal of this is to enhance muscle fat oxidation, and there is strong evidence that 3–4 weeks, and possibly just 5–10 days of adherence to such a diet can double exercise fat use. [10]

The benefits of such a diet however, may be highly variable and will depend on the individual and their own normal diet and metabolic function. If the athlete already adheres to a low carbohydrate diet, then this may be a suitable option rather than trying to overhaul the diet during training just to get more carbohydrates. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary. Note however, that when done incorrectly, a low carbohydrate/high fat diet during marathon preparation will almost certainly negatively impact performance due to a reduction in available glycogen stores.

A three week diet of low carbohydrates and high in fats during training revealed markedly reduce performance levels on race day in a 2016 study of top level race walkers. The findings of the study were clear that athletes who had been on a high carbohydrate diet for the three weeks prior to the race were rewarded with improved race outcomes. As we mentioned, glycogen stores are also important during training, and it was noted that the athletes improved performance was linked to higher quality practice sessions, and an improved ability for the body to to integrate the benefits of training. [11]

Nutrition For Marathon Training – Four Weeks Before The Race

We have now established that carbohydrates support body glycogen stores, and therefore make a good option in the diet during training ahead of the race. We will now address which carbohydrates to have, when to have them, and have a look at different carbo-loading techniques. Carbo-loading is common amongst marathon runners, with one survey finding that around 66% of marathon finishers carbo-loaded in some way before the race. [12]

When most people think of carbohydrates, foods that may spring to mind are pasta, potatoes, and pizzas. Whilst it’s true that foods such as wholemeal pasta can play a role in the training phase, eating fries or takeaway pizzas every night during training is likely to have a detrimental effect. A healthy diet with average carbohydrate intake is likely to do more good at this stage than an unhealthy diet full of poor quality carbohydrates and fats.

As you approach the week before the race, ensure high quality carbohydrates are part of your diet. Good carbohydrate options to boost glycogen levels are brown rice, sweet potatoes, cooked carrots, wholegrain porridge/oatmeal, natural yoghurt, and bananas.

A chart detailing some of the best foods to have to boost glycogen ahead of a marathon. These good carbohydrate sources include brown rice, sweet potatoes, cooked carrots, pasta and spaghetti, potatoes, bananas and banana smoothies, probiotic natural yoghurt, bagels with peanut butter, wholegrain porridge or oatmeal, and sandwiches.
A Selection of The Best Foods To Boost Glycogen Levels Ahead of A Marathon

When considering portions and meal size, the key is to select healthy and nutritious carbohydrate rich foods that are able to provide around 5g to 12g of carbohydrates per kilogram of the athlete’s body weight. The perfect amount in this range will vary between athletes and their activity levels. The three-day carbo-loading programme typically advises that 85-90% of the total daily calorie intake should be from carbhohydrates for three days before the race.

Aside from that three day window, it’s important not to hyperfocus in on carbohydrates during marathon training. Fruits, vegetables, and ample protein intake during the weeks of training are also required to support preparation and recovery. Steak, chicken, salmon, lentils all help to provide good protein sources to support muscles and tissues. Furthermore, fresh fruit intake after exercise provides anti-inflammatory properties, and has been shown to enhance vascular function. [11]

Over the years, athletes have used many different carbo-loading methods in attempt to maximise muscle glycogen ahead of a race. Some of these methods involve deliberately depleting glycogen stores the week before the run with a low carbohydrate diet, before a carbohydrate binge during the last three days in an attempt to trick the body into overcompensating for the past deficit. This model is based on outmoded scientific theory, and more recent research analysing biospys of muscle fibres from carbo-loaded athletes suggests that the deficit period may be unnecessary at best, and even potentially harmful.

Indeed, modern data suggests that just a single day of eating sufficient amounts of high quality carbohydrates combined with physical inactivity can maximise muscle glycogen levels. Muscle glycogen stores are not infinite, and it seems that in trained athletes, adding extra days to the carbo-loading program does not provide a significant increase in glycogen levels. [12]

A photo of brown rice, eggs, courgettes, and fresh herbs on a dinner plate.
Carbohydrates Such As Brown Rice Can Help Boost The Bodies Glycogen Stores Before A Marathon

A similar hard ceiling also applies when we consider how much carbohydrate should be eaten before a marathon. Research has found that athletes increasing their carbohydrate intake from 10g per kg to almost 13g per kg received no further benefit to endurance sport performance, despite slightly increased muscle glycogen levels. [13]

To explain why the marginally higher glycogen stores don’t result in better performance, an explantation can perhaps be found in the fact that glycogen storage is also associated with weight gain. More precisely, one extra gram of glycogen results in three grams extra weight, due to water retention. For some athletes, this extra weight may not be desirable and could impair race performance.

A balance is therefore the best way to handle the carbohydrate intake before the race, and carbohydrate intake should match activity levels. In the week before the race, as you begin to spend less time running, you can lower your carbohydrate intake accordingly. If you are feeling bloated or tired after eating, this is a sign your portions are too large and that you can scale back the portions.

Can Probiotics Relieve Marathon Related Digestive Issues?

A thorn in the marathon runners’ side is the dreaded digestive issues that can arise during the race. Recent data suggests that around 27% of long distance runners experience some degree of disruptive gastrointestinal symptoms during a marathon, which can derail a race in severe cases. [14]

When we consider strategies on how to prevent digestive issues during the marathon, one method may involve planning ahead in the weeks before the race. Interestingly, there is growing evidence that the consumption of probiotics during the training phase before the race can reduce the likelihood and severity of gastrointestinal symptoms during the marathon.

A photo of a female runner holding her abdomen in pain.
Intestinal Issues Can Strike During A Marathon Due To A Wide Range of Causes, Inlcuding Increased Intestinal Permiability

Four weeks of supplementation with probiotics was able to reduce GI symptoms for marathon runners in a 2019 study. Interestingly, participants in this study taking the probiotics maintained higher running speeds in the latter stages of the marathon compared to the placebo group. The probiotic bacteria strains used in the study were Lactobacillus acidophilus (strains CUL60 and CUL21), Bifidobacterium bifidum (strain CUL20), and Bifidobacterium animalis subs p. Lactis (CUL34). [15]

These results were backed up in 2021, when a study found that supplementation with the probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum (strain PS128) improved the recovery time of athletes running half-marathons. [16]

The intestinal microflora is a complex, interconnected system, and it is thought that there could be several mechanisms at play to explain these effects. The probiotic supplementation can help maintain normal levels of intestinal permiability – the rate at which the contents of the intestines can be absorbed into the body. [17]

a photo of a bowl of natural yoghurt and
Probiotic Supplementation Ahead of a Marathon May Reduce The Likelihood and Severity of Digestive Issues During The Race

Half an hour or more of running at 80% of peak oxygen uptake significantly increases luminal permeability in the intestines of athletes, and this could be one of the main causes of gastrointestinal problems during running. [18]

Furthermore, the probiotics could help to reduce damage to the intestinal muscosa, and attenuate exercise triggered immunological responses. Compromised function to the intestinal barrier may produce an inflammatory response, and initiate a cytokine cascade that could contribute to gastrointestinal distress during and after running. [19] [17]

Another theory suggests that probiotics may also protect against damage caused by anti-inflammatory medications that are often taken by long distance athletes and marathon runners. It is known that some medications can disrupt the intestinal microbiome, and probiotic supplementation may serve to protect against damage to good bacteria for athletes regularly using painkillers. [17]

Probiotics don’t agree with everyone’s systems, so be sure to test out your own reaction to regular probiotic intake before your training begins properly.

What To Eat The Day Before A Marathon

It is best practice to stick with meals that you know agree with your system on the day and night before the race. it is not wise to risk experimenting with a new or exotic food with less than 24 hours ahead of the starting gun firing. You’ll have to try that pickled eel pâté another day.

Secondly, small and regular meals throughout the day offer a better way of eating on this preparation day than a few very large meals. Try to keep meals filling yet not too heavy. This means avoiding fried foods, reducing dairy, limiting fibrous vegetables, and eliminating hard to digest grains.

Turn Down An Invitation To The ‘Pasta Party’!

When considering what to have for dinner on the night before a marathon, we should first look at a common theme amongst amateur runners. Many casual runners habitually have a ‘Pasta Party’ on the night before a marathon. This colloquial term refers to athletes enoying a large pasta meal together with a view to providing last minute carbohydrate fuel. The Boston Marathon even hosts an official pasta dinner on the night before the race. Participating in a ‘Pasta Party’ however, may be adding minutes to your finish time.

A photo of a bowl of tomato pasta in front of a red clock displaying the time of 10pm.
Skip The Pasta Party On The Night Before a Marathon

Whilst eating pasta on the eve of the race may not cause issue for an amateur racer, or a couple of friends jogging the course dressed as Kermit the Frog and Snoopy, it should be noted that almost no elite long distance runners will opt for a large pasta dinner this close to the race.

The reason for this is that full digestion of food takes from 10 to 72 hours depending on the person, and overloading on a heavy carbohydrate meal within 12-18 hours of the race can cause you to show up at the starting line feeling tired, groggy, and bloated. [20]

Also note that whilst wholegrains provide a better option than refined grains during training, refined grains contain less fibre and are digested faster, and thus are more suitable for a pre-marathon dinner.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that (most) pasta is made from wheat flour. Large intakes of wheat are associated with increased markers of inflammation. Wheat consumption can also lead to increased intestinal permeability, which as we discussed in the previous section, could increase the likelihood of digestive issues during the race. [21]

For those looking for a competitive edge, heavy wheat based carbohydrate dinners such as pasta, lasange, or pizza should also be avoided the night before the race. If starches are to be consumed, sweet potatoes and brown rice make a better fuel to prepare you for the next day’s physical test.

Pre Marathon Breakfast Tips

On the day of the race, the very first thing to do is to ensure you wake up with enough time to digest the breakfast properly. Eat breakfast at least 90-120 minutes before the start of the race. You do not want energy being diverted towards digestion whilst running, and undigested food matter remaining in the stomach is often responsible for mid-race gastrointestinal issues.

A photo of a hand holding a small clock with the time of 7am, with breakfast of oatmeal and fruit on a table in the background.
Ensure You Give Yourself At Least 90 Minutes For Breakfast To Digest Before The Race Starts

Furthermore, ingestion of carbohydrates within 45 minutes of starting exercise may actually impair performance, and cause the runner to reach exhaustion faster than normal. This effect is produced by transient hyperglycaemia and hyperinsulinaemia following the ingestion of carbohydrates, which is often followed by a rapid decline in blood glucose 15–30 minutes after the onset of exercise. [22] [23]

As with the rules for the day before the run, it is best practice to opt for a breakfast you know agrees with you. If you know oats are a source of intestinal issues for you, then avoid them and go for an option that will allow you to focus on more your race preparation and having a great run.

Foods To Eat (And Avoid) Before A Marathon

When it comes to choosing your pre-marathon breakfast, good foods to eat before a marathon are fruits such as apples and bananas, wholemeal toast topped with natural honey, or a peanut butter bagel. Wholemeal porridge or oatmeal is one of the most popular options for breakfast for endurance athletes, due to the slow release carbohydrates provided by the oats.

What To Eat For Breakfast Before A Marathon

A graph detailing the good and bad foods to have before a marathon. On the left hand side is the avoid column with potatoes, white bread, pasta, rice, cornflakes, and avocados. On the right hand side is the good column, with bananas, apples, peanut butter bagels, green tea, natural honey wholemeal toast, and wholegrain porridge or oatmeal. The graph has a closing line recomending that the runner eats at least 90 to 120 minutes before the race to allow food to digest properly.
Foods To Have and Foods To Avoid For Breakfast on the Day of the Marathon

Oats are high in both soluble and insoluble fibre, and can lead to bloating in some individuals. As such, oats may not suit all runners, especially ones with existing oat digestion issues or who are susceptible to intestinal issues while running.

Whilst carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes, cornflakes, and rice play a key role in supporting endurance race training, they do not make a good option on the morning of the race. Carbohydrate pre-fuelling with high-glycaemic foods should be avoided on the morning of the event, as they usually leave an individual feeling bloated, groggy and ready for a nap – not the best condition to be in as you take your place on the starting line!

Importantly however, low-glycaemic carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread and porridge can help give a last minute boost to your glycogen stores.

Indeed, research has revealed that ingestion of light carbohydrate meals 3–4 hours before exercise leads to increases in liver and muscle glycogen, and enhances subsequent endurance exercise performance. The effects of carbohydrate ingestion on blood glucose and carbohydrate oxidation during exercise persist for at least 6 hours after ingestion. [24]

A photo of a bowl of porridge with blueberries and banana.
Bananas and Porridge Is A Popular Breakfast For Marathon Runners Due To The Slow Release Energy Provided By Oats

Avocados are currently a very popular as a breakfast food in the Western world. The many health benefits provided by avocados indeed make them a great option for day to day living. However, as avocados are high in fat and fibre, they are slow to digest and make a poor option on the morning of a marathon or long distance run.

A caffeinated hot drink is also fine on the day of the race, though green tea offers a superior option to coffee in this case.

Coffee provides higher rates of caffeine compared to green tea, and thus is more likely to produce a ‘caffeine crash’ later down the line. Caffeine is a short lived stimulant, and can lead to rebound tiredness around 5-7 hours after consumption. Remember, you are going to be needing the energy boost most during the latter stages of the race, not at the start. [25]

More significantly, two cups of coffee also provides enough caffeine to reduce myocardial blood flow during exercise. This is highly undesirable during a marathon, and especially so if the race takes place during hot weather. [26] [27]

A photo of a cup of coffee and a cup of green tea next to each other on a wooden table. There are various fruits around the table including lemons and apples, indicating a breakfast.
Green Tea Is A Better Option Than Coffee On The Morning of A Marathon

Coffee also contains a wide range of compounds that stimulates intestinal motility, creating a laxative effect. This makes coffee best avoided by runners susceptible to getting an upset stomach or ‘the trots’ during their races.

The many polyphenols, more commonly known as tannins, in tea may also be able to assist exercise performance, with research revealing athletes who consume oolong tea showing significantly reduced plasma levels of malondialdehyde (a marker of oxidative stress) after exercise. Teas high in theaflavins also seem to reduce muscle pain levels caused by long periods of high intensity exercise. [28] [29]

A close up photo of dried Cloves (Syzygium Aromaticum) on a wooden spoon.
Cloves (Syzygium Aromaticum) Before The Race Can Help Relieve Digestive Issues Caused By Pre-Race Nervousness

If pre-race nervousness is playing havoc with your digestive system (we’ve all been there) it can help to take ground Cloves or Clove essential oil after breakfast. Note, cloves here refers to Syzygium aromaticum, not garlic.

Cloves have anti-inflammatory and local anaesthetic properties, and some athletes find that they can help to soothe their digestive system before the race. Some research even suggests that ingestion of cloves also improves bloodflow to the heart, though more thorough research is needed on this matter, and how it may relate to elite level sport. [30] [31]

Cloves tend to slow down intestinal motility, and thus can help relieve loose bowel movements associated with nervous energy. Therefore, if you do decide to have some, it’s probably best to have them after you’ve been to the loo!

Conclusion

Everybody has a different metabolism and digestive system, and thus the perfect marathon nutrition program must be tailored towards getting the best out of each individual. Whilst the science and evidence we have discussed in this article can point runners in the right direction, there are always exceptions to every nutritional ‘rule’, and there truly is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to nutrition before a big race.

A photo of a woman in sportswear preparing a healthy breakfast of fresh fruits.
The Perfect Marathon Nutrition Program Is Ultimately One That Best Suits The Athlete

For an example of this, we can look at how swimmer Michael Phelps developed a custom diet including pizzas and pancakes to consume 8000-10,000 calories per day, which enabled him to dominate Olympic Swimming. Similarly, we can look how Australian Cricketer Peter Siddle maintains a long career at the top of his profession eating between 15 to 20 bananas every day. The diet that suits one athlete may not suit another, and so each runner must experiment to find the best marathon nutrition programme for them.

Whatever foods you decide to eat, make sure to simulate your race day eating schedule at some point in your training program. Learn which foods agree with you, and find the balance that works best with your own body by testing different foods in training. Don’t leave anything to chance on race day. It is good practice to practice – and this is true for our eating habits too.


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Written by Keymer Health

24th May, 2023

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