Q&A: Marathon Nutrition Explained

Marathon nutrition can be daunting.  It is hard to know what to eat and when to get the best out of our training.  Members of the Run Mummy Run community asked our resident dietitian Alex Cook their burning questions about marathon nutrition and fuelling….

Alex is a sports and clinical dietitian, she works for herself and for the online Fitness and Nutrition company Dupl (www.Dupl.me).  She loves nothing more than talking running and nutrition. Alex has a passion for helping everyone from beginners to advanced athletes achieve positive changes in their daily lives as well as achieve their goals. As a runner herself, and having two children and a career, she understands how easily daily life can impact health, fitness and food choices.

Q   I’m currently training for VLM and the main problem I am having is with breakfast. I am so used to fasted training, that I physically struggle with eating breakfast in the morning. I tend to eat my dinner quite late at night (around 10pm, due to busy schedule) so when I get up the next morning, I’m not actually hungry. I have been forcing myself to eat breakfast but in all honesty I do not enjoy it and feel quite sluggish afterwards. I don’t enjoy porridge first thing either!  Could I replace breakfast with a special drink to provide the carbohydrate needs, or do I just need to suck it up in forcing myself to eat?

A  This is  a common problem that many of my clients come to me with. Sometimes running fasted is not a bad thing as it helps train the body to become a bit more “fat adapted”. If you are struggling I tend to advise trying a drink (smoothie) that I normally recommend for recovery –  milk, fruit and about 20g of oats. It is faster to digest and more palatable if you aren’t a breakfast person. Make sure that you are fuelling well and hydrating during your runs and you should be good to go

Q  I am running the Paris marathon soon. What is best to eat the week before the race? Do I need to carb down for a few days at beginning of week then carb up say from Thursday?

A  The advice for carb loading before a marathon is very different these days. Gone are the days of depleting your carb stores, running on low and then super compensating for a few days before the event to maximise you glycogen stores. What is best is to carry on eating your high carb intake the week running up to the event and the fact that you are tapering (reducing your training) should mean your glycogen stores become nice and replenished ready for the big day. So, normal diet (ideally higher carb than a sedentary person ) and reduced training load.

Q What are the best foods to eat on a rest day after a long slow run? I am always ravenous the day after a long slow run and temptation often gets the better of me!

A  I tend to say eat what your body is telling you. You will have depleted glycogen stores so make sure you have three good meals, plenty of hydration and I say a small treat to pat yourself on the back.

Q What are some good post run foods and snacks to help recovery? That’s the one part of my marathon training I’m really struggling with. I am quite big and am being careful with food choices. I’m not dieting whilst I’m training but I am starving after a run and want to make good decisions!

A Straight after a long run our appetites tends to be low. This is when we need re-fuel the most, so it is tricky. I always reach for 350-500mls of milk with a banana and then make sure I have a good meal with the next few hours.

Q  What are the best fuelling options for after work/before tea runs? I tend to eat a large salad with ham and egg for lunch at 1pm and then try to fit in a run after work – I need a snack but will still want my evening meal later on.

A  If you are opting for a carb free lunch, I would suggest eating some oatcakes and peanut butter, or a couple of handfuls of nuts and dried fruit pre-run.  Also, cereal bars are a handy go to if you need a quick pre-run pick me up.

Q  Would I be better to have carbs at lunch on the days I want to run? I tend not too out of habit as I can feel sluggish in an afternoon.

A  I would if I was you yes.  You don’t have to over do it…one portion of rice is only 3 tbsp!

Q I have been following the principles of eating high fat, high protein most of the time, and carbs only after exercise since January. I trained for and ran a half marathon in this time with a really big improvement in my pace. Is it wise to continue this once I get into marathon training? Is it possible to run a marathon on high fat high protein rather than carb-loading?

A There is a lot out there about HFLC. I think the best advice is not to be an extremist. If you have made the choice to follow low carb, I would say it’s best to use them before and after your training. For example, if you are doing your long run in the morning have porridge before you go and then when you get back a good carb dense meal to make sure you glycogen stores are replenished. There is no evidence that HFLC is of benefit to athletes but there are years and years of research that shows carbs improve performance. You don’t have to go “high carb” but use them smartly and don’t shy away from them. they are not the enemy if you follow this rule and ensure they are wholegrain, unrefined carbs

Q  Are there any proven results that consuming protein straight after exercise is beneficial? There are such conflicting stories about it.

A  There are conflicting stories you are correct! With endurance, the most important nutrient to focus on post run is carbohydrate. There is evidence that if we take 20g protein with carbs it will aid the uptake of glycogen into the muscles for storage. That is why milk is such a good post exercise snack!

Q Are there any go-to carb dense meals you’d recommend for post-long run?

A  I would just recommend eating something you think you can tolerate. I love a jacket potato with tuna or baked beans (and cheese!) it feels really comforting after a long run and packed with the needed carbs and protein.

Q  My question was what can I use instead of jelly babies for long runs? I’ve just started running further but tried sweets and didn’t like the after taste.

A  Yes the sweet after taste can take some getting used to. In all honesty, you will be pushed to find anything that does not leave a taste in your mouth unless it is savoury. Even bananas leave an after taste. Do you take water on your runs to wash it down?

Q  How can I manage the increase in my appetite from the additional training pressures of marathon running? How can I feel full without over-indulging?

A  There are ways we can feel full without over indulging. Firstly making sure you eat three proper meals a day…no skipping…they are a priority! Secondly making sure you have healthy snacks with you wherever you are (I always make sure I have a cereal bar or nuts and fruit in my hand bag as I get hungry every 2 hours). Thirdly, making sure you are well hydrated. Lastly, having a super large portion of salad or veg with your meals will help keep you full because of the fibre. Protein at each meal as well (chicken, fish, eggs, pulses) and incorporating protein in snacks (nuts for example or cottage cheese with oatcakes).

Q What are your thoughts on beetroot? I don’t like the juice but am eating it daily in salads in the hope it will improve my endurance over longer distances!

A The active ingredient is nitrate. In short, a study found that beetroot juice containing 8mmol of nitrate (2 concentrated 70mls beetroot shots) was effective in improving efficiency and performance. People tend to take for a few days leading up to competition and then 2-3 hours before competition (for acute response). I would say however that for amateur runners the benefits won’t be that noticeable as there are so many other things you can do to make you run better. You will see that some sports brands do nitrate gels which are designed to do the same thing.

If you would like to hear more from Alex Cook come to our Run Mummy Run Spring in her Step event.  We  have teamed up with Running Adventures again for this exciting event for our Run Mummy Run members.  Join us for this fantastic afternoon of inspirational talks, running advice and socialising.  Don’t miss out.  Book now! 

Alex’s credentials:
• Sports Science BSc (Hon), University of Birmingham, Pg.Dip RD Nutrition & Dietetics, Edinburgh University
• Competitive distance runner – won the Endurance Life Exmoor Marathon, beating the course record by 14 minutes!
• Writes for Athletics Weekly, Running Fitness, Fit & Well, Woman Magazine and Trail Running

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