Nutrition and hydration strategies

I’m running a marathon, should I eat more, less or differently?

Just because you’re running the Virgin Money London Marathon it doesn’t mean you have to swap that glass of Friday night vino for two litres of water or knock your take-aways on the head and instead munch on mountains of pasta. Depending on your marathon motivations, your personal health aspirations, and your current nutritional choices there might be a few things you want to change, drop or add in to the way you eat and drink to help you train consistently and perform better on Race Day.

The food you eat fuels the running that you do and so it’s important to consider what you eat and when according to your training for the week or a specific day. Eating smart to match your training needs will help you train better and recover stronger. For example, let’s say one of your runs is an early morning four miler at 06:00. It’s really not that important (or indeed preferable) to get up two hours before and have a pre-run breakfast. Phew! The likelihood is that you’ll peel yourself out of bed and head straight out of the door. So long as you’ve fuelled and hydrated the day, and especially the evening before, you’ll find that a glass of water before you head out will be fine to get you through. In fact, running in a ‘fasted’ state can even help your body adapt to using stored fuel for energy so this can be a good thing. However, the same relaxed approach won’t work for a longer workout, especially your all-important long run. This is where a little planning and common sense comes in.

Carbohydrates and proteins are important to support training and Race Day so pay particular attention to your meal the night before a long training run if you’re doing it in the morning. This can be topped up with breakfast a couple of hours before you head out and 120-150ml of water to ensure you’re still hydrated. If you typically don’t pay much attention to making healthy nutritional choices every day then now is the time to cut back on on the buns, biscuits and empty foods and stock up on rich, nutritious, fresh, non-processed foods than will help your running rather than hinder it.

Although there are recommendations for how much to eat and drink in training and in racing, personal trial and retrial is the preferred way to find out what works the best for you. Now is the time to do this in training and especially on your long runs. In simple terms this means finding something you can eat and drink in training that will help you stay fuelled and hydrated over a prolonged amount of time. If you typically wouldn’t go four or five hours without a snack break or meal then you definitely need to consider how you’re going to fuel yourself when running for that duration or longer.

Are you that runner who carries a drinks holster ‘bat-belt’ style around your waist laden with litres of fluids or an armory of sports gels, beans and bars – and you’re just heading out for a few miles? If that’s you then it’s great you’re thinking things through but you could be overdoing it slightly. For runs of under 60 minutes you really don’t need anything, your body will cope, for runs of 60 to 90 minutes you might benefit from some fluids and possibly energy and/or electrolytes and for runs of over 90 minutes and especially over two hours it’s certainly time to consider what fluids and forms of energy you’ll carry with you to keep you trucking. 

In training it’s a great time to practise what you’ll eat the evening before the race, the morning of the race and during the race itself. In training, particularly before long training runs and practice races you can play with types and quantities of foods and find out what works for you. What I really mean here is that you’ll find out what helps your stomach feel settled, what helps you not need the loo every 20 minutes before the run and is likely to make you stop during it, as well as keeps your energy levels up for as long as possible. 

To try things out in training between now and Race Day consider the timings, content and quantity of your evening meal and pre long run breakfast, carry a drinks bottle with you when you run and sip from it, especially if you’re thirsty. Take some fuel with you, this should be something portable and palatable, it could be sports-specific products such as gels or beans but could also be fig rolls, home-made energy bars, a handful of nuts or dried fruit. Finding out what works for you is the key. It’s unlikely that you’ll need to carry a picnic hamper laden with scotch eggs and sandwiches, in fact, you’ll probably find that you can consume less than you think.

Always consider what nutrition and hydration is available on Race Day (at the Virgin Money London Marathon this is water and Lucozade Sport and gels) and consider the benefits and limitations of using this over your self-supported methods. Practise in training and you’ll feel more confident and be more prepared come race day.