Deciding whether to run a marathon can be a journey in itself, but it's when you actually sign up for a race that the real planning starts. And while your training plan should be at the front of your mind, don't forget that what you eat during those months is equally as important, says running coach and nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald. While you may think that you can eat anything you want since you are burning so many calories during training, not paying attention to diet can cause you to feel more sluggish, have cramps, or show up at the start line above your ideal racing weight, Matt warns.
Matt's book The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body Beyond the Wall ($18) as well as his training and nutrition plans he developed with PEAR Sports are meant for runners who are trying to improve their race times or to just avoid hitting the wall during the race. We spoke to Matt to get his top nutrition rules to follow when training for a marathon in order to stay energized throughout the entire 26.2 miles; here are a few of his important tips below.
Think carbs: Since they feed our muscles, you'll need to be thinking about carbs as soon as you sign up for that long-distance race. "The more you exercise the more carbs you burn and the more carbs you need. There's mountains of research that show if you have a high-carb diet that goes along with an intensive exercise program you're able to absorb that training better." Plan your carb intake carefully, but don't rely on junk food; your ramped-up running routine is not an excuse to have pizza delivery on speed dial. You should be getting carb intake from "high-quality" whole foods like fruits and vegetables, he recommends, in order to stay energized and avoid weight gain while you train.
Know what doesn't work: Everyone is different when it comes to pre-running foods, so what works for one person may be the worst food another runner could eat. "I can eat a turkey dinner and then go on a run and I'm fine, but there are some people who have to be super careful and they have to figure out for themselves what works and what doesn't," Matt says. His general rule for his clients is to not eat anything three to four hours before a long run, if possible, until they figure out what snacks work for them.
Keep reading for more tips on your diet when training for a marathon.
Plan your race-day breakfast: That three-hour meal cut off probably isn't going to work many times, especially on those early-morning race days. Skipping breakfast isn't an option, of course. "You need to take something in to top-off those fuel stores," Matt says — but you should take care to avoid fat, fiber, and anything else that is known to cause stomach discomfort. Make sure you experiment with different types of foods during your training so you don't surprise yourself on race day.
Don't always rely on sports drinks: Sports drinks and gels are excellent for refueling muscles during a long run, but depending on your fitness level and the length of your run, you don't always need them, Matt says. He recommends his fit clients not take in anything during runs lasting less than an hour, because sports drinks don't offer any benefit. "Assuming a run of 45-60 minutes is something you've been doing, then that's not going to be challenging enough where your muscles are going to be running low on their carbohydrate fuel stores, and you're not going to be dehydrated enough to affect your performance," he advises.
When it comes to runs lasting between one and two hours, Matt recommends alternating and using sports drinks or gels only every other run. "New science that has come along the past several years has shown that if you rely on taking in carbs while you run too often your body treats that as a metabolic crutch and it'll actually get less out of the workout because running low on the carbs is one of the triggers that causes you to gain fitness," Matt explains. By limiting your sports drink intake you're "subject[ing] your body to a little extra stress to ensure you're getting a fitness-boosting effect" during runs without a sports drink.
Make recovery nutrition a habit: You should make a habit of eating a recovery snack within an hour after every run, says Matt, even if they are shorter, easy ones. This helps you remember to grab that replenishing snack when it's especially needed after a long run. "It's just a good idea to get in the habit of taking some sort of appropriate recovery nutrition within an hour just so it's routine and so you're sure not to miss those opportunities when you really need them," Matt says. He recommends water or orange juice and a yogurt for the right mix of hydration, carbs, and protein.