Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a novice tackling your first long-distance running event, grit and determination are essential factors to navigate the grueling physical challenge of a marathon. But Sarah Cuff, a holistic sports nutritionist, speaker and endurance athlete, says fueling your body with healthy foods is an equally important element of success in a long-distance race.
Cuff, who writes about the intersection of running and nutrition at her website Eat 2 Run, has guided numerous athletes through the training and race-day process for marathons and other long-distance races. She says her clients often try to navigate the nutrition process on their own at first, only to underperform or “crash” on race day. “Most people, they do their first one or two marathons and they realize something is missing, so they come to me,” she says.
Community Coffee Company is a longtime sponsor of the annual Louisiana Marathon, which attracts thousands of runners to Baton Rouge each January. With that race approaching, we asked Cuff for insights into how she approaches eating right for a marathon.
Whether you’re trying to set a personal best or merely survive those daunting 26.2 miles, these tips will help you maximize your performance.
Adjust Your Diet Months Before Race Day
Cuff says that among the most common mistakes for new long-distance runners is failing to take enough time to plan and adjust to a nutrition plan for the race. She suggests marathoners start focusing on nutrition two or preferably three months before race day.
“When you look at what you want to be doing the week of your marathon, especially on race morning, it’s really important to have practiced it so your body is very familiar with all of these foods,” she says. “The last thing you want to be doing is jumping in and trying out a bunch of new things that are supposed to work, or work for other people but may not work for you.”
Eating better foods is also important throughout the training process. Long runs and workouts are stressful to the body, Cuff says, so it’s important to nourish your body with nutrient-dense, healthful food to help it recover properly.
“I want my clients to arrive to the start line completely injury-free,” she says. “I want them to have done all their training — and to do all your training you can’t get injured, you can’t get sick.”
Practice Your Pre-Race Meals
In order to have enough energy to get to the finish line, runners must have proper intake of carbohydrates and glycogen, the primary fuels that muscles use. Cuff says that for a long-distance race like a marathon, even if you fill up your glycogen stores completely beforehand you’re still going to have to take in additional calories through gels or other foods during the run.
“But if you can do a really good job of taking in a carbohydrate-rich breakfast the morning of, and eating carbohydrate-rich foods the day before, you're going to not have to worry so much about taking in fuel while you’re actually out there,” she says.
Cuff says it’s risky to just carb-load before your big race without a complete understanding of how it will affect your body. Her solution is to carefully plan and practice both your race-day breakfast and your night-before meal long before the actual race.
She says the meal the night before should be a simple pasta or rice dish with tomato sauce. It should generally be low-fiber, low-fat and low-protein. “We don’t need a big hunk of protein right before a marathon,” she says.
When planning, consider whether you’ll be eating at home or on the road at a restaurant. She says most restaurants are willing to accommodate runners with a simple high-carb meal not on the menu. “You can pretty much walk into any restaurant and ask for white rice with tomato sauce and some carrots and they’re going to serve it to you,” she says.
Eat Early and Smart
“The food you put in your body on race morning can really make or break you, especially if you have a sensitive digestive system,” Cuff says.
On race morning, Cuff says marathoners should aim to eat breakfast three to four hours before the race begins. For early race starts, that means waking up well before dawn to take in the necessary calories. “You can go back to bed after eating your breakfast,” she says.
For a marathon, a runner needs to take in 2 to 2.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight before the race, which can seem like a daunting task for some athletes. Cuff says she’ll wake up three hours before her race and have a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit and a banana, along with a glass of tart cherry juice, which she says is effective at lowering inflammation in the body.
“The lower inflammation is in the body the faster and longer we’ll be able to run,” she says. “Eventually there will be inflammation in our body and it will slow us down at some point in the marathon, but the longer we can keep it low, the better.”
She’ll add a banana muffin and some dried fruit an hour later. An hour before the race, she takes a triple shot of espresso, which is a legal performance enhancer that has been shown to help many runners.
“If I don’t have that I notice the difference,” she says. “For some people, they are responders to caffeine. For them, using caffeine as an ergogenic aid can make a huge difference in their performance.”
Plan to Refuel
During the race, experts recommend taking in 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Most popular commercial gel packets are about 24 grams a piece, which means consuming one roughly every 50 minutes or so will prevent a crash during the race. Cuff says you can’t expect your body to handle taking in carbs mid-race perfectly without some practice.
“It sounds easy but it is a challenge, so the only way to really prepare your body for that is to practice every single week,” she says. “Every long run you do, you’re putting the gels in your body, you're getting your body used to it. Our body is trainable. If you go up there the very first time and you decide it doesn’t work for you, go out there and do it again.”
“It’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice, and it will come together by the time race day comes around.”