How to Eat Like a Marathon Runner

Why the next few days can make or break your Boston Marathon performance.

Photo via iStockphoto.

Running the Boston Marathon this year? If so, then by now you’ve put in some serious miles and are already tapering down in preparation for Monday. But you’re not done yet, so listen up: proper nutrition can either make or completely break your performance and once you’re done, it’ll definitely affect how quickly you recover. The latter might not be on your radar now, but hey, it could mean the difference between actually celebrating your achievement and being stuck on the couch feeling sore and tired. That said, while I won’t go so far as to guarantee that if you listen to me, you won’t have any aches and pains, I can give you the knowledge you need to fuel your body right so that you are feeling as well as can be before, during, and after your run.

Before the Race
Set yourself up for success by starting with a full tank. Your muscles, and to a smaller extent, your liver, store a certain amount of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. Your body will tap into those stores the longer you hit the pavement, so make sure that it’s available by consuming a carb-rich snack or meal three to four hours before exercise — think fruit and low-fat yogurt smoothie with granola. If your nerves are zapping your hunger, you might want to try liquid meal replacements.

Also important for fueling your body before long runs is protein. Include small amounts of it in your pre-exercise meal choices (note the yogurt in the above meal idea) to enable your body to build and repair muscle tissue and reduce post-race muscle soreness. Make sure though that what you eat before the race is relatively low in both fats and fiber to ensure that the meal is well-digested when it’s time to run. The last thing you’re going to want is a belly full of food at that point.

During the Race
The key to fueling both before and during your runs is testing what works for you. Make note of what you eat during training, the length of the given workout, and how well you tolerated the food item (i.e. did you experience cramping, stomach-ache, or fatigue?). It takes practice to be able to drink and eat while running, but fueling and hydrating during very long runs is crucial. Choose sports drinks that contain both carbohydrate and electrolytes, while avoiding ingredients that may slow digestion — which again means fat and fiber. Easily digested carb-heavy foods like bananas, bread with jam or honey, sports foods (gels, sports beans), or pre-prepared bite-sized pieces of sports bars work well and are portable. Also be sure to drink plenty of water, possibly also with carbohydrate gels or carbohydrate-rich foods to speed fuel transport to hungry muscles.

After the Race
Simply put, you have to put back what you lose during your run. First and foremost, this means drink up. Restore all the fluid and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) that you sweated out during day by drinking sports drinks, gels and/or water. It can even be helpful to weigh yourself before and after exercise to see how much fluid was lost and replenish accordingly. Next, within 15 to 60 minutes after your run, eat more protein to begin repairing the damaged muscle and stimulate the development of new tissue. A couple of ideas: a burrito with beans, cheese, salsa, avocado, mixed vegetables, on a whole wheat tortilla, or try stir-frying some lean steak with veggies and brown rice.

So, now you have the basics for fueling long runs, but the key to optimal meal planning for athletes is individualization. For a personalized nutrition plan and food ideas that suit your taste, you might consult with a registered dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition.