The most common question I get from both beginner and veteran marathoners alike is: “What should I eat during the week and the morning of the Marathon race?” It’s a great question and a very important part of success on race day. Since I covered how to practice your marathon nutrition strategy in training in one of my previous posts, this week I will cover an ideal nutrition plan starting 5 days out from the race so you can start planning your pre-race nutrition strategy now.
Marathon Rule #1: Never try anything new on Race Day
In addition to clothing, pacing, and training, this rule also applies to your nutrition strategy in the five days leading up to the race. You should not experiment with any new foods or venture too far from your normal diet. It’s easy to get nervous in the last few days of your taper and be persuaded by a new product a friend recommends or something you see at the race expo. However, if you haven’t tried it before, especially at marathon pace or during a long run, don’t be tempted.
It’s also important that you experiment with the types, quantity, and timing of the food you eat before you run. Some runners have very weak stomachs and need up to three hours to digest food before they can run comfortably. Other runners can eat within an hour of a hard run with no adverse side effects. It is important to figure out which type of runner you are during training and to take this information into account when you plan for the race morning.
Experiment with your pre-race meal before race day. Your last two long runs or difficult marathon paced workouts should be similar to race simulations. Try wearing the clothes you think you’ll wear on race day, the shoes, socks, and everything you can think of. Eat the same pre-race meal you’re planning for the night before the race and when you wake up in the morning, eat the same breakfast you plan on having. This will give you time to change things up before race day if you find it doesn’t work for you.
5 days from the race
Begin to increase your total carbohydrate intake by adding in more pastas and starches (low glycemic index foods) to your diet throughout the week. The old idea of depleting your carbohydrate stores the week before the race and binging on carbohydrates the last few days in an attempt to trick your body into overcompensating and storing more fuel is outdated. Ensuring that you consume a higher percentage of your total daily calories as carbohydrates is sufficient.
Remember, you’re not running as much as you have been, so eating too much more than you normally do will make you feel bloated and lethargic. At this point in the nutrition cycle, relax and don’t go overboard.
48 Hours before the race
Your last big meal should be two nights before the race. It will give your body ample time to digest anything you eat so you won’t feel bloated on the morning of the race. I’ve seen too many people gorge on pasta the night before the race only to reach the starting line the next day stuffed and lethargic. Have you ever tried to run the morning after Thanksgiving? If you have, you know the bloated feeling I’m talking about, and if you
haven’t, I don’t recommend scheduling a tough workout.
24 hours and before
Eat normal balanced meals like you would normally do on any training day. Make sure you drink plenty of liquids all day long, especially electrolyte fluids such as Gatorade or use electrolyte tabs such as Nuun. It helps if you carry a water bottle along with you throughout the day to remind yourself to drink.
Your main meals should still be in the form of low glycemic to medium glycemic index foods. Ideally, you won’t be too active on the day before the race, so you may feel full quickly. That is fine, you shouldn’t try to stuff yourself.
18 hours before the race
Start eating small meals every 2-3 hours, but after lunch, cut out red meat, fried foods, dairy products, fats, nuts, and roughage. You should only be consuming light, digestible foods like energy bars, bread, and small sandwiches. Keep drinking water and electrolyte beverages and avoid salty foods.
4 hours and less
You should be up early enough before the race to eat a small breakfast with plenty of time to start digestion before the gun goes off. If you need 3 hours to eat a small meal before running, then you need to get up at least three hours before the race to get in a light breakfast. You’ll want to drink mostly water (unless you know temperatures at the race are going to be warm), with some electrolyte fluid. Don’t try to get all your fluids down by chugging your water bottle. Drink small, regular sized amounts. Room temperature water is absorbed quicker than warm or cold water. I estimate that you’ll need 6 oz. every hour or 8 oz. every hour on hot days.
Lots of runners will take a GU or energy gel right before the gun goes off. I only recommend this if you have a weak stomach and you haven’t eaten in 3 hours. If you’re able to stomach more solid foods 60-90 minutes before the race, this is preferable. Basically, energy gels are mostly simple sugars and you’ll be consuming another 2 or 3 gels before the race is over. Even for the biggest sweet tooth this is a lot of sugar.
I hope this article was a practical and informative nutrition plan you can implement for race day. In the last article of the series, I will cover the nutrition plan during the actual race, so stay tuned!