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How to be the coolest runner in the London marathon: Part 3: Eating and Drinking

Updated on February 11, 2015

It's Not Just All About The Carbs

Lots of runners wing it when it comes to their diet. And, of course, most of these get away with eating what and when they like. But if you want to get serious about running, or try for a ‘PB’, you might like to take a fresh look at what you eat and drink. There is loads of scientific evidence now about what to do and not do. Here are a few ideas for fuelling up for marathon training and the all important race itself.

It’s quite simple in some ways. If you don’t take on enough carbs, you’ll go all wibbly wobbly and your performance will suffer. If you’re dehydrated, that will impact on fatigue and performance too. If you eat the wrong things before training, you could end up with a bad stomach or even the runs. If, on the other hand, you eat and drink all the right things, you can optimise your performance and recover better after running too. Quicker recovery times mean that you’re ready for action sooner, rather than later, so you can get back out running again.

Which Fuel Is Best?

During the training period, many runners start to look at food and drink less as simply tasty things to enjoy and more as fuel. According to Marathon Rookie, the optimal training diet is made up of 65% carbs, 10% protein and 20-25% unsaturated fats. Within this, it is generally acknowledged that ‘complex’ carbohydrates make better running fuel than ‘simple’ ones. So aim to eat foods like whole grains, lentils, peas, beans and potatoes. It is easy to avoid so-called ‘bad’ carbs by cutting down on processed food...basically all the yummy things like cake and biscuits. Sugary foods give you a quick fix of energy, but food with low to moderate GI (glycaemic index) releases energy more slowly, so fuelling you for longer.

Eat Early

Your body can hold enough fuel for 90 mins to two hours of running, especially if you have carbo-loaded and pre-hydrated beforehand. So, what can you get away with eating before training? It’s probably best to schedule large meals for 3-4 hours before a run and small meals around 2 hours before. Some snacks can be eaten up to an hour before running. It might be a case of trial and error to see what works best for you. Be aware though that high fat foods can lead to an upset stomach...not what you want during training, or even generally.

Water Vs Isotonics

During training itself, hydration is important. Some people get by on drinking tap water, whilst others choose specialist isotonic drinks. The advantage of the latter is that they replenish your salts. They also contribute to your carbohydrate intake, giving you that extra energy you need to keep going. The advantage of water is that it is free of charge. For training runs that last over an hour, some experts suggest taking on 500-1000 ml of water per hour. I would suggest that the only practical way of drinking that much on long runs is to invest in a camelback style hydration backpack. There’s also the small matter of eating or drinking 60-90 grams of carbs per hour. You can take this on board in the form of gels, bars or fluid and it’s important to work out what works best for you.

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Replenish Your Fuel Stores

After training sessions, you need to replenish your fuel stores fairly speedily. Specifically, you need to re-hydrate, re-fuel with carbs and protein and take on salts (ions like Sodium, which are lost through perspiration). Lots of sources say to refuel with carbs and protein within 30 minutes of finishing running. Others suggest it is optimal to do so within 20 minutes. You’ll need 10-20 grams of protein. The amount of carbs depends on your weight. Take your weight in pounds, then divide by two and eat this many grams of carbs. So, for example, if you weigh 125 pounds, you would eat 63 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein. Some runners swear by a post-run beverage of chocolate milk, which contains both carbs and protein. You can invest in specially tailored recovery drinks, which contain the requisite amounts of both carbs and protein too. Or you can fix yourself a tasty sandwich, with a good source of protein for the filling.

If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It

So with your nutritional plan in place for the training, all you need to do now is clock up the training miles and get ready for race day. In the week before the marathon, it’s a good idea to ‘carbo-load’, making sure that you’re eating starches like baked potatoes, pasta and brown rice. The most important thing the night before and on the day of the race itself is not to try anything new. You have already worked out what foods, drinks, gels and bars work for you before, during and after running, so don’t be tempted to go experimenting now. Writing on Runners Connect, Coach Jeff recommends that you use your last two long training runs as try-outs for the real thing: eat the same dinner the night before and the same breakfast in the morning. That way you still have time to tweak things if they’re not working for you. They’ll be lots of drink stations in any marathon race, so try to drink something at every one. There may even be a choice of drinks, so research these beforehand and decide which option you are going for. If you’ve eaten and drunk all the right things all the way through your training, then a big huzzah for you: you won’t be winging it on race day...you’ll be flying.

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