Twin Cities in Motion

Nutritional Needs for the Marathon Runner

posted on Mon, May 14 2012 4:11 pm by Mayo Clinic

Fueling your body with proper nutrition to meet the physical demands of a marathon is crucial to success. Steve DeBoer, a registered and licensed dietitian and avid marathon runner, shares nutrition guidelines for individuals before and during a marathon, as well as important tips about carbo-loading, hydration, and nutrition for the vegetarian runner. Steve has worked at Mayo Clinic for 25 years, specializing in cardiovascular disease, weight control, and sports nutrition. He has run 50 marathons in the last 40 years, and has the fourth longest daily running streak in the country, which began on July 20, 1970.


Q: What should I be eating as I train for a marathon?

A: You should eat the same kinds of food you would eat for general good health – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products. The difference is that when you train for a marathon, you need to increase your portions and calorie intake, especially with foods that are high in carbohydrates such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, milk, and yogurt. Try a variety of these foods and see which ones you tolerate best as you ramp up your training mileage. Because of your greater calorie needs, you can get away with eating a few more snacks and desserts, but try healthier options such as popcorn, baked chips, or low-fat versions of cookies, cakes and frozen desserts. And remember, these should be eaten only after you’ve consumed the basic healthy foods that you need. In other words, don’t eat your dessert first!


Q: What should I eat the day before and day of a marathon to optimize my performance?

A: The day before the marathon, you need to consume extra calories, especially high carbohydrate foods such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, and/or potato, just to name a few. These foods help fill your muscles with extra glycogen (the body’s storage form of carbohydrate), so you have more carbohydrate available to burn during the marathon.


Q: So you would recommend “carbo-loading”?

A: Yes, carb-loading is recommended because the more glycogen you store in your muscles, the more energy you have to maintain your pace during the marathon.  Another piece of the loading process should be a reduction in running mileage for 3-7 days prior to the event, which also allows you to store more glycogen. But the most important thing to remember is that you need to try various strategies of eating in practice to see which foods and beverages work best for you. Do not try something new the day before and day of the marathon.


Q: Should I eat during the marathon? Is it better to rehydrate with water or a sports drink?

A: Most marathoners find they perform better if they consume carbohydrates during the race. Thus, a sports drink (one you know you tolerate) is preferred over water. However, some runners find they need more carbohydrate to maintain their blood sugar level than what a sports drink provides. For them, eating something at some of the water stops is crucial for success. There is a large variety of bars, gels, and goos that can be helpful – just be sure to determine what works best for you in your training runs.


Q: What tips do you have for the vegetarian runner?

A: Vegetarian runners typically are already eating plenty of carbohydrate because many of their sources of protein, such as legumes, milk, yogurt and soy products, contain carbohydrate. However, increased mileage also increases the need for protein, so you need to be sure to eat larger portions of foods that are high in protein, not just the whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruit. Some vegetarians have low levels of iron in the blood, requiring an increase in dietary iron and/or supplementation.


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Mayo Clinic is a proud sponsor of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. More than 3,700 physicians, scientists and researchers, and 50,100 allied health staff work at Mayo Clinic, which has campuses in Rochester, Minn; Jacksonville, Fla; andScottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz.; and community-based providers in more than 70 locations in southern Minnesota., western Wisconsin and northeast Iowa.