Nutrition for a Long Distance Runners and Endurance Training
Marathon training, running the actual marathon and long distance running in general, requires both mental and physical strength as well as physical endurance and mental stamina. The 26.2-mile run isn’t something you just wake up one morning and decide to try, let alone 13.1 miles... or any endurance event for that matter. Becoming a long distance runner takes time, dedication, and preparation to continue to feel your best and perform your best. Proper physical preparation is important when training, and equally important is having a proper nutrition plan.
Nutrition for Endurance Runners and Athletes. Food is more than simple nutrition. Food is fuel. It is what feeds your body and keeps it going. Nutritional needs look different during the weeks of preparation leading up to the event, race week, the day of the event, and even during the event itself. Physical preparation for running a half marathon, marathon or any long distance event starts weeks, even months, in advance of the actual event as you continue to build up your miles without injury and with “ease”… so to speak! Nutritional preparation similarly needs to start weeks before the event itself. This time leading up to the event allows you to fuel your body so it can meet the physical demands being placed upon it. Additionally, this window of time provides the space to figure out what nutrition works best for you. This includes not only foods and food products consumed, but timing as well. You don’t want to try something new race day incase it doesn’t sit well with your belly!
Pre-Race Nutrition. Carbohydrates are probably the single most important nutrient in a marathon training diet. Science shows that fueling for endurance athletes during training and racing requires about 2.5-4.5 grams per pound of body weight. Runners should be closer to the upper end of this range as they get into longer runs. For a distance runner, roughly 50-70% of your daily diet should be from carbohydrate sources during training and before a long duration event like a marathon. High amounts of healthful, nutrient dense carbohydrates ensure saturation of the glycogen stores. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates and is used to fuel the body during exercise. When you top these off, this prevents you from "bonking" and gives you the energy you need to keep going.
Fueling properly before a long-duration event is critical. You want to experiment with various types of foods way for race day to make sure they digest well with you. This will help determine what works best and feels best for your body. Again, you want to eat something high in carbohydrates that is relatively easy to digest. Digestion during exercise is challenging but as you continue to do it, your body will adjust. To help with this, you want to avoid processed foods and foods that are high in fat and protein right before and during your long run. These macronutrients will slow down the digestion process. Stick to easily digestible carbohydrates to keep digestion calm while running: banana, toast, oat bar, cheerios, pretzels.
Mid-Race Nutrition. If you are interested in training for a long distance run or gearing up for an endurance event, you need to get comfortable with fueling during your runs. Your body must learn to accept food during training runs. This may be one of the biggest challenges that endurance runners face (the least fun part, but so essential!). Research proves that for continuous endurance exercise that lasts more than 45, fueling during exercise is a must. If you want to perform well, recovery well, you must fuel well.
In order to run 26.2 miles, run a half marathon comfortably, and /or train and perform for any endurance event, your body will need some refueling during that time. A helpful tip is to “fuel early and fuel often”. It is critical to build this into your training routine in the weeks and months leading up to the race. It is better to fuel early before you feel you really need it than to wait until you hit a slump and be waiting on that energy to come. You take it early so that by the time you need it, it’s already started working. It is important to stay ahead of feelings of exhaustion rather than trying to fight them when they are in full swing. Keep topping up the tank even if you think you don’t need it.. because you do and your body will thank you for it later, and you will be proud of yourself for crushing your time and feeling awesome!
Smaller snacks are best during a run as they are more easily digested and still fill up muscle glycogen and provide a boost of energy. Try to find something that provides easy to digest carbs like an energy gel. Experimenting during training you discover which foods work best for you while running or doing any endurance event. Long distance runners should aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrate intake per hour during the runs. Definitely experiment with using sports drinks, energy gels, chews, and bars. It depends on runner preference here and what you feel works best for your body. At the end of the day, it’s about finding the right fuel to power your game plan. Once I get training for half marathons, 18-milers and marathons, my go-to are energy gels.
Post-Race Nutrition. Focusing on pre-race nutrition as well as race day nutrition is critical for overall performance, but just as important is fueling after completing a run. Once you get into endurance training, post workout nutrition is crucial. This is where protein and added nutrients comes into play. Try to consume a recovery snack of protein and carbs 30-45 minutes after a run. This is a very important window when your body is very responsive to nutrition and will utilize nutrients to rebuild and repair muscles. Post workout nutrition is where protein intake becomes a bigger focus. Protein provides an edible upgrade for your muscles. It helps the body build new muscle and recover quickly while also avoiding injury. Find healthy protein sources whether animal or plant-based- chicken, fish, steak are all great animal-based proteins. Protein will also help to stabilize blood sugars and keep you feeling fuller longer and precent muscle waste.
When you exercise you are expending energy and that energy is nutrients. So along with getting your proteins, carbs and fats... making sure your plate is full of colorful fruits and veggies for micronutrients.
Following a few simple rules will help you have a successful long distance running experience all the way from the start of your training to that well deserved finish line. Preparation is key. When race day comes, stick to the game plan you have developed and try not to stray off course. Race day is not the time to be experimenting with new foods. Stick to what you know. Increase healthy carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to the event. This means eating more carbohydrate-rich foods, not just more food. Be smart about the foods you choose, nutritional choices have an impact on your race time of course, but they also influence your energy levels. Avoiding dehydration, and optimizing your recovery. Fuel early and hydrate often. Don’t wait until you feel like you need it. Beat those needs to the punch and stay ahead of fatigue and exhaustion. Stick to your game plan and enjoy your AMAZING achievement!! And don’t be afraid to indulge a little after those 26.2 miles.. you’ve earned it!