Diet plan for marathon training is essential for marathon training. Whether you are attempting to improve your marathon time or simply complete the 26.2 mile distance for the very first time, proper nutrition is an absolute must in order to ensure that you are at your best on race day. Good nutrition will not only keep you healthy but it will help make the training process a tantamount experience as possible. Rest assured if your goal is long distance running and if you have trained well then a good diet plan is all you need to give yourself a fighting chance on race day.
How to Maintain a Healthy Diet Leading Up to a Marathon
Running a marathon can definitely be a rewarding experience — but there’s more to it than just signing up. Running that many miles requires significant dedication to preparation and sticking to a healthy marathon training diet in the weeks leading up to the big day.
Here’s what you need to know about preparing to run 26.2 miles, from the foods to focus on to the best approach for race day nutrition.
A Healthy Diet for Marathoners
Marathon runners spend hours on their feet doing the same continuous activity. This can put major strain on the body and unfortunately, many runners don’t focus enough on their diets. Maintaining a healthy marathon training diet can maximize your performance and help make training easier.
The first step is making sure you are getting enough calories to support the increase in activity. Increasing physical activity without fueling the body correctly can lead to muscle loss, increased risk for illness, stress and poor sleep.
If you’re doing moderate levels of intense training — for example, training two to three hours per day, five to six days a week — a 110-220-pound (50-100 kg) athlete could need to consume 2000–7000 calories per day in order to support that amount of activity, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). To meet those elevated caloric needs, you will likely want to eat three meals and multiple snacks each day.
It’s also a good idea to choose nutrient-dense food while training. You will not perform your best on a diet of soda and donuts, even though junk food may make it easy to meet your calorie goals. A marathon training diet should be well-balanced and include adequate amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.
Leveraging Macronutrients for Marathon Training
The macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) are all potential sources of energy for the body, but the body prefers to rely on carbohydrates and fats. As a result, highly active individuals and athletes typically have higher needs for carbohydrates and fats compared with less active people.
When designing your marathon training diet, the most important macronutrients to focus on are carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide your body with the fuel it needs to reach the finish line. According to the ISSN, athletes following intense training schedules need to eat between 5-8 grams per kg of carbohydrates per day.
Protein is also an important macronutrient for marathon runners. The ISSN recommends an intake of 1.4-1.8 grams per kg per day. Protein will help with recovery, injury prevention and support lean muscle. Protein should be spread out throughout the day and should always be consumed after a run.
Fat should also be part of a healthy marathon runner diet. ISSN recommends keeping fat at around 30% of total calories but this can be increased to meet calorie needs if necessary.
Building Your Marathon Training Diet
When you’re preparing for a marathon, you don’t want to just focus on creating a training plan for running — you also want a solid nutrition plan. Start by determining how much you will be running and calculate your caloric needs.
If you won’t be running more than two hours a day, you won’t need to increase your calories that much. The important thing is to listen to your body. If you’re hungry, you should eat. If you feel sluggish during a run, try to figure out why. Maybe you’re not eating enough or you’re choosing the wrong foods.
Next, create a meal plan around your training schedule. Meals should be balanced and include whole grains, protein, fat, fruits and vegetables. Meal timing matters as well! You should eat a full meal about three to four hours before your run.
It’s also wise to consume a small snack of carbohydrates and protein one to two hours before your workout. After your run, eat a meal high in protein and carbohydrates within 45 minutes to help muscles recover.
Maximizing Nutrition Every Morning, Noon and Night
Ready to start planning your next shopping trip? Here’s a sample marathon training diet plan that can help you reach your goals.
- Breakfast: Eggs, whole wheat toast, half an avocado and a whole banana
- Morning snack: Apple with peanut butter
- Lunch: Quinoa bowl with black beans, chicken, assorted vegetables, salsa and cheese
- Pre-run snack: Greek yogurt with berries and low-fat granola
- Post-run dinner: Salmon, brown rice, broccoli with butter
- Bedtime snack: Milk, whole-grain cereal and berries
Optimizing Race Day Nutrition
Figuring out proper nutrition on race day is the crucial final step in preparing your marathon training plan. Choosing the wrong foods or trying to mix up your routine can negatively impact your performance.
To avoid this, make a race-day plan ahead of time. Try packing everything you need a few days before so you don’t forget anything important. Lastly, focus on hydration, fast-acting carbs and getting enough calories to support running 26.2 miles all at once.
Following a solid nutrition plan while training (and on race day) will help make training easier — allowing you to achieve all your marathon goals this year as well as in the future. For more tips on developing the best meal plan for you, a registered dietitian can help.
5 Rules Of Marathon Training Nutrition
1. Understand Your Metabolic Needs
Every marathon training plan involves running a high volume of miles to increase your aerobic capacity, but how many calories does this require?
During these training sessions – and on race day – runners can burn up to 100 calories per mile.
That’s 1,500 calories for a 15-mile training session.
These calories must be replaced as part of your marathon training nutrition plan.
A runner eating in a calorie deficit will begin to break down muscle to compensate.
This is bad news; our muscles are a storage container for vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates, which we don’t want to lose too much of. Pairing this with the protein structure of muscle makes them the primary target for fuel when you don’t consume enough food.
Therefore, step one in marathon training nutrition is to make sure you are eating enough calories.
Also understand your calorie consumption varies slightly from day to day depending on the intensity and length of the training sessions, but overall training for a marathon means eating more food to ensure that your calorie intake is sufficient.
2. Keep Macros In Balance
The primary fuel for marathon runners without a doubt is the carbohydrate.
This macronutrient should be make up the majority of what you are consuming, due to the fact that it is required to replenish the glycogen stores in your body that fuel your muscles.
During intense training phases (where mileage and tempo increase) the body will need more carbohydrates to fuel workouts and replenish stores.
Aim to eat between 3.5 – 4.5g per pound of body weight each day on these intense days. For a 120lb runner, this equates to 420-540g of carbs per day.
On lighter training days and rest days the goal for carb consumption should be between 3.0 – 3.2g per pound of body weight.
Try fueling with complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, and vegetables for a healthier carbohydrate option.
Protein is the next most important macronutrient to help replenish muscle breakdown. Adequate protein intake is necessary to help your muscles recover.
On training days, aim for 0.7 – 1.0g of protein per pound of body weight while non-training days should be between 0.5 – 0.7g per pound of body weight.
Fat is the final macronutrient and is needed to help with vitamin storage and hormone production, but should be kept around 0.5g per pound of bodyweight on training and non-training days.
Whilst many people associate fat as something to avoid as part of any diet, it is undeniably important when training for a marathon. You can cook with foods high in unsaturated, healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fish in order to get the fats you need when training for a marathon and keep your diet healthy.
3. Obey The Eating Window
Long endurance runs will deplete carbohydrate storage in the body.
To help mitigate this, eat an easily digested carb-based snack 30-45 minutes prior to a run. A sports gel or piece of fruit is perfect. This also ensures that you’re not running on an empty stomach.
Within an hour of finishing your training session, replenish your carb stores by eating a full meal using the macronutrient quantities discussed above; roughly aim for 1 gram of protein for every 3-4 grams of carbs.
This rule is the key to keeping you fueled between training sessions and should be at the top of your list when considering marathon training nutrition.
4. Eat Clean Foods
Whole foods are the easiest for a body to digest and pull nutrients from.
Eating the cleanest sources of foods that are available to you will ease digestion and increase nutrient absorption, aiding in the recovery process of your marathon training.
When shopping for foods to eat during your marathon training go with organic, natural, and as close to whole foods as you can, and try to avoid processed foods.
5. Minimize Added Sugars
Almost all marathon runners-in-training turn to high-energy sports fuel such as energy gels and sports drinks. Whilst these can be a good source of race-day nutrition to help give you an energy boost, you shouldn’t rely on them during training, as your body needs more than this.
When picking these products keep an eye out for unnecessary added sugars. You want a quick source of carbohydrates but not all of the calories should come directly from sugar.
Find a lower sugar supplement that tastes good to you.
Nutrition Plan: Fueling Long Distance Runs
When training for a race, it’s important that runners are considering a crucial aspect of training which doesn’t require hitting the pavement: Nutrition. The foundation for any athletic training program is a proper diet that strategically benefits your joints, muscles and bones – which helps improve performance and reduces risk for injury.
Keep these four nutrition tips in mind and help keep your body in prime shape for your upcoming race:
Hydration is a key component of nutrition for runners. It is important to hydrate in moderation. Although the “8-cups-of-water-a-day” rule is reliable, your natural “thirst mechanism” is still the best indicator for the amount you should drink. If you are drinking steadily throughout the day, there is little need to drink a large amount prior to your run, however, the amount of water you’ll need to drink increases in hot and humid conditions.
As you drink more, it should be balanced with other fluids rich in electrolytes. Without the balance of electrolytes, excessive water intake can lead to an unsafe drop in sodium. (Left untreated, sodium deficiency can be fatal.) Sports drinks are not a bad option for electrolyte intake, but are often rich in added sugar. If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, consider cutting sports drinks with a third of water.
Not drinking enough throughout the day? Keep in mind, water does not necessarily have to come in pure liquid form. Although about 80% of our total water intake comes from fluids, the other 20 percent comes from our food, such as fruits, vegetables and starches.
Keep a balanced diet
An appropriately balanced diet of protein, fats and carbohydrates is essential for all runners. Elite runners track the total grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates they consume to maximize their performance… The rest of us just need to keep one principle in mind: Everything in moderation.
And one thing to specifically moderate both during training and on race day is your fiber consumption. Certain fiber rich foods, such as vegetables and oats, will increase bowel movements − and could put you in an uncomfortable spot if you’re training far from home, or leave you waiting in long lines at the race course port-a-potties.
Protein & Fats
Protein is one of the major building blocks of muscle. When you run, a lot of strain is placed on your body. After training, protein helps your body bounce back and gain lean muscle mass. Aim to consume approximately 15% of your daily calories in lean proteins like chicken, fish, nuts and eggs.
As a source of energy, monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats (aka “healthy fats”) are ideal for runners: About 25% of your diet should be comprised of healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, nuts, avocados and fatty fish, such as trout and salmon.
Runners should avoid unsaturated and processed trans fats, which can contribute to heart disease, inflammation and various other conditions. These are fats that typically solidify at room temperature and are found in full-fat dairy products, red meat and some poultry.
Carbohydrates, or “carbs”, get a bad rap in popular media, but as a main fuel source for working muscles, carbohydrates are essential for nutrition. In particular, complex carbs should comprise about 50% of your diet. Your body breaks down complex carbs slowly to provide a steady source of energy—perfect for runners looking to fuel a long run. Foods rich in complex carbs include unrefined pastas, starchy vegetables, whole grains and fruits.
Contrary to complex carbohydrates, simple carbs are broken down quickly, resulting in energy spikes and crashes — not an ideal source of energy for active bodies. While training, try to avoid foods that contain simple carbs while training such as table sugar, candy and soft drinks.