Diet for Marathon Runners – Competition Nutrition

Competition nutrition is an extension of training nutrition. The correct nutritional strategies before, during and after competition will help you achieve your marathon goal.

Planning your meals for competition is a good way of focusing on your marathon. By knowing when, what and how much you are going to eat and drink, you can be confident that you have the best possible nutritional preparation. Planning ensures that the food you want is available, whether you’re at home or travelling.


Pre-competition nutrition

Carbohydrate loading

The goal of carbohydrate loading is to superload muscles with glycogen to delay fatigue and enable you to maintain high intensity exercise for longer.
When competing for over 90 minutes normal glycogen stores will not be enough to maintain exercise. Carbohydrate loading is a method of increasing stored glycogen by 200-300%, thereby allowing the athlete to delay fatigue and maintain high intensity exercise for longer. Carbohydrate loading is of no benefit for sports of short duration, and is undesirable in sports with strict weight criteria.
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To learn more about carbo loading click here

When planning your pre-competition nutrition consider the following points:

    • How well have you recovered from your last exercise session? If you are in an ultra-marathon, tournament or a cycle tour, your pre-competition meal will be part of your recovery and preparation plan.
    • What time is your event? You should aim to have a meal with more than 200 g of carbohydrate about three hours before your event. As most marathons start early in the morning you have to decide if you are going to get up early and eat, or if you will have a smaller carbohydrate meal 1-2 hours before, and concentrate on getting more carbohydrates during the actual marathon.
    • In weight-bearing exercise like running, your stomach is joggled around and you may experience more gastrointestinal symptoms (stomach and gut upsets) compared with non-weight-bearing sports like cycling and swimming.

Strategies to reduce stomach and gut upsets (gastrointestinal upsets)

    • Reduce your fibre intake by choosing lower-fibre cereals like cornflakes, rice bubbles, white rice, pasta, bread and soft fruits with no skin.
    • Reduce fat in the pre-competition meal. For example, have toast and jam with no butter, use low-fat milk and do not choose to have a fried meal for breakfast.
    • Try liquid meals. They empty quickly from the stomach, and maybe useful for athletes who compete early in the morning or who find it difficult to eat solid meals before competition. Make the liquid meal with water or trim milk.
    • Ensure that hydration is adequate.
    • Make sure you have tested out your pre-competition meal in training.

Pre-competition meal ideas

    • White toast and low-fat spreads/spaghetti/corn/banana.
    • Cereal with trim milk and/or yoghurt and/or fresh canned fruit.
    • Muffins or crumpets with jam/honey.
    • Low-fat pancakes with fruit.
    • Creamed rice and fruit.
    • Oatmeal with trim milk.
    • Pasta with a tomato-based sauce.
    • Risotto.
    • Baked potato with corn/spaghetti/tomato-based sauce.
    • Sandwiches/rolls with spreads/banana.
    • Fruit salad and yoghurt.
    • Liquid meals.

Pre-competition fluids

Make sure you are well hydrated in the days leading up to the event.

On event day, maintain hydration by drinking at least two glasses (500 ml) of fluid with your pre-event meal, then continue to drink up to start time, especially when it is hot.
Use water, a sports drink, diluted fruit juice or flat, diluted soft drink.
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During-competition nutrition

The goals of your diet during your marathon are to prevent dehydration, prevent depletion of glycogen/energy stores, maintain blood glucose, maintain electrolyte balance, prevent stomach upsets.
Strategies to meet your competition nutrition goals

    • Practise your nutrition plan in training and write it down.
    • Plan to meet fluid needs, taking into consideration temperature and humidity on the day.
    • Start drinking early in competition and continue drinking at regular intervals during the event. Some people set their watches to alarm every 20 minutes to remind them to drink.
    • When exercise intensity is high in tournament situations and in longer events, plant to consume 1 g of carbohydrate per minute or 30-60 g per hour.
    • Use carbohydrate-containing sports drinks or moderate to high glycaemic index foods. For example, a litre of 7% sports drink will provide 70 g carbohydrate, a banana will provide 20 g carbohydrate, a cereal bar will provide 20 g carbohydrate.
    • When using a sports drink choose one you have tested in training. A sports drink with 4-8% (ie: 40-80 g/l or 4-8 g/100ml) carbohydrate and 500-700 mg/l (20-30 mmol) sodium is recommended.
    • Consume your carbohydrate-containing drink or food at regular intervals during your marathon.
    • In an endurance event like a marathon you may want to consume solid foods. Examples of moderate to high glycaemic index foods that can be used include ripe bananas, sandwiches with jam, honey or banana, jelly beans, cereal bars.
    • Sports bars can also provide a convenient form of carbohydrate. Experiment with these in training. You may want to take the wrapper off and cut the bar into bite-sized pieces to make them easier to eat.
    • Find out what foods will be available at the aid stations at your marathon and familiarize yourself with these in training, or take your own food and fluids with you.

Nutrition for after your event

    • The goals of your diet following your event are to restore fluid and electrolyte balance, replenish depleted glycogen stores, provide nutrients to help repair muscle damage.
    • Following your event, it is essential to ensure fast recovery so you body is prepared for your next training session.
    • Take an active role in your recovery, plan what you need too eat and drink and make sure you have it with you.
    • Make your recovery food and fluid your first priority after your event.
    • Typically, it’s is high glycaemic carbohydrates that will make good recovery foods.

Strategies to restore your fluid and electrolyte balance

    • No matter how well you followed your fluid plan during your event, you will probably have some degree of dehydration. It is essential to replace lost fluids.
    • Start drinking as soon as you have finished your event, and continue to drink until your urine is clear and you body weight is back to pre-race weight. You need to drink 1.5 times the amount of body weight you have lost to replace fluid losses from exercise and from urination.
    • Replacing sodium losses will ensure maximum fluid retention. You can replace sodium losses by drinking a sports drink or eating a post-recovery meal or snack with salt as a component, or added.
    • Sports drinks provide optimal rehydration as the sodium content rebalances body fluid, and helps your body retain the consumed fluid.
    • Drink cool fluids that you enjoy.
    • Avoid drinks containing caffeine and alcohol after competing.

Strategies to replace used glycogen stores

    • For the first two hours after your event, blood is still rushing to your muscles. Muscle cells are still receptive to taking up glucose and enzymes are receptive to converting glucose to glycogen. This is the best time to maximize your recovery by eating moderate to high glycaemic index foods and using sports drinks. These products will provide glucose to the blood and muscles quickly. If you wait until after two hours to consume carbohydrate, your recovery will be slowed down.
    • In the 24 hours after your event aim to consume 7-10 g carbohydrate per kg of body weight from carbohydrates.
    • Approach this goal by eating 1 g carbohydrate per kg of body weight as soon after exercise as possible, then have a high-carbohydrate meal in the next two hours, and normal meals and snacks for the rest of the day.
    • If a main meal is not available, have carbohydrate snacks (at least 50 g every two hours) until you can have your next main meal.
    • Sports drinks can provide carbohydrate as part of the glycogen resynthesis strategy.

Strategies to help the repair of muscle damage
Muscle damage can occur due to body contact or eccentric exercise (that is, the type of exercise that makes you sore the next day).
The damage to muscle fibres means they cannot store glycogen as well.
If you have had a hard race (what marathon isn’t ??) or have bruising and muscle damage (that is, soreness), pay special attention to meeting your recovery carbohydrate needs to help muscle recovery.
Do not expect optimal endurance performance until soreness is gone, as muscle glycogen will not be totally replaced.

Avoid alcohol for at least 24 hours. Alcohol causes more blood to flow to the injured area, increasing swelling and bleeding that will slow recovery and make the injury worse.

Hints for the post-event diet

    • Recovery will be just as rapid if the carbohydrate is consumed in a few meals or many snacks, as long as you meet your total carbohydrate needs.
    • Moderate to high glycaemic index foods may promote greater glycogen storage than low glycaemic index foods.
    • Carbohydrates can be consumed as solids, fluids or a combination of both.
    • Including small amounts of protein in the recovery meal can help increase the rate of muscle glycogen storage.
    • Glucose and sucrose provide faster muscle recovery than fructose, the sugar found in most fruit and fruit products. Fructose does enhance liver glycogen storage, but only very slowly replaces muscle glycogen. It can form part of the recovery meal, but should not be the only source of carbohydrate.
    • Choose foods that you like!

Main points about your competition diet

    • Carbohydrate loading involves tapering exercise and increasing carbohydrate intake in the three to four days before your marathon to “superload” muscles with glycogen.
    • Pre-event nutrition is vital to ensure glycogen stores are topped up, hydration is optimal and stomach upsets and hunger are prevented. Eat at least 200 g of familiar foods in the four hours before competing and drink enough fluid to be comfortable.
    • During your endurance event consume 30-60 g carbohydrate per hour and aim to replace fluid losses. Begin eating and drinking early in your event.
    • Post-event nutrition restores fluid and electrolyte balance, and replenishes depleted glycogen stores, reducing recovery time.
    • In the first half to one hour after your event you should eat 1 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, eat some protein and begin drinking fluids. Within the next two hours you should aim to have a high-carbohydrate meal and follow this with regular meals and snacks and drinks for the rest of the day.