Smart Marathon Nutrition for Rookies

You get out of your body what you put in, so fuel it well with these tips from runner and Abbott dietitian Pam Nisevich Bede.


Getting ready for a long run is like gearing up for a long road trip: You need fuel in the tank to get where you want to go.

However, performance needs vary by runner, which means marathon nutrition can, too. Pam Nisevich Bede, MS, and Abbott registered dietitian says that knowing what to eat before a marathon and exactly how much fuel you need before, during and after the race can be a puzzle, but through smart nutrition, hydration and trial and error during training, you can learn what your body needs to cross the finish line.

As a 22-time marathoner and triathlete, Bede follows these tips to fuel wisely for every run:

1. "Nothing New on Race Day"

It may be tempting to try a new bar or sample you picked up at the expo and give it a go during the race.

Don't, Bede said.

Instead, stick to what you've been training with for long runs.

"We have the mantra 'nothing new on race day' for a reason," she said. "We see runners try new things on race day, and it can derail the entire experience. The error could be as simple as trying a new product or grabbing fluid at every stop even though that's not how you've been training."

That said, you can train your gut for new things if you do it slowly. So, take the free samples, but save them to try another day.

2. Load Up On Carbs the Right Way

Many runners dine on pasta at the prerace dinner to load up on carbohydrate fuel — and if that works for you, go for it. Just focus on balance and moderation, Bede said.

"Aim for high-carb, moderate protein meals that are low in fat, fiber and spice," she said. "And whatever you're eating should be familiar to what you've had every night before a long run. For some runners, that's pasta, and for others, it's rice, bread or sweet potatoes."

However, one common myth is that dinner is your one and only opportunity to carb load. Don't overlook the meals in the days leading up to the race and certainly don’t skip on out a pre-race power lunch.

"I recommend that runners focus on lunch the day before, because restaurants aren't as crowded and you're not as nervous about race day," Bede said. "It also gives you more time to digest, so lunch should be the most important meal for a carb load. Dinner should also be important but if you dine right at lunch, you don’t need to stress about the importance of dinner."

For lunch and dinner, runners should eventually progress to healthier carbohydrate options, like vegetables and whole grains, and reduce their reliance on pasta as a sole carb source.

As for moderation, don't let the term "carb loading" fool you into thinking you should be stuffed afterward. "Just be pleasantly full," Bede added.

3. Eat Like a Runner, Not a Tourist

If you find yourself in a new city for the race, resist the urge to eat like a tourist if it means you'll regret it later. Take it from Bede:

"The biggest mistake I've ever made was having deep-dish pizza as a carb-loading dinner the night before the Chicago marathon," she recalled. "Obviously, if you're a tourist and you're in Chicago, you want that iconic deep dish — but the next day, it was hot, I was dehydrated and I'm sure I was still digesting that big block of cheese and grease the next morning."

4. Pack Your Race Bag With Enough Fuel

As always, the "nothing new" mantra remains, so pack your water, sports drink, gels, chews, bars, postrace recovery fuel and whatever else you usually eat on long run mornings.

For most runners, good marathon nutrition means between 30 and 60 grams of carbs per hour of the race, depending on your size and speed. But just in case, plan for every scenario.

"I like having extra fuel on hand," Bede said. "So, I always pack extra gels or chews just in case I lose one or if I'm feeling really fatigued that day — just like I would have in training."

5. Plan Ahead for Breakfast

On race morning, eat what you've eaten on long training runs. For those, Bede suggests a simple formula to determine what to eat before a marathon: For every pound of body weight, eat 0.5 grams of carbs per hour before the race. So, if you weigh 130 pounds and the race is an hour away, you'll want 65 grams of easy to digest carbs (about 260 calories).

Good pre-run breakfasts can include oatmeal with almond milk, a whole-grain bagel with peanut butter, beetroot juice and or fresh fruit, depending on your energy needs.

6. Start Fueling Early and Listen to Your Body

To sustain your energy levels during the run, Bede suggests runners start fueling approximately 45 minutes into their run.

"Don’t consume all of your carbs for the hour at one time," she advised. "I recommend breaking it in half or just taking a little bit every 15 minutes, rather than just one 'gut bomb.'"

Speaking of your gut, you should listen to it, Bede added.

"If you usually start at 30 grams of carbs per hour, see how your stomach handles that and adjust from there," she said, adding that if you do notice intolerance, switch between gels, sports drinks, bars or chews until you find what agrees with you in training.

"And if you finish your run feeling completely wiped out, you're probably going to need to up your carbs per hour for the next time," she said.

7. Refuel After You Cross the Finish Line

Though many races may have finish-line fare like bagels or fruit, you need protein to help your muscles recover after any long run. That's where recovery fuel comes in.

"Find a protein shake you like and that you can stash in your bag," Bede recommended, adding that runners ideally need between 15 and 30 grams of protein within 45 minutes of finishing the race. "You might also want to consider a protein-rich recovery shake, which will prevent muscle breakdown and can help with next-day soreness."

For your first marathon, be sure to maximize your nutrition during race prep and on race day. Taking charge of your nutrition and fueling will help you get better results, from the first miles of training to the finish line to recovery in the days following your race.

Abbott is the title sponsor of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, Virgin Money London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon. Click here to learn more.