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The Perfect Marathoner Diet

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Many, many people run. Of those who run, often the bucket list item is to complete a marathon. If you decide to check this box, know that less than 1% of the population has completed a marathon. That means doing so would put you into an elite group of people.

If you have contemplated registering for a marathon but are nervous about your ability to finish, know that 90% of people who start a marathon finish the task. Those are pretty good odds.

Of course, you need to find and complete a marathon training plan. Everyone knows you have to do the work. However,  one of the things that will help set you up for success is thinking about a marathoner diet.

Nutrition for Running

For most of us, you won’t make huge dietary changes when marathon training. One of the best things you can do, however, is just focusing on a healthier relationship with food. What does that mean? Don’t demonize food, nor should you deprive yourself of things that you love. You probably do want to be sure that your overall eating is conducive to fueling your body for the training you are about to undertake.

Does that mean that you have to change your marathoner diet? Of course not. Many runners successfully complete marathons and are a dietary disaster. And for some people, that works for them. However, if you want to set yourself up for success according to conventional wisdom, there are some helpful tips,

What Is the Diet of a Marathon Runner?

There are some bits of advice that can prove helpful as you increase mileage to train for a marathon.

Increase Protein

Are you surprised to see protein instead of carbohydrates? Many people are. Protein is important for muscle repair. It will aid you in recovery and help you to avoid injury.

Healthy Carbs

All runners have heard of carb loading and many of us use that as an excuse to eat all the carbs, all the time. In actuality, even though you do need carbs during your training cycle you are much better off making healthy carb choices. What does that mean? Instead of eating processed food focus on real food carbs.

healthy carbs

There are many natural foods that offer carbs excellent for fueling your body such as potatoes, fruits like apples and bananas,  and other items like nuts and lentils. For people with a sensitive stomach, whole grains such as quinoa, pure oats and brown rice might be a better option.

Do not use your marathon training as an excuse to gorge on processed carbohydrates.

Hydrate Now, Later, Always

When thinking about diet we often overlook hydration. When marathon training remember to drink a lot of water. Your body will thank you for keeping yourself adequately hydrated. Of course, you also need to hydrate during training once you commit to the marathon (for most people, some shorter runs also require hydration).

Sarah Williarty on a marathoner diet
Wiliarty pictured with Coach Mark Sekelsky

Sarah Wiliarty –  “There’s no perfect marathoner diet. It’s going to vary a lot from person to person. For regular daily nutrition, “most” marathoners will do well with a mix of healthy food. I like to aim for foods that are low glycemic, but a good mix of healthy foods will usually do it. It’s easy to gain weight while marathon training because you burn a lot of calories and you can deceive yourself into thinking you “earned” it. Unless you are a 20-year-old dude, that strategy is likely to bite you in the butt – or rather, you will WISH it had because your butt will grow!”

What Foods Should Runners Avoid?

New runners often ask coaches, fellow runners and anyone who will listen: are there foods runners should avoid? That’s a loaded question. If it bothers your stomach, you shouldn’t eat it in conjunction with a run.

Overall, we would all be healthier if we made more conscious food choices. That doesn’t mean we have to totally give up certain foods.

The night before a long run or race, however, there are some things that most runners avoid.  Anything heavy, like steak, can be a mistake the night before a long run. Very fatty or greasy food can cause problems for some runners also.

Having said that, ultramarathoner Zach Bitter is well known for his love of bacon and eggs and does not seem to have any stomach issues as he hammers out mile after mile. Dean Karnazes is known of his mid-run pizza which for most of us would be a gastro disaster!

Rob Schelp
Rob Schelp

Rob Schelp is an avid runner and marathoner who thought nutrition mattered but found out that, for him, it didn’t really. During his first marathon he ate super healthy to set himself up for success and ran well. For his second marathon, however, his wife was expecting and her cravings ran rampant. Rather than deprive himself of what “the baby” wanted, he indulged right with her. Guess what? His times were almost identical. 

On the Run

One thing many people forget is that when running so many miles your tank will hit empty. In discussing a marathoner diet you can’t neglect the fuel on the run. Figure out what works for you. For some, they can grab a gel, chew or block and anything agrees with their stomach. Other people are not as flexible.

An important part of marathon training is to find some portable options and work on eating those while on the fly. If something works for you, keep running with it. If you find yourself in gastrointestinal distress, try something else.

Recovery Food

The more serious your training gets, the more important your recovery fuel becomes. When you are training for a big race you need to consider what you will take in for recovery before your run. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First, when you finish a long run you will be hungry. This is when you accidentally eat an entire cake (this may have happened to me… yes, I realize you don’t accidentally eat a whole cake… but if I had a plan in place it may not have happened).

Second, you are more likely to take in the correct protein to carbohydrate ratio post-run if you have planned it in advance. This is one reason why many people like a protein recovery drink so much. It is fast, quick and easy.

If you have something ready to eat right when you walk in the door, you are setting yourself up for success.

zoe hill
Zoe Hill – NYC Marathon

Zoe Hill – Hill states that “a decent carb to protein ration is an important side to training. Even more important is to remember that while it’s great to splurge, remember the greater goal. Running big mileage does not give you permission to eat anything and everything you want. 

Just Be Smart

I guess one thing we have learned here is that a marathoner diet isn’t really a thing. If you want to run a solid race it stands to reason that fueling your body properly is a good decision. Anytime you want your body to run like a well-oiled machine, you should be taking in as much real food as possible.

Having said that, life is short and if you want cake, have cake. Just don’t be like me and eat the whole thing. Moderation is the key to marathoning success except when you’re talking about mile repeats. Don’t skimp on those.

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