What to eat before, during and after a marathon

what to eat before a marathon
What to eat before, during and after a marathonKondoros Eva Katalin - Getty Images

Whether you’re currently training for your first – or hundredth – marathon, you’ll know that (usually through trial and error) what and when you eat can really affect your running. You’ll also know that what works for your best friend might not work for you – some runners can eat a bowl of porridge with all the toppings just half an hour before lacing up and pressing start on Strava, while others need at least two hours to digest properly.

Hopefully, through your training, you’ve managed to experiment with energy gels or energy drinks on your long training runs, and have trialled some different pre-run breakfast and dinner options.

So if ‘marathon day’ is looming and you’re starting to wonder ‘How many gels do I need for a marathon?’ or ‘How much water should I drink?’ or ‘When should I start carb loading?’ – fear not, we caught up with Dr Emily Jevons, sports nutritionist at Science in Sport to answer all your burning questions about fueling your marathon – from carb-loading to the big race and recovery.

What to eat before a marathon

In the week, and days, leading up to your race it’s really important to make sure your nutrition is on point – and you don’t start cooking new recipes. Dr Jevons recommends sticking to nutrition that you are familiar with that is unlikely to cause any gastrointestinal distress.

‘Your carbohydrate load should be at 8-10g per kg of body weight for 24-48 hours before the event using simple carbohydrate sources such as pasta, bread, potatoes, energy bars or drinks. It’s also advised to reduce fat and fibre intake on these days. So for example, if you weigh 70kg you would be looking to consume 560-700g of carbohydrate per day.

‘This manipulation of nutrients can increase your energy stores without excessive full or bloated feelings and shouldn’t be seen as a simply eat everything strategy,’ she adds.

what to eat before a marathon
Science in Sport

What to drink before a marathon

Staying properly hydrated during your taper (that’s when you reduce the volume and number of runs ahead of the marathon FYI) is also a key part of carbohydrate loading, ‘as for our body to store carbohydrates as glycogen, water is needed,’ says Dr Jevons.

‘It’s important to start your marathon in a hydrated state, around 2 hours before you start, aim to drink 6-8ml of fluid per kg of body weight. This allows time for your body to absorb the fluid and remove any excess. It’s also beneficial to have some sodium before exercise as this helps stimulate thirst which can promote fluid retention.’ Dr Jevons recommends using electrolytes like the SiS Hydro tablets.

toasted bagel with almond butter spread and sliced banana, backlit with window light on a painted black chalkboard backdrop
john shepherd

What to eat for breakfast on marathon day

On the morning of the marathon, you’ll likely be feeling all the feels – and, sometimes, the nerves and butterflies in your stomach mean you won’t feel hungry. But it’s still really important to fuel ahead of arriving at that start line – and have the same breakfast you’d normally opt for.

Dr Jevons recommends having your last meal 3-4 hours before your event starts, ‘this is key is ensuring you are starting the race well-fuelled. It’s important to plan this in advance as often on race day, we can get distracted by travel and logistics, so ensure you have planned your nutrition beforehand so it’s one less thing to think about,’ she says.

‘This breakfast should be around 2-3g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, so if you weigh 70kg this should be 140-210g of carbohydrate. You can then have a further high carbohydrate snack 30-60 minutes before the start.’

Our personal favourite pre-marathon breakfast? A bagel covered in peanut butter and a banana.

What to eat during a marathon

When it comes to your fuelling strategy during a marathon, there’s no one-size-fits-all magic solution, since everyone likes different flavours and needs different amounts of carbohydrates depending on your speed. Hopefully, through your training (and specifically your long runs), you’ll have tested a few different gels or jelly sweets to see what sits well. We really can’t emphasise enough how important it is to train your gut – as well as your lungs and legs – for a marathon.

When it comes to taking gels mid-race, Dr Jevons recommends consuming 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour of running. ‘This should start in the first hour, don’t wait until you’re hungry,’ she adds.

And if you don’t like gels? ‘There are a wide variety of energy supplements or foods that are suitable for running if you don’t like energy gels. Bananas, malt loaf, sweets or dried fruit are commonly used fuelling options, but energy supplements are designed for optimal fuelling and supported by science. Food-like supplements include energy bars and chews or if you prefer fluids you can get carbohydrate powders [which you add to water].’

Dr Jevons says if you do opt for gels, there are both caffeinated gels and non-caffeinated gels. ‘Caffeine is scientifically proven to enhance performance, but for some, it can cause gastrointestinal upset, so be sure to try this in training beforehand, definitely don’t try for the first time during your race.’

What to eat after a marathon

You’ve done it! You’ve run an impressive 26.2 miles and crossed that finish line. If you don’t feel particularly hungry immediately afterwards – don’t panic, it’s completely normal. ‘This is often due to changes in hormones that affect our appetite,’ says Dr Jevons, ‘but it is important to try and consume something after exercise to help you recover optimally.’

Dr Jevons says; ‘you should focus on consuming a combination of protein for muscle-recovery, carbohydrate to replenish your energy stores and electrolytes to aid with rehydration.’

Bottom line: Don’t try anything new on race day if you can avoid it. Practice your nutrition strategy (thinking about what, when and how much) thoroughly in training.

Interested in more running content? Check out our review of the best running shoes on the market, our best sports bras for runners and our favourite running leggings.

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