Friday, October 23, 2009

Marathon Foods, Fluids and Formulas

When I gave talks at Niketown in San Francisco and New York, general nutrition questions were easy to answer, however I made sure I could answer difficult questions by marathoners. Not being a long-distance runner myself, I turned to the experiences of my clients and published research.

Please note the advice I’m giving you is for a marathon. You don’t need to go to such extremes if you’re working out for an hour at the gym; just follow good eating plans from my other articles.

As a marathon runner, you are competitive and serious about your food and fluid intake. You need to prepare your body for the big event to prevent fatigue, low blood sugar and hunger, keep your glycogen stores filled during the race, enjoy maximum performance and recover nicely afterwards (if there is a nice way – such pain!). Those of you still on the high protein diet (any left?), can expect to “hit the wall” within an hour.

In general, everyday eating should follow common sense with emphasis on a carb-rich diet. Carbohydrates (carbs) are needed to supersaturate your muscles with glycogen before the marathon and fuel your muscles during this strenuous event. Carbohydrates get converted to glucose, part of which is stored as glycogen in the liver and, to a lesser extent, in muscles. The body has a somewhat limited ability to store carbohydrates as glycogen, so replenishing is an important part of your regime.

Before the race:

How much should you eat?

Carbo-loading is very important for every training day and the days before the big race, 300 – 400 grams carbohydrate intake is recommended. Where do we find carbohydrates? In a wide variety of foods such as grains, cereals, breads, dairy products, potatoes, vegetables and fruit.

Carbohydrates also comes in different forms such as glucose, fructose, sorbitol, etc. A giveaway is the –ose and –ol behind the long words on package labels.

You will need to do a little math to measure your carbohydrate intake. Let me help you.

For the six days before the race, reduce your exercise regime to 90 minutes and allow your muscles to rest, keeping your carbohydrate at 60%. Because you are decreasing your activity before the marathon, you may gain three to four pounds. Don’t worry about that. It will be necessary to fuel your running and keep you going longer. This is not the time to increase your fat intake, so avoid increasing your use of margarine, oils and salad dressings.

An example of 60% carbs:

For a 3000 calorie diet, 60% of carbohydrates = 1800 calories.
There are 4 calories per gram therefore 1800 / 4 = 450 g carbs per day

4 days before event : 40 minutes for exercise - 60% carbs per day
2 days before event : 20 minutes for exercise - 70% carbs per day
1 day before event : 0 minutes for exercise - 70% carbs per day
3 - 4 hours before event: large meal

All of the following foods contain 15 grams of carbohydrates:

½ cup cooked pasta, starchy vegetable, potato
1/3 – ½ cup cooked dried beans and peas, rice, grains
1 slice bread, ½ roll or ¼ bagel
¼ to 1 ½ cups cereal (read label for serving size)
30 grams pretzels, crackers
1 cup skim milk
¾ - 1 cup yogurt (read label)
1/3 to ½ cup fruit juice
1 small to medium fruit
1 – 2 cups vegetables
½ - 1 cup sports drink (read label)
¾ cup pop

Here’s an example of a 450 g daily carbohydrate intake is:
2 cups cereal 30
1 cup milk 15
¾ cup yogurt 15
1 large baked potato 60
1 large orange 30
2 cups cranberry juice 60
3 cups pasta 90
1 cup tomato and vegetable sauce 15
Fresh bagel 60
1 cup frozen yogurt 45
Large banana 30
Total: 450

There, that was easy. Now plan your carb intake including your favorite foods.

• 2 – 3 hours before the event: high carb snacks. Give yourself enough time to digest the food before running. A large meal may lead to abdominal distress, cramping or indigestion. Continue with the snacks that have been working for you. Here are some ideas:
2 slices of toast, bagel or English muffin with jam
Cereal with skim milk
French toast or pancakes with syrup
Bran muffin
8 wheat crackers with one-ounce low fat cheese
1 banana or two fruits
Fig bars or dried fruits such as two small packets of raisins
Bread sticks
2 rice cakes with 1/4-cup cottage cheese
1 fruit with 175 ml yogurt
Energy bars
Blended, liquid meal. Not too much as it may slosh in your stomach

Avoid soft drinks, fruit juices and sweets unless you’ve been experimenting with them. The initial “sugar boost” may disappear quickly and leave you feeling tired!


When you run your marathon, the body needs fluids to replace what’s lost through sweat and to help carry glucose to those exercising muscles.

Choice of Fluids:
1. Water
2. Diluted juices
3. Watery foods
4. High carb sports drinks

Water is fine for the first hour, after that replenish your glycogen stores with some carbs.

Fruit juices and soda pop exceed a 10% carbohydrate level and can lead to abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. This you certainly do not need. These drinks should be mixed with 1/3 water. Drinks containing between 6% and 8% carbohydrate (sugars) are absorbed into the body as rapidly as water and provide energy to working muscles. This extra energy delays fatigue and improves performance.

If you drink a sports drink, you can maintain your blood sugar level even when the sugar stored in your muscles (glycogen) is running low. This allows your body to continue to produce energy at a high rate. Don’t dilute sports drinks as you won’t get enough energy from your drink to maintain a good blood sugar level. Drinks containing less than 5% carbohydrate do not provide enough energy to improve your performance.

Before the race:

Drink two cups of fluids two hours before your race. If you’re participating in hot weather and sweat a lot, increase your fluids to three to four glasses before the race.

During the race:

Drink small amounts of fluids on a regular basis. Aim for 1/2 cup every fifteen to thirty minutes even if you don’t feel thirsty. Cool fluids are absorbed a little better than room temperature drinks and rarely cause cramping.
After five hours of running, you will need to replace the electrolytes you lose in sweat. Use diluted fruit juices (one part juice, one part water), like orange juice or a sports drink - 60g of carbs every hour, that’s a 240-calorie drink. Try your drink or snack of choice before a big event; you don’t need surprises like cramps or diarrhea.

What about sodium?
Sodium is needed to help maintain fluid balance in your body and help your body absorb and retain more water. Fluids from an 8-ounce serving of a sports drink with 6% carbohydrates (sugars) and about 110 mg of sodium absorbs into your body faster than plain water.
Some parents, coaches, and athletes are concerned that sports drinks may contain too much sodium. However, most sports drinks are actually low in sodium, similar to a cup of milk. Most of us get too much sodium, the main culprits being chips, crackers, soups, salad dressings and fast food; certainly not sports drinks.

After the marathon:
You’ve just finished your marathon and are feeling very thirsty, get your energy back with the same fluids: water, diluted fruit juices, fruits and sports drinks.

Any magic formulas?
Have you tried caffeine type drinks? You can drink 2 cups of coffee 2 hours before your run, when practicing. Don’t try it for the first time on the day of the race. If you have heart disease, I wouldn’t recommend the caffeine stimulant together with the stress of running.
Energy or sports bars, gels or puddings can be used to replace your depleted glycogen stores in the muscles while running.

For the serious runners, buy one of Nancy Clark’s books such as Food Guide for Marathoners on She is THE sports nutrition expert.

You have all the basics for good nourishment, get out there and run! I wish you every success with your next marathon.