Marathon fueling doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Sure, fueling a marathon that might take five hours takes some planning (at least it should), but it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated.
Follow this marathon fueling guide to finish the race stronger than ever!
Learn why training your gut before the race can be the difference between marathon success or a race to the toilet. Find out how the menstruation cycle can affect marathon fueling. Follow the marathon race day timeline to optimally plan the lead-up to the start of the marathon. Understand how to fuel for the marathon during the event. Finally, unlock the secrets of post-marathon fueling!
Marathon Fueling Starts 3 Weeks Before the Event
Nailing your race nutrition means training your gut and building a routine. Having a nutrition routine means there is nothing new taking up valuable energy on race day.
Learn the nutrition secrets of world champions.
Know what, when, how often, and how much you’re going to fuel during the marathon.
Most runners can tolerate 30g of carbs per hour. But did you know that increasing carbohydrate intake will likely lead to improved race performances? For example, cyclists can train their gut to take in 100g of carbohydrates per hour. Runners are limited in carbohydrate intake due to sloshing in the stomach, but 60g per hour is not uncommon in elite runners.
Training the Gut to Tolerate Marathon Fueling
Pick a few key workouts in your training plan and try your race nutrition plan. Replicate the race conditions as closely as possible. Consider factors such as time of day, heat, elevation, humidity, terrain, etc. The ideal workout to train marathon fueling is the long run. Marathon fueling is a different beast than fueling for a 5k or even a half marathon!
Start with 30g of carbs per hour and see how your stomach feels. Make a note of how the workout went. If it went well, increase the next test by 10g more of carbs. Do this until you find the max amount of carbs you can intake and still perform at your best.
Good to know:
Use the product in training you plan to use during your event. No new products on race day!
Marathon Fueling and the Menstruation Cycle
Menstruation cycles can impact marathon fueling. Here are some of the potential effects of menstruation on marathon fueling based on the phase of the menstruation cycle:
- Menstrual phase: Fatigue, emotional anxiety and menstrual pain are all common during this first phase of the cycle, making training and racing especially difficult. Balance blood sugar levels with whole grains (like oats or muesli as a pre-race or training meal). Magnesium supplementation may also alleviate menstrual pain.
- Follicular phase: Likely little impact on marathon fueling. It can be a good time in the cycle for heavier training or racing due to increased energy levels and motivation.
- Ovulatory phase: While elevated energy levels are common in this cycle phase, so is a reduced appetite. This can be difficult to overcome if the marathon falls during this phase. Focus on hitting carbohydrate targets and trust your marathon fueling plan even if you feel like it’s too much to eat.
- Luteal phase: Digestive challenges, low energy and mood, and sugar cravings are all common. The body is less able to utilize glycogen and prefers fat utilization instead (which is not as efficient and makes accessing energy storage more difficult). Constipation is also common during this phase, making training and racing especially uncomfortable.
Marathon Fueling 3-4 Hours Before Start
Drink about 500ml of water immediately when you wake up so you can start the rehydration process. Check your urine color using a urine color chart after your second urination to figure out how much you need to drink. You want your urine to be just slightly yellow-tinted throughout the day. Beware that certain foods and vitamins can alter your urine color.
Don’t drink so much liquid that you become over-hydrated. Urine that looks as clear as water is an indicator that you are overhydrating.
Why treat your body special on race day? Practice good nutrition and hydration every day!
Note, you will need to pee a lot in the lead-up to the event start. This is due to proper hydration, but also race nerves! Keep this in mind if finding a place to use the bathroom is challenging (example: crowded bathrooms at the event start).
Now that you’re good and hydrated, it’s time to eat something. What and how much you eat will depend on a few factors:
- Individual needs
- Race distance/duration
- Race intensity
The role of the final pre-race meal is to top-up your glycogen stores. Your glycogen stores should be loaded by the time race day arrives. It is a terrible idea to cut calories (particularly carbs) in the weeks leading up to your event.
Here are some typical pre-race meals for some common events. Aim to finish eating your final pre-race meal three hours before your race start time. Aim for four hours if you have a sensitive stomach (especially runners).
Marathon Fueling Recipe Ideas (and Other Common Distances)
While this post focuses specifically on marathon fueling, it can be good to practice fueling in shorter races too. Note that fueling for a 5k is not the same thing as marathon fueling. The demands of the events are completely different and the body reacts to those demands differently. Check out the below pre-race fueling ideas to see how the demands of the different events dictate fueling choices:
- 5k-10k: very light meal. Toast, oats and an egg or some other kind of protein like yogurt. The race will start hard and finish harder. You want to arrive at the start line hydrated and feeling like you will be hungry in the next hour.
- Half-marathon: same as 5k-10k, but you want to arrive at the start line without feeling hungry. You also don’t want to feel too full. One meal idea is to just add nut butter to the toast mentioned above.
- Marathon: Eat a low fiber, carb-centric breakfast that contains more than 100g of carbs. You should have tried this a few weeks before race day. If your race starts early, prepare your breakfast the night before so that you don’t have to think about it on race morning. Bagels with nut butter, cereal with non-dairy milk, a 2-egg omelet, rice-based dishes can all be good pre-race meal ideas.
- Ultramarathon: eat a lot. Drink a lot. Nutrition becomes a game of how much you can take in without upsetting your stomach. Experiment to find out what works for you. Then be ready to deal with stomach upset anyway because it will probably happen at some point no matter what.
Marathon Fueling 1 Hour Before Start
You may still feel full from your big pre-race meal. Eat something medium on the glycemic index, like a banana. This is just to keep your glycogen stores topped up. Keep drinking water.
Marathon Fueling 30-45 Minutes Before Start
Start getting warmed up. Sip water throughout the lower intensity portions of your warm-up.
Once you do a couple of accelerations, take an energy gel for running or sip a sports drink.
15 Minutes Before Start
Go to the bathroom. Stop eating and drinking. If your mouth feels dry, it’s just nervousness. You are hydrated and ready to rock. Focus on relaxing your mind and preparing yourself for the effort ahead.
Do some breathing exercises and meditation.
To summarize, here’s an example marathon fueling plan:
|Time to event start||What to eat and drink|
|Upon waking||~500ml of water|
|3-4 hours to start||Toast and granola. Fruit juice. Sip water.|
|1 hour to start||Banana. Sip water.|
|30 minutes to start||Drink mix with high-GI carbs AFTER several accelerations during warm-up|
Marathon Fueling During Your Race
What you eat is just as important as when you eat during your race. When running or biking for more than 1 hour, it makes sense to plan additional energy intake to fuel your activity run. But remember, you want to have practiced this during your training. Your gut needs time to get used to this. The best options are sports drinks and small snacks that are primarily carbohydrates:
- Isotonic drinks
- Sports gels
- Gummy candies (1-2:1 mix glucose to fructose)
Aim to consume 30-80g of carbs every hour you race and depending on your event. Drink ~500ml of water or drink mix every hour. Make sure you have practiced this during training. Only take in as much as you have previously handled.
Try to take a few sips of water or water mixed with a nutrition mix every 15 to 20 minutes to stay hydrated. Isotonic drinks are ideal as they make up for a lack of both liquids and electrolytes. Be sure to know when the hydration stations are coming on your race route. If you need more hydration than is offered, bring your own hydration backpack or belt (but be sure to have trained wearing it as well).
Know the course and where it is possible or necessary to fuel. Pick places along the course where your body will be working less hard. You process nutrition more efficiently when you’re working less hard. Taking in nutrition during difficult race moments is a bad idea.
Knowing the course can also prepare you for the challenging moments. For example, fuel 15-30 minutes before critical race sections or moments. Crucial moments of the course could be hills or, if you are really competitive, places where competitors will attack.
If you notice your mood become very negative, eat and drink something!
You can also use the course to signal when you need to take in nutrition. Break the race into smaller, more achievable chunks. For example, look forward to taking a drink at the end of a difficult section. It can be enough to push you through a difficult moment.
Note the emphasis on “unhealthy” foods like gels, sports drinks and even candy during your race. Eat this food only during racing and very intense training. Focus on eating real food the rest of the time.
Post-race nutrition is less important unless you need to race soon again or get back to training. Eat a normal, balanced meal if you have a few days of rest before you need to get back to training or racing. Having one alcoholic beverage after a race can be a great way to celebrate an achievement, but drink water with it and limit yourself to just one drink.
If you need to focus on post-race nutrition to recover fast, just take a recovery drink with 25g of protein and 40g+ carbs. Sip that within the hour after your race. Eat a regular meal when you feel ready. Keep drinking water.
Get even more running nutrition guidance!
** The information provided in this blog post is for guidance purposes only, and does not substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice.