Alongside your training and recovery schedule, proper nutrition is one of the most important factors when it comes to a successful race. Whether it’s your very first marathon or your hundredth, anyone can benefit from a hard look at whether their fueling strategy aligns with their goals. These nutrition tips for marathon runners will help you optimize your training and race-day performance. 

5 need-to-know nutrition tips for marathon runners—working against gravity nutrition


Our Top Nutrition Tips for Marathon Runners

So what does it take to put together a solid strategy before your next big event? We’re glad you asked! Let’s take a dive into these 5 need-to-know nutrition tips.

1. Decide on a Nutrition Approach

Here at Working Against Gravity, we are big fans of flexible dieting and tracking macros. While it might seem like a lot of work up front, knowing exactly what you are putting in your body each day provides a concrete data set to compare with how you’re feeling when you train. Further, it also gives you a precise calorie count and micronutrient breakdown - in essence, a snapshot of the percentage breakdown of protein, carbs, fat, and fiber. With this information, you make adjustments to which macros need additional priority and which could use a reduction.

That said, counting macros isn’t the only way to keep track of your intake. Setting concrete goals for each meal surrounding portions of protein, vegetables, and other whole food sources will go a long way in ensuring you have the optimal balance while still allowing for an intuitive approach to intake. After all, a race car isn’t going to win any trophies if it’s trying to make 500 laps on leaded gas. Your body is the same! Learning to build an ideal plate for each meal will provide a high level of confidence that you’ll have the get-up-and-go it needs when things get tough. 



2. How to Fuel With Carbs

To understand the importance of carbs for athletes, we first have to come to grips with their overarching role in the body. As you probably know, carbohydrates are your body’s most readily available source of energy. This includes energy used for exercise, basic bodily functions, and what you use in your daily life.

In a sport like endurance running, they also replenish glycogen stores in your muscles that deplete through any given session. Keeping those stores topped up translates into better performance and higher levels of recovery.

Muscle glycogen stores become progressively smaller when endurance events or training stretches over the hour-and-a-half marker. If they drop too low, your ability to maintain high-intensity levels of exercise is drastically reduced to the point where you’ll hit a wall (affectionately known as “bonking”) or you’ll need to reduce your running pace. Neither of those outcomes is ideal in a race situation, so let’s talk about some ways to avoid it altogether!

  • The week of: “Carb-loading” is a strategy that involves building up stores of carbohydrates in the 48 to 72 hours leading up to a race. A general rule of thumb is 4g of carbs per pound of body weight during that window. Easy options here include white rice, pasta, potatoes, bananas, sports drinks, or pretzels.
  • During the Event or Long Training Sessions: For races or training lasting longer than one hour, carbs need to be consumed while you run in order to ensure the availability of sufficient energy later. Aim for roughly 1/4 of your body weight (lbs) in grams for each hour you run. Sports drinks, energy bars, energy gels, and energy chews are all easy-to-carry, low-volume options.


3. Understand the role of protein in your training and races

We know that protein is king when it comes to the production and maintenance of lean muscle mass. Not only that, but its essential amino acids help your muscles fully repair and recover from intense training sessions. What’s more, protein can act as a performance enhancer for endurance athletes, specifically by sparing muscle glycogen and aiding in fluid uptake (we’ll get to hydration in a minute!) Lastly, especially for long sessions and races, protein helps to keep hunger in check

Let’s see what protein intake should look like when you’re putting in a big session:

  • In order to stabilize blood sugars, you should consume 10-20 grams of protein before a long session or race. Peanut butter is a solid choice here as it will also provide a bit of fat and carbs. Other options include yogurt, non-fat milk, eggs, or energy bars.
  • If your session or event is going to last longer than 4 hours, aim for 5g of protein per hour. Energy bars and turkey jerky are both easily accessible and relatively low in volume.


4. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Fat

Fat has a long history of getting a bad rap in the food space. Far from the doom and gloom, you might have seen in mainstream media over the last 30 years, it plays a vital role in supporting cardiovascular and joint health in the form of omega fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. It’s also a key component for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as D, E, K, and A. Everybody wants stronger nails and hair, right? Well, fat helps support that too!

For endurance athletes specifically, though not the star player, fat provides an additional energy source for long runs. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that fat is one of, if not the most, important fuels for light to moderate exercise. In ultra-endurance events (i.e., those lasting in the 6-10 hour range), it supplies 60-70%(!) of the energy your body needs. Now this doesn’t mean that you need an olive oil shooter before your next big race (too much can actually slow the body down), but you need moderate amounts of fat pre, during, and after big training efforts or races. Many of the intra-training fueling options we discussed will provide a fat boost when you’re on the road or trail, but slotting in roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of your daily fat intake about 90 minutes before kicking things off is a sound strategy.


5. Proper Hydration Can Make or Break Your Race Effort

The importance of water to any athlete cannot be understated—especially when training in the heat. It is the means for all metabolic activity and works to keep your core body temperature regulated while lubricating muscles and joints. Athletes who fail to keep hydrated are leaving tons of performance benefits on the table and can even risk health complications if it is taken to the extreme.

So how do you know if you’re drinking enough water? It’s actually more straightforward than you might think. Your sweat rate can be determined by weighing yourself before and after hard training. You should aim to lose no more than 2% of your total body weight during a session. 

On the morning of race events or big training days, it is important to replenish the water you’ve lost overnight, which can amount to 1-2% of total body weight. Consuming 16-24 ounces of fluids in the 1-2 hours leading up to start time will ensure balance and help optimize performance as you kick things off.

While the rate of fluid loss during training or racing will vary depending on the individual athlete, conditions, and distance, a standard 20-24 ounces of fluid per hour is a general starting point. A pale yellow urine color throughout is a solid indicator that hydration is in a strong spot.



Tying Together Nutrition for Marathons

Ensuring your fueling is optimized guarantees the best possible result for any training session or race. This means planning around protein, carbs, fat, and hydration on the day and finding an overarching nutrition approach that aligns with your goals and lifestyle. If you want to take your marathon running to the next level, consider one-on-one coaching from WAG! We’ve helped thousands of athletes reach their full potential and can help you too!