Food for fuel: designing the marathon menu

While you don’t have to go on a strict diet, planning your pre and post-run meals is a must

Some of Mary Jennings’ marathon students enjoy a post-run picnic.

Some of Mary Jennings’ marathon students enjoy a post-run picnic.

 

Recently, I wrote about food on the run for marathoners. I hope those of you who are building up mileage have started to experiment with snacks on the go.

From fig rolls to gels and bars to bananas, everyone has their favourite running snack. But have you considered what you are eating when you are not running? It is equally as important to work out what agrees with our body both before and after our long runs.

No strict diets

I’m not going to force you down any restrictive diet or apply any complicated mathematics on percentages of carbs and protein in your meals. You know your body better than anyone and I want you to enjoy your food. We are all aware of what makes us feel good and what makes us feel stodgy and heavy.

Training for a marathon does not mean you have to become obsessed with food. You can still enjoy your occasional glass of wine or bar of chocolate. But what I want you to observe is the impact of your food choices on running and recovery. We want our food to nourish us, give confidence in our running ability, clarity in our mind and energy in our legs.

Avoiding stomach issues

If we can identify the best foods for our body in advance of the big day then it will be easy to know what to eat on marathon weekend. We can avoid race weekend anxiety around food if we answer all our gourmet questions in good time. Let’s start by identifying our ideal pre-run dinner, breakfast and post-run recovery food by experimenting over the next few months. You, hopefully, still have enough weekends left to fine-tune the diet of a champion, or maybe the diet of an anxious first-time marathoner.

The last supper

Do you know what you will eat the night before the marathon? Will you be able to cook for yourself or will you be away from home? Start this weekend by choosing a meal that you imagine you would feel comfortable eating the weekend of the marathon and see if it agrees with your stomach. A normal sensible dinner is perfect.

Consider the time of the evening you need to eat relative to marathon bedtime. You don’t need to worry about extra carb loading or grams of protein, just keep it simple. Choose something that makes you sleep easy, digests well and is ideally not still jumping around in your stomach the next morning when you start running.

Over time you will work out the correct portion size. You don’t want to be starving in the morning, yet you don’t want to be bloated either. Fine-tune the dinner plate each week and by race weekend you will know what works for you. Spaghetti bolognaise for years was my go-to pre-marathon meal – easy to make at home and available practically everywhere if I was eating out.

If you are feeling hungry during a long run it’s a sign you need to have more in your system, so try a larger portion in your meals leading up to the long run 

Breakfast of champions

What is your breakfast of choice before running? What gap do you need between eating and running?

Once again, let’s start the experiment. Some of you may not be a fan of breakfast generally but if you can try eating something however small early in the morning it will help your energy levels throughout the run.

There is no need to overload on fluids on the morning of a long run as you will only have to carry them around in your body. Focus more on fluids in the days leading up to the long run instead. Give your body time to absorb the fluid and store it for when it’s needed.

For breakfast consider once again where you will be eating on marathon morning. If you are lucky enough to have a spot for the New York Marathon you will most likely be having your breakfast on a bus to the start of the race. Make sure your breakfast of choice is something portable if you will not be eating at home. If you are waking up in your own bed on marathon morning that’s a clear bonus too as you can have everything you need at hand.

Breakfast timing

I know some runners need to eat breakfast three hours before they run for them to feel comfortable. Often, these runners will get up and eat and return to bed for a while. Personally, two hours works for me and I will always choose a breakfast of home-made granola and yogurt. I won’t drink very much but will possibly have a few bites of a banana and a few mouthfuls of water when on route to the event.

Remember that breakfast choices and timing are a very individual digestive decision. I’m reminded of one of my running buddies who can happily eat a bowl of porridge in her car and immediately start running once she has finished. For most people that would be a digestion disaster waiting to happen, but for her it works.

If you are feeling hungry during a long run it’s a sign you need to have more in your system, so try a larger portion in your meals leading up to the long run or start fuelling earlier on the run. Rather than eating a mountain of potatoes or pasta the night before the run, spread the additional carbohydrate across a few days instead.

Replenishing the soul

It is often suggested that we should eat a little carbohydrate and protein within 30 minutes of finishing a long run. Most runners I know cannot stomach anything too substantial after running, so having a light snack in the boot of a car, or a drink tends to be all they will stomach.

When we are tired we are less likely to make healthy food decisions so plan ahead and have the snacks ready so that you won’t make an impulse gourmet decision at a petrol station counter on the journey home. Equally, for your post-run lunch or dinner, it is suggested that we eat a good meal within two hours of finishing the training session.

You won’t feel like cooking so have the meal made in advance or better still have someone else cook for you. What we may crave after a run may not be what our body needs so a little planning on these post-run meals makes all the difference. While we may feel we deserve to indulge after our long run, remember that what we eat in the 24 hours after our run is what our body will use to repair and replenish itself. That lays the foundations for the week of training ahead.

Indeed, you deserve to be treated after your effort of a long run but maybe run a nice bath or take some time out with your feet up instead of having a stodgy feed.

You will be glad of it when you start running again.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach at ForgetTheGym.ie

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