Marathon / Half Marathon Race Day Nutrition – How to Get it Right

Race day has arrived. After all that hard training and preparation make sure you get your nutrition right.

Many of you may know I love to exercise and in particular I am a keen runner. Not only have I run several half marathons but I support many athletes and fitness fanatics providing nutritional advice to help them optimise performance.  Race day nutrition and recovery nutrition is vitally important if you want to perform at your optimum and ensure a speedy recovery after your race.

Pre Race Breakfast

Probably one of the most important meals is your pre race breakfast. As most races start between 8am and 11am you need to get up early in order to eat your planned breakfast at least three hours before the marathon start. This will enable your body to digest your food, replenish glycogen stores and help avoid any digestive upsets or stomach cramps during the race.

Don’t be tempted to try something new. Stick to a breakfast you have been used to during your training. Good choices are those that are easy to digest, low in fats and rich in a combination of slow releasing and quick releasing carbohydrates. As a rough guide your breakfast should include at least 100g carbohydrate (400 – 600 kcal) although this will depend on whether it’s a half or full marathon.

Good options include fruits with low fat yogurt or coconut yogurt with fruit and soaked oats, porridge and banana, baked beans on wholegrain toast, oat cakes with cottage cheese and fruit or homemade energy bars. For those runners who really can’t cope with solid food before a race try a fruit smoothie with protein powder instead.

If you are choosing more of an energy drink select brands that consist mostly of complex carbohydrates (maltodextrin) as these provide a more prolonged energy source that is easier to digest. There is nothing wrong with a cup of coffee but stick to a small cup as too much may upset blood sugar levels. Caffeine can be a performance booster as it aids in the muscle utilization of glycogen (carbohydrate) and may help the liver produce a little extra glycogen. Another popular option is to use matcha green tea powder. Matcha green tea contains a wealth of catechin antioxidants, caffeine and the amino acid L theanine. This combination has been shown to boost physical performance, aid focus and concentration and burn fat. I often add a spoonful of matcha green tea powder to a smoothie or yogurt.

Fluids are also important – Aim to drink 5-7ml of fluid per kilogram of body weight between three and four hours before the race (i.e. 350 – 490ml or roughly one bottle of sports drink). This should leave you well hydrated for the start of the race without endless trips to the toilets before the start.

Just Before The Start

There is a lot of hanging around before the race begins and depending on the weather and nerves you may have used up some of your energy before the race. Before most marathons you may spend anything up to and beyond an hour waiting at the start. During this time it is worth having a snack with you – this could be an energy bar, sports drink or gel.

During The Race

Try and follow the plan that you have practised during your training with regard to fluids, energy drinks and gels. As a general rule your body can only utilise between 30- 60g of carbohydrate per hour. If you’re using energy gels most provide around 20g so taking 1-2 gels every hour with water is a good option. Try and sip some fluid every 15-20 minutes (around 4 to 6 ounces or 100-200ml) aiming to drink about 500-600ml each hour. Drinking smaller amounts at regular intervals can help you absorb fluid more effectively without causing digestive upset. Avoid over hydration (hyponatremia) by drinking sports drinks with sodium and/or additional sodium supplementation. If you think you will be struggling during the last 30 minutes or hour then perhaps choose an energy gel with added caffeine to perk you up.

Post Race

In the first hour after the race, your muscles are primed to receive fuel to start the repair process.  Eat or drink your recovery snack within the first 30 minutes after the race. At this point your muscles need protein and carbohydrate to speed up recovery so aim for around or 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein. This could be a recovery drink, chocolate milk with a banana or a protein shake with a piece of fruit or dried fruit – these are easy to pack in your kit bag. Whatever you choose make sure it is easy to digest. Ideally choose a combination of high-glycemic index carbs such as banana, pineapple, dates and raisins with some slower-release carbohydrates such as oat cakes.

Pay attention to those lost electrolytes and fluids too – sodium, potassium and magnesium will be lost through sweat during the race. Many runners carry sachets of salt to add to their post run snack or drink. Try to drink around 500ml of an isotonic or hypotonic drink in the first 30 minutes after the race – it is likely you will need around 1-1.5 litres post race in total. Make sure your drink contains around 50mmol sodium as well as other electrolytes too.

Recovery doesn’t stop with your post-race snack either. Try and eat again within 1-2 hours and the meal should include high quality protein (chicken, eggs etc.) with some healthy fat (olives, avocado, nuts, seeds) in addition to carbohydrates. As intense exercise can create a more acidic environment in your body its best to include plenty of alkalising leafy green vegetables in the meal and some antioxidant rich fruit such as berries too.  If appetite is still low then make up an energising smoothie with protein and carbs. Check out the smoothie recipes  in our books or the recipes on the website for inspiration.