Marathon Guide | Nutrition with Laura Tilt |
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Nutrition with Laura Tilt


Nutrition for long runs (20 miles +)

When it comes to marathon prep, it’s not just the training plan that counts – you also need to fuel your body to go the distance. If you’re running for more than an hour, carbs, fluid and electrolytes need to be topped up – without them you’ll fatigue faster and risk dehydration.

Carb Power

During long runs, the body uses both fat and carbohydrate for fuel. But unlike fat (which is in plentiful supply, even if you’re slim!), our bodies can only store carbohydrate in small amounts, which is drained quickly during long or high intensity runs. Once you’ve emptied the tank, fatigue sets in, and you’ll be forced to slow down – or worse, hit the wall, an experience best avoided!

You can stop this from happening by re-fueling during your run. Consuming 30-60 grams of carbohydrate an hour will put the brakes on fatigue and keep you going for longer. Carbs from sports foods (i.e. gels/drinks) or normal foods (e.g. banana, raisins) are equally effective – the key is to find what works for you. Both have pros and cons – normal foods are cheaper, but harder to eat, digest and carry during a run. Sports products cost more, but are convenient, and if you choose a sports drink, you’ll replace fluid and minerals (like sodium and potassium), at the same time, making things easier.

thai curry


Carbs sorted, think fluid. Ideally you’ll drink to replace what you lose through sweating, minimising any weight lost during your run to less than 2% of your total body weight. The best way to work out your sweat rate is to weigh yourself before and after a run of at least an hour (see the box for more details), adding on any fluid you consumed during the run. You can then work out a drinking plan based on your sweat rate.

As a very rough guide, the American College of Sports Medicine recommend between 300-800ml per hour - this is a large range so working out your sweat rate will help you personalise what’s right for you. Always drink at a comfortable rate – never so much that you feel bloated or uncomfortable. Remember that sweat also contains sodium and potassium, vital minerals that need to be replaced on longer runs to help maintain fluid balance – drinking plain water if you’re running for more than an hour is a no no.

A sports drink typically contains the right mix of minerals and carbohydrate (4-8 g/100 ml) to meet all three goals. Alternatively, you can add electrolyte tabs (which contain sodium and potassium) to plain water if you’re consuming carbs from another source.

chocolate mousse


Whether its bananas, gels or sports drinks, the important thing is to practice your fuel strategy (both carbs and fluid) during training to make sure that it’s comfortable and works for you. Don’t leave it till the day to try out your fuel plan, or make changes – it should be as practiced as the running itself.

How to estimate sweat losses and sweat rates:

  1. Measure body weight both before and after at least one hour of exercise under conditions similar to the marathon or a hard practice.
  2. Take measurements wearing minimal clothing and while bare-footed. Towel dry after exercise and obtain body weight as soon as is practical
    (e.g. less than 10 min, and before eating, drinking or going to the toilet).
    Example: Pre-exercise weight = 74.5 kg Post-exercise weight = 72.8 kg Fluid deficit = 1.7 kg
  3. Estimate the weight of any fluid or foods you have consumed during the workout
    Example: 800 ml of fluid = 800 g or 0.8 kg).
  4. Sweat loss (Litres) = Body mass before exercise (in kg) - Body mass after exercise (kg) + weight of fluids/foods consumed (kg).
    Example: 74.5 kg – 72.8 kg = 1.7 kg deficit
    + 0.80 kg (800 ml fluid) = sweat loss of 2.5 kg or 2500 ml.
    To convert to a sweat rate per hour, divide by the exercise time in minutes and multiply by 60.
  5. Your weight deficit at the end of the session provides a guide to how well you hydrated during the session, and how much you need to rehydrate afterwards.

Pre Marathon Carb Loading

As sports nutrition has evolved the days of weeklong pasta parties are over, but that doesn’t mean carb loading has disappeared altogether – it’s just gotten a bit easier!

Consuming extra carbohydrate in the run up to a race is like topping up petrol in your car – when starting a long journey, it’s best to start with your fuel tank at 100% - by eating extra carbs, you’ll start fully fuelled, which will benefit your performance.

Latest guidelines recommend aiming for 10-12 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight per 24h, for 1-2 days before the marathon (or events lasting longer than 90 minutes).

For a 63kg (10 stone) runner, this is around 600 grams of carbs a day – it’s a very tall order (see sample meal plan!), but there are a few ways to make it easier – include regular carb rich snacks, choose low fibre carbs (cornflakes versus branflakes) and low fat options (pasta with a tomato sauce versus a cream sauce) to make it easier on your digestion.

If calculating everything feels too much, then simply go for bigger portions of carbohydrate rich foods (cereal, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes), and add in some extra carb rich snacks (bananas, raisins, cereal bars) and drinks (fruit juice, chocolate milk) for 2-3 days before the marathon.

On the day itself, a carb rich breakfast (porridge and honey, toast and banana) a couple of hours before the race will give you a final top up – once again make sure you experiment with the ideal time to eat before you run so that you feel comfortable.

Carb Loading Meal Plan Providing ~600 Grams Of Carbohydrate

Meal Food Carb content
Breakfast 75g bowl cornflakes 122g
250ml milk 33g
Glass of fruit juice 27g
Snack Fruit bread x 2 slices 30g
Jam x 1 portion 20g
Lunch 2 white pitta bread, Tuna and light mayo, salad 63g
1 glass fruit juice 27g
Snack Banana 30g
Chocolate milk 500ml 52g
Dinner 125g pasta 91g
200g tomato sauce 21g
1 glass fruit juice 27g
Bedtime snack 50g malt loaf 33g
30g honey 25g
Total= 601g carbs

Post Marathon Recovery

Bravo! You’ve just completed once of the toughest physical challenges there is. Now time to help your body recover.

Providing you followed a good hydration plan you should end the race without becoming too dehydrated – continue to drink at a comfortable rate after the race and keep an eye on your wee – straw coloured and plentiful is a sign of being well hydrated, if it’s strong smelling, dark and concentrated, drink up! A sports drink, or a salty snack plus fluids will help you to recover the salts lost in sweat.

Eating as soon as practically possible will help your body recover its glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and repair muscles, helping offset aching muscles over the following days. You probably won’t feel like eating a big meal after such a long run, so have some snacks ready to eat in the hour afterwards – a larger meal can come later. Chocolate milk is ideal as it contains both protein and carbohydrate, or go for a sports / bar and a banana or a flapjack. If you’re not feeling something sweet, a sandwich with chicken or tuna is ideal.

Your next meal will be well deserved – a big bowl of pasta, or a chilli with lots of rice – there aren’t any major no no’s – but make sure have a decent serving of carbs to continue the recovery process. Heavy meals high in fat will take longer to digest, and may be uncomfortable on your tum, so you might want to steer clear of the triple cheese pizza.

As tempting as it might be, go easy on any alcohol and it can impair recovery, and sleep! Once you’ve picked up that medal, head for a stretch, a soothing bath and an early night. Rest is vital for recovery too!

avocado and pine nut salad

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