How I Improved My Marathon Nutrition

How I Improved My Marathon Nutrition

When I first learned about marathons years ago, my second thought (after how could someone run for that long?) was about food and energy. How does someone run that long and not get hungry or tired from lack of food?

Of course, I’ve learned the answers to those questions over the past several years, both from reading and from firsthand experience. Still, I’m fascinated by the topic of marathon nutrition and hydration and I enjoy reading how others fuel their marathons. I really nerd out on all things sports nutrition, especially for the marathon and half marathon. For me, changing my marathon nutrition made a significant difference between my first and second marathon.

The difference between how I felt when I crossed the finish line of my first and second marathons was drastic. At the 2015 Portland Marathon, I finished feeling depleted, exhausted, thirsty, and disappointed. At the 2016 California International Marathon, I finished feeling tired but still going strong and proud.

At the 2015 Portland Marathon, I missed my goal of a BQ time by 15 minutes. At the 2016 California International Marathon, I qualified for Boston by 3.5 minutes faster than my qualifying time.

What changed? While I did change my training (from the Hansons Marathon Method to self-coaching), I believe that my marathon nutrition and hydration had the most significant impact on the drastic difference between those two races.

How I Improved My Marathon Nutrition

Train Low, Race High

I first encountered the idea of training low on carbs and racing high on carbs in Matt Fitzgerald’s The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition. Doing some runs without carbs during the run would train the body to be more fuel efficient, so to speak – so that when you added in a high amount of carbs on race day, those carbs would feel like rocket fuel.

A low-carb long run is different than a glycogen depletion run, as I explain in this post. I still ate my normal pre-long run meal before these runs, but I did not consume any carbs or food of any sort during these runs. My longest low-carb run was an easy-paced 16 mile run in the first third of my training cycle. I still drank water with electrolytes during these runs as well. 

As the race approached and my long runs became longer and faster, I switched over to using carbs. Some runs I would use less fuel, to keep up with the training low philosophy, but for my three 20 milers and any runs at marathon pace (which were about half of my long runs), I practiced fueling as I would during the marathon.

Practicing my race day nutrition during long runs helped me find the type of fuel that worked for me, determine the best intervals at which to take it, and train my stomach to handle fuel just as it would on race day.

Thanks to the low carb runs, my body could use both fat and carbs as fuel rather than relying predominantly on carbs. My body was also trained to tap into stored glycogen rather than rely solely on glucose (blood sugar).

Then, during the race, the extra gels gave me a huge boost of energy. I never hit the wall. The miles where I had to work to maintain my pace were not a result of low energy, but rather of fatigued muscles.

How I Improved My Marathon Nutrition

Sipping on Gels Rather than Taking All at Once

I could babble on for a long time about why sipping gels is a better idea (gastric emptying, sugar crash, GI distress, etc.), but I truly believe this is one of the best methods for avoiding GI distress and having steady energy levels during the marathon.

On race day, I took my fuel every 40 minutes – 40 minutes, 80 minutes, 2 hours, 2 hours 40 minutes, and a final partial gel around 3 hours. This was quite a bit of fuel – as I said above, my plan was to consume a high amount of carbs during the race. I stored my gels in these Gear Well reuseable pouches for easier consumption and storage during the race. 

At each 40 minute mark, I would take a couple sips of gel. Five minutes later, I’d take a couple more sips, and then five minutes after that, I’d take a final sip or two. This method provided me with the equivalent of one gel, but instead of gulping in all down in a matter of seconds, I slowly took it over 10-15 minutes.

I sipped my water as well, rather than holding off early and drinking larger portions later. I started taking Nuun at the first aid station – just a few sips – and then alternated water and Nuun at each station and drank to thirst.

Carb-Loading The Right Way

I honestly forget how I carb-loaded for the Portland Marathon, but in retrospect, I don’t think I did the carb load right (at least for me). 

For CIM, I did a three-day carb-load with ~70% of my calories from carbohydrates. I didn’t cut out vegetables until Saturday and tried to get a decent amount of my carbs from foods such as potatoes, squash, fruits, and other vegetables.

I did count calories and carbs during the carb-load because it’s actually hard (or at least was for me) to eat that high of a percentage of carbohydrates!

I didn’t do a fat-loading phase or a caffeine fast at all – I didn’t find them necessary for my level of training. For me personally, something as drastic as a caffeine fast would be reserved for trying to break through a long-standing plateau. I’m a bit of a coffee addict.

Eating More Before the Race

To expand on the previous point, I also changed what I ate before the race. Glycogen stores are partially depleted by an overnight fast (sleeping for 7-9 hours), so a small breakfast before the race tops off your carbohydrate stores before the start line.

Before my first marathon, I ate a banana and snacked on dry Chex cereal. I was nervous about the race and didn’t have much of an appetite – and I’m sure the paltry pre-race breakfast didn’t do me any favors during the race, especially when I fell off my pace at mile 14.

For my second marathon, I ate a full-sized breakfast just over 2 hours before the race: a whole plain bagel topped with a bit of peanut butter and honey and a banana.

For hydration before the race, I drank 1.5 cups of coffee, 12 ounces of water with Enduropacks, and probably another 12-16 ounces of water in the three hours before the race. I stopped drinking more than just a few sips about 1 hour before the start time.

Nutrition and hydration seem to be ever-changing, so I know that just because I nailed it at CIM, I may not always nail it during training or racing. Bodies change, training needs change, and weather is always a factor. But I definitely did improve my marathon nutrition from my first marathon to my second marathon!

Of course, what worked for me might or might not work for you. I always encourage runners to listen to their bodies and find what works for them.

If you want some guidance on marathon nutrition or hydration (or for the half marathon), check out my coaching services and my special e-course on Fuel Your Fastest Running. This course delivers eight videos to help you optimize your nutrition and hydration during training and race day – including topics such as preventing GI distress, avoiding the wall, and whole food alternatives to gels. 

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner! 

How have you improved your nutrition and hydration for racing/running?
What’s your biggest obstacle in marathon or half marathon nutrition?

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23 Responses

  1. I really like the idea of taking gels slowly rather than all at once. Where did you find that huge hammer gel? Rob is signed up for a marathon in May and is letting me “coach” him (as much as he will let anyone tell him how to train…) and I really want to get him rethinking about his nutrition.
    Whenever I get to the point of training for another long race I think I will need to reevaluate my fueling needs. And probably re-read all the info from your e-course!

    1. I purchased the Hammer Gel on their website! The Hammer website is great to order from because they often send samples of products as well. I think it’s important to reassess nutrition with each race!

  2. You really nailed your nutrition and hydration for CIM. And your dedication to improving it showed…big time!!As I look at getting back into racing in 2017, nutrition and hydration is on my mind. I’ve always had trouble with it and now that it’s been so long since I’ve used it, I’m really starting back at zero. I got some great tips from Jamie who talked with us at Rise.Run.Retreat. Now I just need a race to work for!

    1. Thank you! That’s so great that you’re working with Jamie – she’s so knowledgeable! I have her tucked in my mind for if/when I need help. I can’t wait to see what race you choose!

  3. Nutrition is always such a tricky piece of the puzzle for me when it comes to marathons. I have nailed it for my olympic distance triathlons (luckily) but over 26.2, and the days leading up to it, it’s gets super complicated! I love that you have written it all out here in an easy to follow way and I’m REALLY glad you found something that obviously worked so well for you!! It’s too bad there is not a “one plan fits all” to the marathon!!
    Congratulations again. Such an amazing accomplishment!

    1. Thank you so much! It does get super complicated! I feel like it shouldn’t be so complicated but it really requires so much planning and figuring out well in advance what works.

  4. People are always amazed when I tell them how little I eat during training (before and during my run) and how much I eat the day of the race (before and during the run). You are going to be out there for a long time, my friend, you don’t want to be hungry! That said, don’t eat a pancake breakfast. I also take my time with eating all of those things.

    1. Oh my gosh the things I saw people eating at the hotel before the race! I was toasting my bagel and saw someone eating biscuits and gravy. AND THIS IS CALI, not the south.

  5. This is such great advice! I definitely do much better when i “sip” on gels as well. I’ll have to practice that running low racing high method 🙂

    1. Thank you! You should give the train low race high method a try! I would always carry an emergency gel just in case (because I didn’t want to bonk) and stay well hydrated, which helped a lot.

  6. Awesome! I know how dedicated you were to improving nutrition this whole year, glad to see it paid off for you!

    Nutrition and hydration have always been pretty uncomplicated for me, even for marathons. I just try to eat well and drink lots in the week before the race, and take gels every 5 miles during. It’s worked so far. I know things are always changing though, so I just continue to practice and training and learn from what works there and not stress about it too much.

  7. The one thing that will make or break me on race day is if I take an Immodium or not. Running hard gives me diarrhea, and diarrhea does not make racing very much fun. HA! So I make sure to get up, eat 3 hours before the marathon start time, have my coffee and my poop, and then once I know I’m all done “that,” I take one or two Immodiums about a half hour before the race! Life saver.

    1. Funny thing – another change I made this year was NOT taking Immodium before a race! I used to do that but I think it actually messed with my hydration levels and stomach and turns out I didn’t need it. Just goes to show how every runner is very different with nutrition/hydration!

  8. love this post! especially because you discussed what we discussed the other day about skipping the gels during runs – run low, race high. I definitely reached that point in being able to run long without a gel but of course still eat my breakfast! I can’t run without a decent sized pre-run breakfast. I also sip the gels, never took a whole one at once in my life! would be way too much for me at once.

    1. Thank you! I really think you should try the train low, race high for your next half – especially since you aren’t needing the gels on your weekly long runs anymore.

  9. Ugh I basically suck at nutrition. Coming from an eating disorder background, it’s really hard for me to fight my urges to restrict, plus the idea of a carb load kind of terrifies me. What seems to work for me so far is to eat lots of carb snacks like granola bars and cereal the day before a race- just grazing on it as opposed to having two or three huge meals. It kind of works for me..!

    1. I imagine that background does make it difficult, but good for you for finding what works for you! Snacking is so helpful during the carb load – it’s easier to manage than three BIG meals.

  10. Reading this post makes me that much more excited to begin working with you soon. Even though I have yet to tackle 26.2, I still know how important the nutritional aspect is to being successful. I will definitely be using your guidance to help me through the long runs and race day! eeekkkkk….(I still cannot believe what I am going to do!!!).

  11. Our nutrition changes were so similar this year! As you know, I also did a lot of low carb or glycogen depleted running which I also think made a huge difference in how efficient my body was and how I felt on race day. And I’m a big fan of sipping gels. So glad it all came together and paid off for you!

  12. This is a fabulous post, Laura. It’s always interesting to learn what works for other runners. I’ve never counted calories before a race but I agree, it’s hard to increase carbs by so much without doing so — which means I likely will before my next big race. I don’t do gels because they give me GI distress, but I do chews and pretzels at a slow rate for the same reasons you sip gels. It’s much better for me. Thanks for posting this!

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