Proper fuelling and hydration are crucial for marathon runners, and the Fast Running team have some key tips for ensuring optimal performance on race day.

Everyone knows that a big part of any marathon race is the fuelling. Unlike a half, which you might predominantly run on the stored glycogen in your muscles and a couple of gels (or even without), a marathon sees many runners hit the wall down to poor pacing or poor nutrition. Or a bit of both.

There is a lot of advice out there about how to fuel your optimum performance and we’ve digested (a pun, of course) as much as possible to bring some simple advice our readers can follow.

The build-up

In the days leading up to the marathon, it’s important to increase carbohydrate intake to fully fuel muscles. Leafing sports nutrition expert Asker Jeukendrup recommends 7-12 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day, with most carbs coming from low-fiber sources like white bread, pasta, and sports drinks.

A pre-race meal high in carbs and easy to digest, such as a bagel with peanut butter or a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, is also important.

Training the gut, or improving digestive system function and efficiency, is another important aspect of marathon preparation. This can improve carbohydrate utilization, reduce gastrointestinal discomfort during the marathon, and enhance recovery after the race.

Strategies for training the gut include gradually increasing carb intake, practicing with different types of fuel during training runs, and paying attention to hydration and electrolyte balance. Listening to the body and paying attention to gastrointestinal symptoms can also provide valuable insights. By following these tips, marathon runners can ensure proper fueling and hydration for optimal performance.

In the race itself

During the marathon, it’s crucial to continue fuelling to maintain energy levels, especially if you want a PB.

There is some debate among sports nutrition experts about the optimal amount of carbohydrates to consume during endurance events like marathons. According to Jeukendrup consuming 30-60 grams of carbs per hour during a marathon is sufficient for most runners.

However, some research has shown that consuming higher amounts of carbs during endurance events may be beneficial.

For example, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that trained runners who consumed 90 grams of carbs per hour during a simulated marathon had significantly better performance than those who consumed only 30 grams of carbs per hour.

Another compared 60-90-120g of carbohydrates and saw benefits in terms of lower muscle damage markers in the groups taking on more carbs, but without any difference in GI issues after a period of gut training for all.

When to eat?

Remember it is important to consume carbohydrates and fluids at regular intervals to maintain energy levels and hydration. The timing of these fuel and hydration breaks will depend on the length of the marathon and the individual runner’s needs and preferences.

As a general rule, it is advisable to start fueling within the first hour of the marathon and then every 30-45 minutes thereafter. This can be achieved through a combination of sports drinks, gels, and energy bars, depending on the runner’s tolerance and preferences.

It is also important to pay attention to thirst and hunger cues during the marathon, as these can serve as indicators of fluid and fuel needs. It is generally better to drink and eat before feeling thirsty or hungry, as this can help prevent a deficit from developing.

However, it is also key to avoid overloading the stomach, as this can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort. Finding the right balance will likely require some trial and error, and it can be helpful to practice fueling strategies during training runs to see what works best.

It is worth noting that the ability to tolerate and effectively utilize high amounts of carbs during exercise can vary significantly from person to person. Some runners may find that they can tolerate and benefit from higher carb intake, while others may experience gastrointestinal discomfort or other negative side effects. It is important for each individual runner to find what works best for them through trial and error.

After the storm

Post-race recovery is equally important, and Jeukendrup recommends consuming a mix of carbs and protein within the first 30 minutes after the race, along with continued fluid intake, to facilitate recovery.

Just to give you an idea here is an example menu for a marathon weekend.

  • Dinner the night before: Grilled chicken/tofu with quinoa and roasted vegetables
  • Breakfast on race day: Bagel with peanut butter and a banana, washed down with a glass of sports drink or electrolytes
  • Snacks on race day (prior to the marathon): Energy bar and a sports drink
  • Food and drinks during the race: Energy gels and sports drinks every 20-30 minutes, totalling approximately 90 grams of carbs
  • Post-race snack: Protein shake with fruit or a turkey or cheese sandwich on whole grain bread

It is worth noting that this is just one example, and the specific needs and preferences of each runner will vary. It is important for each runner to find what works best for them through trial and error.