You don’t have to be an elite runner to apply science-based recommendations about carbohydrate loading and marathon week nutrition. Your meals in the week leading up to a big race can make or break your performance, no matter your race goals.
The lowdown on carbohydrates
When you run out of carbohydrates on a run, you can “hit the wall” or get that feeling of fatigue, where you think you can’t take another step.
Runners are notorious for eating a high carbohydrate diet. But, your marathon week nutrition needs special focus on carbohydrates. Let’s look at why they’re needed, when it’s necessary and how many grams of carbs are needed:
- Define carb loading: Carb loading is the traditional practice of runners focusing on eating carbohydrates in the days leading up to their race to optimize their glycogen stores.
- Who should do it: Runners who are racing over 90 minutes should think about carbohydrate loading. Carbs are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, and our muscles use this fuel primarily during a race. Those high energy stores won’t necessarily make you faster, but they can help delay fatigue.
- Load, then taper: Research shows that as few as two to three days of carbohydrate loading in addition to rest (tapering) can optimize glycogen stores. You’ll find so many methods for the best way to carbohydrate load, but one of the easiest ways is to make sure your mileage is low the week before your marathon, and focus on increasing your carbohydrate intake two to three days before your race.
- When to start: Start several days before your race by increasing your normal amount of carbohydrates from 55 to 65 percent to 70 percent in those several days before your race. This can easily be done by increasing your portions of carbohydrate foods (add an extra serving of carbohydrates during the day) and decreasing your protein and healthy fats.
- Balance your diet: This doesn’t mean eliminating protein and fat completely for carbohydrates — you still need some good balance to feel great on race day! The numbers end up being 4.5 to 5.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, which sounds like a lot of carbohydrates, so just focus on those whole grains, vegetables, fruits, potatoes/sweet potatoes and dairy foods as tolerated several days before the race by adding a serving of those foods at each meal and decreasing protein and fat servings.
- Keep portions consistent: You don’t need to eat extra food or more calories — you’ll be less active during this time, so try to keep your portions and amount of calories you’re eating the same and change the composition of your plate to focus on carbs. Some runners tend to think they can eat whatever they want the week of their race, or focus too much on carbohydrates and show up to race day feeling lethargic and heavy. Save that ice cream/pizza/donuts/whatever for after the race!
- Expect water weight: Many runners experience moderate weight gain of 1 to 3 pounds due to the fact that glycogen stores water along with it. If you experience this, don’t worry! Your body is just preparing itself for race day.
The day before the race
The day before your race, your plan should be to eat throughout the day, focusing on carbohydrate-rich foods. You aren’t going to be able to fill your glycogen stores in just one big pre-race meal.
Choose easy carbohydrate options at each meal:
- Grains such as rice, oatmeal, quinoa, pasta
- Baked and roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Juice/sports drinks
- Fruits and vegetables are also good carbohydrate options, but watch the fiber content. Bananas are always a good go-to fruit, and you can cook your vegetables to make them easier to digest.
Instead of the traditional heavy pasta dinner, try eating your main pre-race meal for lunch the day before your race. This ensures you have enough time to digest that food. Then, try a lighter carbohydrate-rich dinner and a carbohydrate snack before bed.
The morning of a half or full marathon, you should ideally wake up three to four hours before your race. Top off those glycogen stores by eating a meal that contains mostly carbohydrates with moderate protein and fat. You want this meal to hold you over throughout your race without weighing you down. The closer you get to the race, the smaller your meal becomes.
Again, stick with what has worked for you in the past and don’t stress out over it, but here are some tips:
- One to four hours before the race: 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight (150 lbs/2.2 = 78 kg)
- 1/2 cup oatmeal cooked in 1 cup milk, a banana, peanut butter, raisins, sweetened with honey and cinnamon and a dash of salt
- A turkey sandwich
- 1/2 or full large bagel with peanut butter, honey and a banana
- Two pieces of toast with banana and honey, some sports drink or juice
- One Nature Valley granola bar and a banana
Some research shows carb loading is beneficial. Other results show it doesn’t make a difference.
The bottom line is, if you can eat extra carbs in the days leading up to your race, it won’t hurt you. You might be able to help your performance, so it’s worth a try.
Nutrition for a 5K
If you’re running a 5K, you’ll be running pretty hard for those 3.1 miles. You don’t need to focus on diet as much as a marathoner because you probably won’t be running for 90 minutes.
- Follow the “day before” plan of a marathon runner, though you probably won’t need as many calories.
- Focus on healthy carbohydrates (potatoes, whole grains such as whole grain bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, fruits and vegetables) and lean proteins. Limit the amount of fats you eat.
- Avoid high-fiber foods the day before if you know your stomach is sensitive. Cook your vegetables, peel your fruit or choose fruit juice, and avoid high-fiber grains and vegetables.
- A big breakfast on race morning might cause stomach upset. Instead, try to eat at least an hour before the race. Many people opt for easy-on-the-stomach carbohydrate foods, like a banana with peanut butter, toast and jam, a granola bar and a piece of fruit, or some sports drink/juice. Eat enough to hold you over, but not so much that you’re feeling stuffed and heavy at the starting line.
Rules to remember during race week
- Now isn’t the time to experiment. You might have pre-run meals you know sit well with you. Go with those foods and relax.
- Everyone is different. Some people handle high-fiber, high-fat foods the day before a run or race. Others may do better with a higher carbohydrate, low-fiber diet.
- You know yourself best. If your running partner eats a plate of pasta and that’s not your practice, do yourself a favor and stick to foods you know.
- Fueling for the long run: Are you eating enough?
- Running safely outdoors in the heat
- Sanford Sports running program designs plans for all levels