Whether you are training for your first half or full marathon or even an ultra, as you increase mileage and in order to see the gains you want, proper fueling is just as essential as your speed work, tempo runs, weight training sessions and stretching.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, daily carbohydrate needs for endurance athletes are *6 to 10 grams per kilogram body weight per day. The higher levels, i.e. closer to 10 grams are recommended for increased mileage in training or when fueling for race day. Protein intake for endurance athletes is 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram body weight per day. As with carbohydrate intake, increased mileage calls for increased protein needs as well. Fat intake is a percentage of your total calories, 25 to 30 percent, sticking to the unsaturated fats coming from nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados or fish.
*I wanted to insert a disclaimer on the carbohydrate intake to include my personal opinion and experience. I do not consume 6-10 grams per kilogram body weight per day when training on a daily basis. The only time I'm in this range is when I was training for Ironman and I doing century bike rides or brick workouts. I usually stick to 4-5 grams per kilogram body weight per day for carbohydrate intake on more of a daily basis.
Pre workout fueling: You can sabotage your workout with the wrong meal. If you are a morning riser and like to workout before the sun comes up, allow for an hour to get ready and out the door, stay away from foods high in fat and protein to reduce the chance of any unforeseen pit stops. Take in about 30 grams of carbohydrates that are low in fat to facilitate gastric emptying and minimize gastrointestinal (GI) distress along the run. A piece of fruit or toast with jelly or jam are some examples. If you like to work out later in the day or out of bed early enough to eat a larger meal, ideally take in 60 grams of carbohydrates and include protein when two hours before a workout. Examples of this include a bagel with all natural nut butter, plain greek yogurt with fruit and bran cereal, or an egg white and cheese sandwich on a toasted English muffin. Being a morning runner, I wake up an hour and a half to two hours before I’m out the door so I can eat a larger meal. My favorite is the plain greek yogurt, frozen cherries topped with bran flakes.
During the Workout: While on a run, if you are on the road an hour or less, no fueling is necessary unless it's a hot day and you are sweating profusely. If running over an hour, additional carbohydrates and sometimes protein is needed. Take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for every hour of your workout; this will provide the energy needed to refuel your muscles during the workout and help get you through to the end. There are several different brands of gels available, some have more potassium and sodium and others contain a small amount of protein. Personally, I prefer a gel that contains not only a carbohydrate but also electrolytes, i.e. potassium and sodium to help replace electrolytes because I sweat… a lot. Again, trying out the type and flavor that sits well in your stomach during training is key. Fluid intake is also essential especially in distances keeping you out over an hour. At this point, a beverage containing electrolytes is important. If you are already taking in a gel that contains electrolytes, a beverage with the same electrolytes may not be needed. Plan ahead during your training and place water or sports beverages at different points along your route. During a race, whether it is a half or full marathon or even a triathlon I personally will take a gel every 6 miles and fluids every 2 miles alternating between water and Gatorade or whatever electrolyte beverage is available.
Post run recovery: Re-fueling within the hour after your workout is the best time to help your muscles recover optimally especially when training multiple days in a row. Consume a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within 30 to 60 minutes after finishing a workout. Your body uses the carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen stores is the muscle lost during the run and the protein is needed to rebuild your muscles broken down. Too little of each nutrient will cause your body to not recover properly and hinder your performance during your next run or cross training workout especially if it’s multiple days in a row.
Fluid intake is essential as well, weight lost during a run is all fluid loss; drink 16 to 24 ounces of fluid per pound lost. Weigh yourself before and after a run to determine how much fluid you need post workout.
On a final note, the best way to know what foods work to minimize GI distress is to experiment while training. Certain foods may work for some athletes but not others. Train for proper nutrition intake as you train your muscles for the race!
**In my next article I will get into the types of protein to consume and timing of intake throughout the day for optimal muscle building and fat loss.**
Burke, Louise M., Hawley, John A., Wong, Stephen H. S., Jeukendrup, Asker E. Carbohydrates for Training and Competition. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2011; 29(S1): S17-S27.
Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:509-527.