Whether you are a recreational runner who occasionally participates in a marathon or half marathon, or you are a seasoned veteran of these long-distance races, you undoubtedly have one common goal: to cross the finish line. And whether your race goal is to finish, or to finish fast, fueling your body with the right mix of nutrients is crucial to your success.
As a sports dietitian, I often get asked about what and how much to eat before, during, and after long-distance running events. Here are some general guidelines to follow, with a few specific suggestions for each stage of race day.
Before the race:
Eat a high-carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before the race. This will top off your energy stores (glycogen) so that you can start the race with full tank.
A bowl of oatmeal with a sliced banana and nut butter is a great option.
If you are carbo-loading before a marathon or half marathon (increasing your carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to the race), you may want to eat a smaller meal 2-3 hours before the race, and just have a light snack 1-2 hours before the race.
A PB&J on whole wheat bread or a small bagel with nut butter are easy to digest and won’t upset your stomach.
During the race:
If you are running a marathon or half marathon, you will need to replenish your energy stores (glycogen) during the race.
While the research is mixed on how much carbohydrate athletes need to consume during endurance exercise, the general consensus is that 1-2 grams per kilogram of body weight per hour is a good goal.
For example, a 150-pound runner (68 kg) would need 68-136 grams of carbohydrate per hour. This can be achieved by drinking a sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade (24-32 ounces, or about 600-850 ml, per hour), or by taking gel packets or chews (about 1 packet or 2-3 chews per hour).
If you are planning on running for more than 2 hours, you may also want to consider a “buffer” food like a banana or energy bar to eat during the race. This can help offset any potential GI issues that may arise from drinking too much sports drink or taking too many gel packets.
After the race:
Recovery is just as important as the race itself! In the hours and days following a long run or race, your body needs adequate amounts of carbohydrate and protein to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle damage.
Aim for 1.2-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight in the 4 hours after exercise. For a 150-pound runner, this would be approximately 100-125 grams of carbohydrate.
Protein needs are a bit more variable, but most experts recommend 0.14-0.2 grams per kilogram of body weight in the hours after exercise. For a 150-pound runner, this would be 10-14 grams of protein.
Some easy post-run recovery meals include:
Yogurt with fruit and granola
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread
Turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread
A bowl of cereal with milk
Oatmeal with banana and almond butter
There is no one “perfect” way to fuel for a long-distance run. The important thing is to experiment with different foods and drinks in training, so that you can find what works best for you on race day. And remember, the day before and of the race is not the time to try new things! Stick to foods and drinks that you know agree with your stomach.
Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or just starting to train for your first 26.2-mile race, stocking your diet with the right foods can help you power through long runs and reach the finish line feeling strong. We asked sports dietitian Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, to share her top foods for runners.
When it comes to running, “carbs are king,” Clark says. That’s because they’re your body’s main source of energy. “The goal is to top off your glycogen stores before a long run so you have enough energy to fuel your muscles for the entire workout,” she explains. glycogen is a form of carbohydrate that’s stored in your liver and muscles and used for energy during exercise.
To properly carb-load, Clark recommends eating 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight in the three to four days leading up to a marathon or long run. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, that’s 450 to 600 grams of carbs per day. (One gram of carbohydrate is equal to about 4 calories.)
Good sources of carbs include starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn; grains like pasta, rice, and quinoa; and fruit. “I’m a big fan of pre-run breakfasts that include both carbs and protein, like oatmeal with almond butter or a whole-wheat waffle with peanut butter,” Clark says.
Even if you’re not trying to build muscle, protein is an important nutrient for runners. That’s because it helps repair damaged muscles after tough runs. “I recommend runners consume 0.55 to 0.65 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day,” Clark says. For a 150-pound person, that’s 83 to 97 grams of protein a day.
Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, and fish; tofu; eggs; dairy; nuts and nut butters; and seeds. “I like to recommend that runners have a post-run snack that contains both carbs and protein, like chocolate milk or a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread,” says Clark.
Despite what you may have heard, fat isn’t the enemy—especially for runners. In fact, it’s an essential nutrient that helps absorb vitamins, build cell membranes, and keep your joints lubricated. “I recommend runners consume 20 to 35 percent of their daily calories from fat,” Clark says. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s 44 to 77 grams of fat.
Good sources of fat include avocados; nuts and nut butters; seeds; olive oil; and fish. “I like to tell runners to include a source of healthy fat at every meal, like adding a handful of nuts to oatmeal at breakfast or mixing olive oil into pasta at dinner,” Clark says.
Staying hydrated is key for any runner, but it’s especially important if you’re training for a marathon or long race. “Dehydration can cause fatigue, muscle cramps, and impaired mental function, so it’s important to make sure you’re drinking enough fluids—especially in the days leading up to a long run,” Clark says.
In general, she recommends that runners drink 16 to 20 ounces of fluid two to three hours before a run, and then another 8 ounces 20 to 30 minutes before starting. During your run, aim to drink 7 to 10 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes. And be sure to drink 16 to 24 ounces for each pound of body weight lost after the run. “A simple way to gauge if you’re properly hydrated is to check the color of your urine,” Clark says. “It should be pale yellow or straw-colored. If it’s dark yellow, you need to drink more fluids.”
Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are minerals that play an important role in hydration, muscle function, and nerve function. “When you sweat, you lose electrolytes, so it’s important to replace them, especially if you’re running for more than an hour,” Clark says.
One way to replenish electrolytes is by drinking sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade. “I like to recommend that runners drink sports drinks that contain 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solutions, like Gatorade Thirst Quencher or Powerade,” she says. “That’s because they help you absorption fluids and electrolytes better than water.”
Another way to replenish electrolytes is by eating foods that are high in sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, like nuts, seeds, tofu, dark leafy greens, and dairy.