Sure, marathon training is all about physical endurance. But do you know the nutritional musts for finish line success? We sat down with resident Nutrition Advisor Alyse Levine to get her take on how to best recover post-run with the right nutritional choices. Here, her expert insight.
Nutrition plays a critical role in the marathon training process. Even with the perfect training schedule, runners will fail to perform well during their runs if they are not fueling and refueling properly.
Q: When most people think of marathon training they initially think about the physical training schedule and what that will entail. How important is nutrition in the marathon training process?
Nutrition plays a critical role in the marathon training process. Even with the perfect training schedule, runners will fail to perform well during their runs if they are not fueling and refueling properly. Proper nutrition will enable one to train longer and harder, delay fatigue and help the body recover faster after a run.
Q: What are your general nutritional recommendations for someone who will be running a marathon or beginning marathon training?
As a runner’s training mileage increases, his/her need for calories, especially those coming from carbohydrates, increases as well. The reason why carbohydrates are so important is that they are necessary to load up our muscles’ glycogen stores, which are the primary fuel source used during endurance exercise. In fact, at least 55%-65% of an endurance runner’s general diet should be coming from carbohydrates. As for the remaining calories, about 15% should come from lean protein to help with muscle building and repair, and the balance of calories should come from fat - to provide satiety and support normal structural and chemical processes in the body.
Runners should also aim to consume an antioxidant rich diet that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables will help ensure that athletes get in a wide spectrum of antioxidants and phytochemicals – all of which can help to improve recovery and overall health. Runners should also aim to consume at least two servings of fatty fish per week due to the anti-inflammatory properties of their omega 3 content, which may help relieve muscle soreness and boost immunity.
Q: Are there any myths about stuff you should/shouldn’t eat during marathon training that you can take this opportunity to debunk?
Myth #1: Drink as much water as possible on the run to prevent hypernatremia (a dangerously high concentration of sodium in the blood). In fact, drinking too much water can lead to Hyponatremia, which is an imbalance of the fluid-electrolyte levels in the blood. Basically, blood sodium levels plummet because of excessive fluid intake – and if treated incorrectly this condition could lead to death! To make sure that runners are not over-consuming water, they should weigh themselves pre and post runs and make sure that there is no weight gain from excessive fluid consumption. Try to drink only enough to replace lost fluids and consume sports drinks containing sodium rather than plain water. Post-run, runners should ideally weigh within 2% of their pre-run weight, and not more. They should also aim to drink between 16-32 ounces of fluid during every hour of running.
Myth #2: You must carbohydrate load before a marathon or long run. Actually, rather than loading up on plates and plates of pasta the night before a long run (which can cause stomach distress or make runners feel sluggish or tired during the run), runners should consume their usual carbohydrate rich diet and focus on tapering their exercise regimes during the week before the run to maximize glycogen stores. A trainer can provide specific distance benchmarks that should be followed closely in preparation for the day of the marathon.
Myth #3: "I am running so much that I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight!" If you are using your long runs as an excuse to gorge yourself on anything you want, do not be surprised if you start to slowly pack on the pounds. A 10-mile run can easily be undone with a bean and cheese burrito from your average Mexican fast food joint, as an example (close to 1,000 calories). While your calorie needs are going to increase as you increase your mileage, use your hunger level as a gauge on how much to increase your intake by, not your eyes! Add extra calories through healthy snacks, preferably around your workouts, not in the form of indulgent treats late at night –which also won’t help with recovery.
Myth #4: Energy bars and gels are much better for refueling than actual food. While energy bars and gels are convenient, there is nothing extra special in them that you could not get from ordinary foods. For example, instead spending extra money on gels, you could simply make your own by watering down some jelly and putting it in a small ziploc bag. Instead of an energy bar, you could make your own trail mix or eat a few Fig Newtons or some pretzels and peanut butter. Either way you will get the nutrients you need to fuel your body on your long runs. As for those special recovery drinks for after your runs, good old chocolate milk will do the job just as well!
Myth #5: You don’t need to consume any fat when training for a marathon; your diet should consist of mostly carbohydrates with some lean protein. Fats are an essential component to any diet. They provide essential fat soluble vitamins and fatty acids, provide a concentrated source of energy, are needed to protect vital organs, used for insulation, are components of cell membranes, improve the taste and smell of foods and increase the satiety we get from foods. Consumption of fat should never fall below 15% of one’s daily calorie intake because doing so many hinder performance and health.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the new findings on cherry juice? What does it do and how should it be incorporated into a trainee’s diet?
A growing body of research continues to support the consumption of tart cherry juice for its anti-inflammatory and pain relief benefits. For example, research from Oregon Health & Science University revealed that runners who drank cherry juice twice a day for seven days prior to and on the day of a long-distance relay had significantly less muscle pain following the race than those who drank another fruit juice beverage. Furthermore, a new study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s journal "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise" suggests that daily cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by exercise.
Researchers believe cherries’ post-exercise benefits are likely due to the fruit’s natural anti-inflammation properties – attributed to antioxidant compounds called anthocyanins, which also give cherries their bright red color.
Cherry juice is extremely easy to incorporate into a trainee’s diet because it is available year round and can be poured into smoothies or just consumed “straight up”. The research on cherry juice supports its role in reducing muscle pain/inflammation when consumed prior to runs, but it is also an excellent beverage choice to refuel with after runs. You can also reap the benefits of cherries through their fresh, frozen or dried forms.
Q: What should runners focus on consuming immediately after their run to help them optimally recover?
Recovery is the body’s chance to adapt to the stresses of exercise, and nutrition is a critical component of recovery. Refueling after a workout ensures that you will have enough energy for the rest of the day, and to power through your next workout.
After exercise, there is a 30-minute window of opportunity to refuel, as muscles are exceptionally hungry when glycogen levels (as mentioned above, your muscles’ carbohydrate stores) are low. During this window, the body is more efficient at storing glucose for energy and building protein in fatigued muscles.
The ideal post workout snack will include lots of fluids, easily digestible carbohydrates, a little bit of protein, and some sodium.