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How to Refuel After a Marathon

Your Nutrition Plan for Optimal Race Recovery

by
author image Sarah Metzger
Sarah Metzger joined Demand Media in April 2009 as a Studio editor. Prior to joining the Demand Media team, she worked in development for a social media Internet start-up in Los Angeles. Metzger also has experience in entertainment public relations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
How to Refuel After a Marathon
Pasta is a popular way to refuel after a long race. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/Syda Productions

Overview

Sure, marathon training focuses a lot on physical endurance. But all that running burns a ton of calories and leaves your body depleted of some of it's nutritional stores. We sat down with Los Angeles-based nutritionist Alyse Levine to get her take on how to best recover post-run with the right nutritional choices. Here are her expert insight.

Carbohydrates are necessary to load up our muscles’ glycogen stores, which are the primary fuel source used during endurance exercise.

Alyse Levine, Los Angeles-based nutritionist

Q: How Important Is Nutrition in the Training Process?

A: 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're not fueling and refueling properly. Proper nutrition will enable you to train longer and harder, delay fatigue and help your body recover faster after a run.

Q: What Are Your General Recommendations for Marathon Runners?

A: As your training mileage increases, so does your need for calories, especially those coming from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are necessary to load up our muscles’ glycogen stores, which are the primary fuel source used during endurance exercise.

In fact, at least 55 to 65 percent of an endurance runner’s general diet should be coming from carbohydrates. As for the remaining calories, about 15 percent 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. This ensures that athletes get a wide spectrum of antioxidants and phytochemicals — all of which help improve recovery and overall health.

Runners should also 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 Fueling Up for a Race?

How to Refuel After a Marathon
Watch out for sugar-laden sports drinks. Photo Credit Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images

A: 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.

To make sure that runners are not over-consuming water, they should weigh themselves pre- and post-run and make sure that there's 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 percent of their pre-run weight — and not more. They should also aim to drink between 16 to 32 ounces of fluid during every hour of running.

MYTH #2: You must carb load before a marathon or long run.

Actually, loading up on plates and plates of pasta the night before a long run 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.

MYTH #3: "I'm running so much I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight!"

If you're using your long runs as an excuse to gorge yourself, don't 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 restaurant.

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.

MYTH #4: Energy bars and gels are much better for refueling than actual food.

While energy bars and gels are convenient, there's nothing extra special in them that you can't get from ordinary foods. Instead of an energy bar, you could make your own trail mix or eat some pretzels and peanut butter.

You'll 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.

Fats are an essential component to any diet. They provide essential fat-soluble vitamins and fatty acids and a concentrated source of energy. They also protect and insulate vital organs and cells, improve the taste and smell of foods and increase the satiety we get from foods.

Consumption of fat should never fall below 15 percent of one’s daily calorie intake, because doing so many hinder performance and health.

Q: Can Cherry Juice Really Help With Muscle Recovery?

How to Refuel After a Marathon
Drinking tart cherry juice may reduce muscle soreness. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/Melica

A: 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 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's available year round and can be poured into smoothies or just consumed as is. You can also reap the benefits of cherries through their fresh, frozen or dried forms.

Q: What Should Runners Eat After Their Run?

How to Refuel After a Marathon
Stock up on plenty of fresh vegetables and lean protein. Photo Credit Elena_Danileiko/iStock/Getty Images

A: 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 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. (See the sidebar for Levine's snack picks.)

*Quotes edited for brevity and clarity

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