Preparing for the Marathon

Aoife Hearne

Aoife Hearne, dietician and former athlete, tells us about the importance of nutrition while preparing for a marathon.

The bank holiday weekend in October has become synonymous with the Dublin City Marathon in Ireland. Many weekend warriors and serious athletes alike will have been preparing for this event long before Autumn arrives. While nutrition plays an important role in the preparation and training for this race, the last week before any marathon is particularly important for fueling this endurance event.

As a former athlete, I’ve put together some tips to help you fuel adequately and enjoy the run.

  • Carbohydrates are key. Carbohydrate rich foods are the most important source of energy for endurance exercise from the diet. Our body is unable to store large amounts of carbohydrates, therefore, it is essential to eat these foods at each meal and snack throughout the day. Some of the best choices of carbohydrates are potatoes, wholewheat bread and wholegrain cereals. Many athletes will aim to eat 7g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight each day.
  • Carbohydrate loading the week before the marathon. Due to the importance of carbohydrates many athletes will carbohydrate load in the days leading up to the marathon to ensure muscles are full of energy and ready for this big day. Rest is an important aspect of carbohydrate loading. As training reduces in the week leading into the marathon you should continue eating the same amount of carbohydrate per day. 3 days before the event aim to increase your carbohydrate intake to 10g per kg body weight. 
    For a 9 1/2 stone (60kg) person this would reflect an increase of 180g of carbohydrate per day. See below for an easy way to add 180g of carbohydrate to your day. The foods below have been chosen due to their high potassium content which is another important aspect of a sport nutrition preparation plan.
  • Protein is important too! After carbohydrates, protein is an important nutrient in a sports nutrition plan. Protein’s main function is for growth and repair of muscles. The key with protein is to make sure you have it at every meal and snack along with your carbohydrate choice. Research demonstrates that protein is best absorbed when consumed in smaller portions (20g) regularly throughout the day. Ideally you should aim to eat 20g of protein at each of your main meals and half of that at snack times. Either 3 eggs or 3-4oz of meat, fish and poultry are great protein choices to have at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Drink fluids regularly throughout the day. Fluids are critical for recovery, both physically and mentally. Fluid needs are different for every athlete, drinking regularly to avoid thirst is important. A general guideline for fluid intake is 1-2L/day + ~ 400-800mls per hour of exercise. Water and milk are the best choices for fluid consumption. In the weeks and days leading up to the marathon ensuring you are consuming adequate fluids along with adequate sodium (salt) and potassium will guarantee you are well hydrated.
  • Recovery after training and competition is essential and often something athletes forget about. When you consume a recovery food / drink it allows the body re-fuel and repair, especially when training at a very high intensity on a regular basis. This will allow you to train better the next day and can also help prevent injuries. Recovery snacks should contain both carbohydrates and protein; a good choice would be a high protein milk and a piece of fruit, such as a banana.
  • Practice makes perfect. It is a good idea to practice the eating and drinking schedule of competition day in advance of the event. Never do anything new on competition day.
  • 48 hours to go. Ensure your last meal the day before the marathon is high in carbohydrates (eg potatoes) with a lean protein source (chicken, fish or lean red meat). Eat what worked for you during training and avoid trying new foods at this late stage. A high carbohydrate breakfast should be eaten 2-3 hours before the marathon. Recipes such as Potato and Beetroot Latkes, or a Potato and Mushroom Omelette would be good options, and your choice of meat could be added into the dishes. Don’t forget - adequate fluids over this period are also essential.