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How to eat for a marathon

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Michael Kibblewhite Michael Kibblewhite | 08:45 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011


A runner stops to take a breath

Eating well is crucial for going the distance in a marathon

“My fuel gauge had gone to zero 100 metres before the finish line. I was on the floor.” Experienced marathon runner Karen Hazlitt was second in the 2008 Edinburgh marathon when her body called time on the day’s endurance. All those painstaking months of long runs, sweat and sacrifice seemed in vain, until she managed to pick herself up on the railing to complete the race with an “inelegant wobble”. So why did she fall short? Put simply, her body needed more calories because of poor racing conditions, even though she'd eaten well beforehand. But what foods should you be eating and how can you keep topped up for the 26-mile adventure?

Karen’s three children are long distance runners and share in the healthy lifestyle. Potatoes, pasta and rice appear on the daily menu.

Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson

Although copious amounts of carbohydrates stoke the Hazlitt’s quick-firing metabolisms, food is not simply fuel here – it should be enjoyed. “I try to source foods locally and have a farm shop nearby, which is where I buy all my meat”, says Karen. “We have chickens in the garden, so we have our own eggs and grow our own vegetables. I like to know where the food comes from, but it’s not all perfect!”

Keith Anderson works alongside Karen, training marathon runners. Once a smoker and always eager for a late night at the pub, he only took up running in his late twenties, but by the age of 41 he was representing England at the Commonwealth Games.

For Keith “eating correctly is a cornerstone to success. The training is important, the resting is important and the nutrition is the final piece.” Here are his eating tips for running like an athlete:

  • Plan meals meticulously. Your nutrition is going to fail if you settle for convenience foods. Eat a range of slow-released carbohydrates across the day, such as oats, brown rice and beans. Avoid potential pitfalls during the week, such as skipping breakfast and drinking giant cups of coffee.
  • Set aside time for food shopping, even though work-life and training is very busy. Buy fresh foods and cook simply. A Japanese-style diet is ideal for running, particularly steamed fish. Get inspired with BBC Food’s marathon recipes.
  • Pack a snack. Hunger can be a convincing reason not to train, so avoid this by keeping rice cakes or a banana in your bag.
  • Avoid comfort eating. You burn many more calories if you are training for a marathon, but wind down (taper) in those final pre-race days. It’s very easy to unnecessarily put on weight in those final days before the race.
  • Keep meals simple. It can be a good idea to avoid solid proteins such as meat and fish in the final 36 hours to give the digestive system a rest before the endurance.
  • Eat out healthily. If you’re eating a meal out the night before make sure you know what’s on the menu. Restaurants are usually very busy for big marathon events, so you could end up eating unnecessarily fatty food if you don't book ahead.
  • Eat breakfast, even if you are nervous, and porridge is a good slow-releasing carbohydrate.
  • Hydrate before the race, but beware of drinking excessive amounts as this can lead to hyponatremia.
  • Keep fuelling during the race. Sports scientist Gareth Nicholas recommends 30-60g carbohydrates are required each hour during the marathon, which can be consumed through isotonic drinks or gels. He describes how to eat during a race in a recent podcast.

      So, on a personal note and taking Keith's advice, barbecue ribs are probably off the menu until I tackle this year’s Stockholm marathon.

      Are you running a marathon this year? If so, what have you been eating? And what are you looking forward to eating after the race?

      Michael Kibblewhite works for the BBC Food website.




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