While many training for marathon focus on how many miles they're running or their race-day apparel, what you put (or don't put) in your belly can be just as important as how many miles those sneakers rack up.
With marathon season almost at its height, many runners are putting in those final long runs, tapering, and setting their sights on the finish line. And while the miles matter, what you put (or don't put) in your belly can be just as important.
Whether you're running your first 26.2 or are looking to take home a PR, Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., best-selling author of numerous books including Power Eating, has advice to help your marathon be your best.
1. Let thirst be your guide.
According to Kleiner, nothing beats the impact of hydration on performance. She recommends drinking a sports drink with electrolytes to replace fluids.
"If you are racing just to participate and finish, then drink when you are thirsty throughout the event," she says. "If you are racing to win or achieve your personal record, then have a structured fluid replacement plan during the race and be sure to stick with it."
2. Balance your carbs and protein.
Getting the proper pre- and post-workout nutrition is very important for daily recovery and fueling for the competition, Kleiner says. The two most important factors when picking meals or snacks are the protein-carbohydrate ratio and the convenience.
She recommends aiming for a total protein intake of 20 to 25 grams each time you eat. "That amount will move protein metabolism and recovery along more quickly," she says. As for carbs, the larger you are, the more intense your training, and the longer the event, the more you need before and after exercise. Based on these factors, consume a 2:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
And if convenience is important to you, Kleiner suggests a USANA low-glycemic protein shake pre-run and a nutrition bar or chocolate milk after a workout.
3. Make sure you're getting enough vitamin D...
Healthy vitamin-D levels will do your training a world of good by supporting balanced hormone and metabolic function, Kleiner says.
"Most people don't get much exposure to the sun either because they train indoors, don't get much sunshine where they live, or wear sunscreen," she says. "Eat fatty fish, drink vitamin-D fortified milk, and take a 1,000 to 4,000 IU vitamin D supplement daily."
4. ...and Bs
The B vitamins are deeply involved in energy metabolism. In fact, the more calories we burn, the higher our need is for B vitamins, Kleiner says.
"You need to eat a wide variety of foods to obtain the whole family of B vitamins: meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and nuts," she says. But most people don't or can't eat all of these foods, or enough of them daily, so she suggests supplementing with a daily multivitamin that is third-party certified for purity, potency, and digestibility.
5. Get fishy.
You've probably heard a lot about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and Kleiner says they are essential to support cellular, vascular, and joint health. She recommends eating at at least three servings of fatty fish per week, including salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, black cod, halibut, catfish, crab, oysters, or shrimp. She also says to take a 1000-milligram supplement of DHA+EPA daily.
"Nothing substitutes for these marine oils," she says. "The omega-3 fat (ALA) in vegetable sources are not the same and will not convert in appreciable amounts to EPA or DHA."
6. Be cautious with the sugars.
When putting in long hours running, it can be easy to justify eating that extra roll from the bread basket or ordering dessert, but Kleiner says that's a failed strategy that can hurt your training efforts.
"High-sugar intake and processed starches can increase inflammation in the body, lengthening the time that it takes to recover and limiting the beneficial effects of training," she says.
While a treat now and again is fine, focus on lots of deeply colored fruits and vegetables; healthy fats from avocado, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and fish; and healthy sources of protein, she says.
Do those six things plus your training runs and you're well on your way to having a fabulous race! Tell us, are you running a marathon this season? And which of these tips can you follow to make your race experience even better?
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.