• Helen Phillips

Musings on the Marathon


I"ve just been asked to give some support to a friend who wants some marathon training tips. So here are my top 10 tips for marathon training nutrition.

1. Ditch the Diet Marathon training means increasing your running millage. All that running is going to be burning energy, and your calorie requirements are going to go up. To burn energy you need to take on energy. Having a starvation mentality will mean that you wont be able to complete training runs effectively. Make sure you fuel properly throughout your training.

However training for a marathon doesn’t give you an excuse to gorge on Cadburys! Foods high in carbs and fats are empty calories and your body is going to be crying out for more vitamins and minerals over the next few months, which the naughty stuff just doesn’t provide.

Make sure you stocking up on a full range of healthy meats, fruits and vegetables to ensure your body is well prepared for the endurance of training and racing its going to face.

2. Embrace Breakfast Unless you’re planning to get up and out the door for an early training session you really need to get into the habit of eating a good hearty and healthy breakfast. You wouldn’t expect performance from a car low on gas, so for best effort from training you need to ensure you are well fuelled.

Marathon training means you need to be eating good quality nutrition throughout the day to maintain your energy levels and keep blood sugar consistent. And this needs to start from the moment you get up.

3. It’s all About Carbs (well not quite) Back in the day, nutrition and fuel for distance running was all about carbs. A nutrition programme would focus on packing in as many carbs through pasta to your diet as you could tolerate.

Nutrition and sports science has now moved on, recognizing the importance of protein in an athletes diet for muscle repair alongside carbohydrates for fuel. However, despite some embracing high protein high fat diets for endurance sport, the benefits of this nutrition strategy are unproven.

For powering your training, and especially your long runs you are going to need glycogen in your muscles. Glycogen is the stored energy and is ultimately derived from carbohydrates. Include plenty of carbs (low GI foods are best to avoid sugar highs and lows) in your diet, which can come from bread, potatoes, pasta and rice.

4. Protein for a Punch As a marathon runner in training you are going to need to eat more protein than before, to repair damaged muscle cells after training and to build new muscle. Eating too little protein can cause fatigue and slow recovery after workouts, so it’s important to get enough protein into your diet, and especially to include quality protein within that critical 30 mins window once you’ve finished your workout.

Upping your protein intake, and eating too much, wont be a problem unless you eat to excess, as excess protein is broken down and excreted as urea and used as an energy source. Protein also plays a key role in appetite control. So if you include protein in your breakfast, for example eggs, then it’ll help with those mid morning munchies.

Its important to get protein from a wide variety of sources to ensure you take on the additional nutrients as well as getting a balance of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) in your diet. Make sure you include milk (which contains calcium essential for healthy strong bones), eggs, oily fish (containing omega-3s ) as well as lean chicken and turkey and red meats (which contains iron essential to replenish blood cells after a heavy run). If you’re vegetarian then you’ll need to focus on getting proteins from a range of plant sources such as tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and cereals.

5. Conquer “I’m Always Hungry” Cravings One thing I’ve had to do from following a structured training plan is to adapt my meal times and plans. I seem to always be either preparing to train or fueling post training, where a traditional three meal a day eating strategy doesn’t always work. Training in the morning before work, and I’m famished mid morning, ready to eat my packed lunch or feel like running on empty at the end of the working day.

As you increase training load and mileage your food cravings will increase. You need to make sure you keep blood sugar constant throughout the day. Rather than reaching for whatever is in the nearest vending machine, plan snacking into your daily meal schedule, sensibly!

If you eat small fibre rich meals every three to four hours throughout the day this will help control appetite and make sure that you snacks fuel you to prepare for or recover from training. I always head to work with a couple of bananas. Bananas are easy on the stomach and packed with carbs and minerals and are the perfect pre workout energizer.

And if you are constantly hungry, then that’s your body telling you that you’re not eating enough at “proper” meal times, so load a little more.

6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate Your body is made up of 50-60% water and you need to maintain this level of water for optimum performance. Most people don’t drink enough during the day, and so are dehydrated come the evenings training session. The best way to keep hydrated during the day is to keep a large bottle by you as you work. Taking sips through the day will keep you hydrated, which will ward off tiredness and keep you mentally alert. Tap water is perfect for low cost hydration. Add in dribbles of squash or slices or orange, lime, lemon or cucumber to add flavor if that’ll help making water palatable.

7. Fuelling for a Long Run I don’t know about you, but I’m a sponge for knowledge, information and advice that’ll help my training. And with my passion for food and cooking I’m picking up hints and tips to fuel and prepare me for training and racing.

It’s critical that your muscles are fuelled up for training. Training on empty is just stupid. You’ll tire quickly and put yourself at risk of injury.

And reading around I have found there are some other foodstuffs that might help with training. My favorite of these is Beetroot. Beetroot juice has been scientifically proven to aid endurance. That means you can exercise (whether its running or cycling) at a set intensity for longer. And as a training marathon runner, that sounds like a good thing! A study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism has suggested taking on nitrate-rich beetroot juice can enhance stamina, strength, and endurance. The improvements measured were attributed to the inorganic nitrate content found in beetroot.

Sounds good to me!

8. I’m Exhausted Are you over training? Rest is an essential part of any training programme. Your body needs time to rest, refuel and recover. Are you eating enough carbohydrate? Training on depleted energy reserves you’ll get tired quicker and performance will be impaired. Or are you low on iron and anaemic?

Iron is a dietary mineral that plays a key role in a variety of bodily processes. A major function of iron is the role it plays in supporting the transport of oxygen in the body; nearly two-thirds of iron in the body is found in hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also required for certain chemical reactions in the body and the production of amino acids, neurotransmitters and hormones.

As a marathon runner an increase in training will require increase in blood volume to transport that important oxygen to muscles, but converse to that runners constant pounding of feet on pavements leads to breakdown of red blood cells, so it is important that marathon runners include iron rich foods in their diet.

Good sources of iron include red meat, fish, eggs, green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans and lentils.

9. The Night Before Runners are a superstitious bunch. I’m no athlete. I might not be fast, but I still take running seriously and have my own pre race routines and don’t leave anything to chance. Lunch the day before a big run I always have beetroot, either in salads or beetroot and feta soup. And for race-eve supper I always make my special macaroni cheese. I’ve been cooking this dish forever. It’s easy and great for pre race carb loading!

It’s important to find a pre race meal that works for you. You don’t want to have gone heavy on fibrous veg or garlic and then have problems during the race the next day!

10. Race and Recover As race day approaches I bet you’re beginning to fantasise about forbidden foods, or having dreams about your first post marathon pint of beer.

But sometimes fate intervenes. As I jog-hobbled over to meet with friends and family in the meet-up zone after I’d finished 1015 VLM (a good 15 mins quicker than I’d anticipated) I had a large cheesecake thrust in my face by Adrian my crazy lawyer friend (who had had heart attack at 43 and I was running for Heart Research) – I am the CheesecakeRunner after all!

But my go to post race meal is pizza and a large glass of Chianti that evening from my local Italian. I’m already dreaming …