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Smart Nutrition for Your Marathon

by Karl Gruber
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It’s amazing to me that even after many years of running and many marathons raced, I can still make mistakes with my nutrition to stay fueled in the long run. Just this morning, as I ran with the running club that I coach, it didn’t take very long to notice my legs just did not have that all important “oomph” they need to run well. Normally, I chow down the day before a longer run to make sure that my fuel tank is full — so that I can run well without any energy issues. But for some reason, I just did not eat very much prior to this morning’s run, and I paid the price for it.

That being said, I am glad that both nutrition and hydration issues are rarely a problem for me these days when I am out on a long training run or during a race. Over the last few years, however, I made numerous mistakes when it came to consuming the right kinds and amounts of foods to keep me going during a long run or race. But I finally had an epiphany of “Oh yeah! This is what I need to do!” To be exact, I have “nailed” my nutrition to the point where I now run better late in a race or training run because I am doing the right things nutritionally. My body can now keep on keepin’ on and run well!

Unfortunately for most long distance runners, finding the right nutrition balance tends to be a trial and error process that can take many years, depending on the runner. Some people have tummies that are very sensitive to certain foods and liquids, which can lead to gastrointestinal issues during their run. Other runners have iron stomachs and have even been know to eat a greasy cheeseburger prior to a run — NOT recommended. It could take a while to figure your nutrition out, but don’t give up! 

Fortunately, nutritional science has made huge advancements — especially in the sports world — to keep athletes fueled during their event and for post-workout recovery. In the forward of Dr. Edmund Burke’s book Optimal Muscle Recovery, Olympic Gold Medalist and Boston Marathon Champion Frank Shorter writes: 

“For years now we have been aware of the importance of replacement drinks to restore the body’s balance of fluids and salts, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium… The secret to complete recovery lies in carefully balanced nutrition and nutritional supplementation that will enable you to reduce muscle damage, restore energy, and regain your strength after exercise.” 

Nowadays, there is an awesome array of sports recovery drinks that will do exactly what Shorter states. And when it comes to getting ready for a 20-mile training run or a 26.2 mile race, I have one word for you — carbohydrates.

Remember that not all carbs are equal when you’re considering how much and which kind of carbohydrates to fuel your body for the long run. There are two types of carbs, simple and complex. First, let’s take a look simple carbohydrates.

Simple Carbohydrates
Here’s what Nancy Clark, MS, RD says in her book Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook: “Glucose, fructose, and galactose are the simplest sugars… These get converted into glucose molecules before entering into the bloodstream for fuel. Your body digests any type of sugar or carbohydrate into glucose before using it for fuel.” She goes on to point out that if an athlete does not get enough, “Athletes with low blood sugar tend to perform poorly because the poorly fueled brain limits muscular function and mental drive.” 

This became evident to me one year at mile 23 of the Athens Ohio Marathon. A girl who had been running near me suddenly starting weaving radically and looked as if she was about to collapse. Instinctively, I snatched a can of a high-sugar soda out of the hands of a volunteer and gave it to this girl. She drank the entire can of soda, literally straightened right up, said thanks and took off straight to the finish line. It saved her race! This, of course, is a dramatic example of what Nancy Clark was talking about.

Complex Carbohydrates
As for complex carbohydrates, Nancy Clark states, “Complex carbohydrates, such as starch in plants and glycogen in muscles, are formed when sugars link together to form long, complex chains… The carbohydrates in wholesome fruits, vegetables, and grains provide energy, vitamins, and minerals – the fuel and spark plugs that your engine needs to function its best… When it comes to preparing for a marathon, triathlon, or long-distance bike race, or other endurance event that will last for more than 90 minutes of intense exercise, you should: Eat a high-carbohydrate (60 to 70 percent) diet for 3 days prior to the event.”

As a long distance runner, the biggest point you should take away from these brief excerpts is that while simple carbs do provide your body and brain with energy, you burn through it very quickly. On the other hand, complex carbs (in the form of glycogen) are stored in your liver and muscles so your body can consistently draw upon for fuel over long, intense periods of running — such as racing a marathon.

Veteran Runner Tip
It has been shown that the human body can hold only enough fuel in the form of complex carbs or glycogen for approximately two hours of running. Be sure to carry those extra energy gels or chews to re-fuel during your run to supplement your depleted energy stores.

Remember, your body is like a motor and your nutrition is the fuel. Without the proper fuel, that motor will not run — period.  So if you have a hard long distance training run or race ahead, choose those foods that have been proven to re-fuel your muscles so that you can recover well and live to run and race well another day. 

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