Nutrition - Hydration - Energy Snacks for the Marathon

How to Eat and Drink Right During Training and on Marathon Race Day

Snacking on an Apple
Snacking on an Apple. Stanton j Stephens/Image Source/Getty Images

Getting nutrition, fluids and energy snacks right during marathon training and on race day is essential to making it to the finish line. Let's look at the diet you should be using during the weeks of training and how to eat and drink right on your long training walks as well as race day.

Marathon Diet and Nutrition Plan

With your increased mileage during your training, you will be burning more calories and need proper nutrition to build muscles and capillaries to nourish those muscles.

Will I Lose Weight During Marathon Training?

Do not go on any extreme, unbalanced diets during your marathon training. However, now is a good time for those who are overweight to start on a balanced, mildly calorie restricted diet, or to maintain their present balanced diet with no increase in calories or portions.

In both cases, walkers should see a slow and steady loss of fat and conversion of it to healthy muscle, bone, and lean tissue. In 18 weeks of marathon training, you could lose 15 pounds of excess fat just from the training mileage - IF you do not increase the amount you are eating and were maintaining your weight at the time you started.

For those who are within a few pounds of their ideal weight, listen to your body's cues as you increase your training distance. If you discover yourself losing weight and feeling worn out and tired, you should think of increasing your portions of a balanced diet, or adding balanced snacks to your daily routine.

Carbohydrates are an Endurance Athlete's Friend

The body needs available carbohydrate to burn on your long distance walking days. Low carb/high protein diets are not recommended for distance athletes. On your long distance training days you may become dehydrated, which stresses the kidneys, and those on a high protein diet are already stressing their kidneys with the byproducts of breaking down protein for energy.

Stick with the traditional balanced diet of 15-20% protein, 30% fat, and 50-55% carbohydrate.

Eat a variety of foods to ensure you get the micronutrients that can't be packaged in a pill. Try new vegetables and fruits. If you are restricting your calories, take a simple multivitamin each day to guard against deficiencies.

Do not start popping supplements. Most of the extra vitamins pass out in your urine, and again you don't want to stress your kidneys. Excess fat-soluble vitamins and some minerals are stored in the body and can build up to toxic levels. You do not need any supplements that promise to build muscle.

Endurance sports use long, lean muscles, not bulk. You are not looking for explosive strength, but muscles that can perform steadily for hours.

Energy Snacks for Your Long Training Days

You will need to replenish energy to make it through a long training day of 10 miles or more. This is a good opportunity to see which energy snacks you tolerate best. It's also smart to research what will be provided on the marathon course and to train with those.

  • More: Energy Snacking on the Marathon

Carbo-Loading Before the Race

For three days before the marathon, and perhaps before your longest training days, eat high-carbohydrate meals such as pasta.

This brings the glycogen level in your tissues to its maximum so you have more available during the walk. Previous thought was to deplete your stored carbohydrates first, but this has not been borne out by research.

Nothing New Right Before the Marathon

Most importantly, do not change your diet significantly in the week before the marathon. Practice good eating habits in the prior months and increase your favorite complex carbohydrate the three days before the event.

What to Drink During Marathon Training and on Race Day

How's your urine? I saw a marathon coach holding up a sign saying that. You have to keep drinking enough water during an endurance walk to keep your urine light yellow and flush exercise toxins out of your body.

On all of your training walks, as well as your long distance walks, you need to stay hydrated. Drink a large glass (16 oz.) of water an hour before going on a walk.

The excess water then gets passed before you start your walk. Every 15 minutes to half an hour during your walk, depending on the temperature and the amount you sweat, drink another cup of water. When you finish your walk, end with a big glass of water, and have some salty snacks to replace body salt lost through sweat. If your urine is dark yellow after your walk, you haven't been drinking enough. If it is straw yellow you have been drinking the right amount.

Hyponatremia and Dehydration

Marathon medical directors guidelines tell endurance walkers and runners to let their thirst determine when and how much to drink. More people are obedient to the drinking guidelines and so dehydration is becoming less common, while marathon directors have seen growing numbers of cases of hyponatremia - washing out of body salts by sweat and drinking plain water rather than electrolyte-containing sports drinks.

To tell whether you are drinking too much or too little water, weigh yourself immediately before and after your long walks. Gaining weight is a sign of drinking too much plain water - adjust your drinking to switch more to sports drinks to replace salts, or eat salty pretzels on your walk and drink a bit less plain water.

Losing weight is a sign of dehydration - you are not drinking enough. Use your long training walks to get this right.
ACSM Marathon Fluid Guidelines to Prevent Both Dehydration and Hyponatremia

Caffeine: Lay off of caffeine before your walks. Not only does it make you have to urinate more often, it removes too much water from your system. If you are a coffee addict, cut back before your walk and treat yourself after you have had a good 16 oz. of water after your walk.

Carrying Water: Part of your walking gear should be a water carrier. Fill your water bottle and take it along to guarantee that you have enough water while walking. Most of us don't drink enough out of water fountains along the way, which may even be turned off during winter. I recommend carrying a bottle during the marathon as well - I have found myself needing a drink between water stations and regretting having not carried one.

Sports Drinks: Sports drinks and electrolyte replacement drinks can be used after walking for more than an hour and sweating. These replace the salt lost by sweating and also are sweetened to give you a jolt of sugar - the energy you need during an endurance event.

Hydration During the Marathon

During a marathon, you will generally be offered water and an energy drink such as Gatorade.

Some events use electrolyte drinks that don't have sugars - you need to know that so you can have some energy snacks with you as you still need those carbs during the event. Know your event and how these are spaced, so you won't drink too little and be caught thirsty between stations, or too much and get into overload.

Do not drink anything new on the day of the marathon. During your workout walks, practice by drinking the same energy drink you know will be offered at the marathon. This way you will know if it tends to upset your stomach.

It is also unwise to use high-caffeine energy drinks during a marathon.

A high dose of caffeine can lead to dehydration.

What to Eat for Energy Snacks for Marathon Training and Race Day

Marathon walkers have an advantage over runners - their bodies are able to replenish their energy from food and drink during the marathon. Most marathon walkers discover that they need to eat while on the course. The body burns off all available fuel, and turns to burning whatever else is available. To stay in the race, simple carbohydrate is needed.

To Chew or Not to Chew, That is the Marathon Walking Question

Walkers going at a moderate pace may be able to snack on fruit, nuts, trail mix or solid energy bars. But those who are moving at a pace that leaves them breathing hard realize that chewing can lead to choking, which is why many faster walkers and runners have come to use energy gels such as Gu or PowerGel. Samples of these are often given away before the race.

Types of Marathon Energy Snacks

  • Fruit - banana, orange or apple slices, dried fruit such as raisins are all natural, and sometimes fruit is offered on the course. With many fruits you have to deal with disposing of the peel or core, and keeping it from getting bruised while carrying it. Dried fruit and fruit leather packs well, but requires water to wash it down.
  • Trail Mix: This is a classic hiking snack, and it packs well in small bags. You will need to be able to chew and have water to wash it down. You can mix your own to get the flavors you prefer. Trail Mix Recipes
  • Energy Bars: I look for the mini bars to take along so I can have just 100 to 150 calories at a time. If I only have the regular size bars, I cut them up into smaller portions for easier eating during the race. Look for varieties that don't have a coating that will melt and be messy to eat.
  • Gummy Bears and Electrolyte Chews: Simple gummy bears and other gel candies are easy to pack and suck on with minimal chewing. I like the Clif Shot Bloks energy chews that provide electrolytes as well as sugar for energy. They are easy to chew while walking fast and don't need as much water to wash down.
  • Energy Gels: These are made for a quick squeeze of carbs that you can swallow while breathing hard. They need to be washed down with water.

Try Out All Marathon Fueling Snacks on Your Long Training Walks First

At every race expo you see the booths for various energy gels and energy bars, each one claiming to be the best. By then it is too late to decide what to take along - the marathon is the next day, and you need to obey the "nothing new on race day" rule.

If you think you will want to use a snack or energy gel during a race, be sure to try it out on your longer distance training days. Otherwise you may discover that it upsets your stomach during the race, a bad time to discover anything new. You will also find that most sugary snacks need to be washed down with plenty of water, so plan your water stops or the amount you carry accordingly.

Find Out What Will Be Offered on the Course

Free is a very good price, find out from the race web site or email the race organizer to find out what will be offered on the course. If they are giving out an energy gel on the course or at the expo, you will want to know in advance so you can try it out first on your long training days. You should also train with the sports drink they will be giving out on the course.

Nothing new on race day!