Pizza is Dean Karnazes’ primary fuel source when he goes out for a 26-mile jog.
Karnazes, an ultra-marathon man who’s run 10 marathons back-to-back (that’s 262 consecutive miles) frequently delivers pizza to himself, at the halfway point of his training runs.
Mike Arnstein, another ultra marathon runner, only eats bananas – 40 to 50 a day, actually – a fact, which is, in and of itself, sort of bananas.
However unorthodox these diets may seem, every marathon runner will tell you how important nutrition is to maximize your results, your health and your recovery during your training and racing.
But, if a diet of pizza and bananas sounds unappetizing or extreme, then consider the advice below to guide your nutrition choices while preparing for or completing a half, full, or ultra marathon.
Before a Long Training Run or Race
For years, I’ve searched for foods that provide the most energy before races, with a minimal impact on my stomach. I’ve found that calorie-dense foods, in small amounts, don’t give me that heavy feeling during long runs. Anyone who has dealt with stomach problems during a run knows how they can slow you down.
It’s unnecessary to calculate exactly how many calories to consume per hour to prevent cramps and excess trips to the bathroom. Instead, use your training runs to experiment with various food combinations.
Before your long run, see which foods settle best in your stomach. Just like you train your muscles to run, you need to train your stomach to accept foods that sustain you.
Once your stomach adapts to a particular food before long runs, DO NOT introduce a foreign pre-run meal on race day. For example, if you eat a bowl of oatmeal one hour before every training run, then don’t eat a protein bar on race day; treat race day just like every other run. Introducing an unrecognized food into your regimen will only upset your already nervous stomach.
It’s important to eat before long runs. If you’re having stomach issues, here are some food groups to avoid and some to consider:
High-Fiber or Whole Grain Food.
Low-Fiber Fruits and Veggies:
If you’re a regular coffee drinker, then your stomach can probably handle caffeine. However, don’t introduce caffeine before race day if you’re not accustomed to coffee or didn’t train with caffeinated energy gels.
While some runners completely avoid dairy before running, others can’t get enough. Dean Karnazes eats whole-fat Greek yogurt before his long runs, and swears by it — Probably because Acidophilus milk and yogurt with live cultures contain bacteria that aid in digestion.
During a Long Training Run or Race
Unlike a race, there are no aid stations providing water or snacks during your long training runs, so you must bring water and sustenance.
It’s not always necessary to eat during a run that’s less than two hours long, as the bulk of your energy is taken from stored muscle glycogen. However, after the two-hour mark, you have depleted your stored glycogen, so your body relies on the sugar in your bloodstream: this means you need to eat.
Ingesting carbs during runs over 1.5 hours prevents racers from hitting the dreaded “wall,” or running out of energy.
Sports drinks are an efficient way to deliver quick sugar to your bloodstream. However, solid foods in small, easily digestible amounts are also effective when you need something more substantial.
Energy gels and protein bars are meant for distance runners to consume on the move. Experiment with various simple foods, gels and bars during your training runs to see what works best for you. FindTheBest is a great Web resource for runners researching carb to protein ratios, sugar levels and other nutritional information for their protein bars and sports drinks.
Some experts say that runners should take in 100 calories after running for an hour, and another 100 calories every 40-45 minutes after that. But, depending on your size, speed or metabolism, you may require more or less than that. Be proactive: do your research and know what your body needs.
After a Long Training Run or Race
Studies show that after vigorous, or duration intense, exercise there is a 30-45 minute window in which athletes should replace expended energy. This window for consumption is important because muscles, directly after a workout, are at their peak glycogen rebuilding phase.
During this phase, muscles are actively seeking nutrients to repair broken down tissue. Thus, the sooner you eat after your workout, the less muscle stiffness and soreness you’ll experience in the following days.
After a race or training run, consume a ratio of 1 gram of protein to 3 grams of carbs. Nutrition bars, whole grain bread with almond butter or a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt are delicious and nutritious options.
Though Karnazes and Arnsteins’ diets seem a little extreme, both of these incredible athletes have found what works for them. Half the battle when training for a long distance run is finding a diet that is best for you. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is run 26.2-miles! Piece of cake…Er, better make that a protein bar.
Brandon Coakley is a recent grad at UC Santa Barbara and a business development manager at FindTheBest-Health, which helps users find accurate health information on everything from the Best Nursing Homes to Health Centers.