Running on a Full Tank

When I ran London Marathon in 1998, starting at Blackheath, I learnt a hard lesson. Happy enjoying my taper week I had stopped thinking about the event, only throwing down a pasta meal the night before in my meager attempt at nutritional preparation and regaining my focus when I donned my new trainers (yes, I know this was a mistake) and headed to the start line. The event should have started in my mind at least a few days prior when I should have been thinking about getting my body fuelled for a 26.2 mile pounding. A mistake that lead to me floundering at the 18 mile point and although not crawling on my hands and knees, travelling with considerably less pace towards the finish line. Fortunately more recent races have not had the same grizzly end and that is all down to good nutritional preparation, so what should you do to ensure you don’t hit the wall on marathon day?

Poor design

The body is not designed to run 26.2 miles without additional fuel making the marathon rather a sadistic event. The body is mainly fuelled by carbohydrate during exercise, but our stores are limited to approximately the equivalent of 2500 calories worth. That’s 450 calories less fuel than an average 70kg man requires to complete the marathon distance. This carbohydrate is not only important to provide fuel during the race but it is also essential for the central nervous system so it is therefore not all available for the working muscles. As the brain uses glucose as its energy source a lack of this can result in weakness, dizziness and low blood sugar. Reduced blood sugar during exercise decreases performance and can lead to mental and physical fatigue. To be honest, this is essentially why a marathon is such a feat for humans. If we fail to ensure our carbohydrate stores are full at the start of a marathon and to refill them on course this is crash course into the infamous marathon wall!

Filling the tank

So, if you want to give yourself the best chance of getting round or achieving a new personal best, filling up your carbohydrate stores should be the priority in the three days to week prior to the marathon.

For some, this will be their total motivation to being a marathoner…carb loading! In the two weeks prior to the marathon you should aim to taper your training so that in the week preceding the marathon you will be running at most a few miles per day. In combination with this eat a high-carbohydrate diet in the week to 3 days prior to your event date, ensuring that you take advantage of the recovery period after each run, when the body is more efficient at storing carbohydrate. Often this is a neglected period, but the 20-30 minutes after training is a period where the body is far more efficient at taking up carbohydrate into the stores, so focus on recovery after each session EVEN if you don’t feel hungry.

Aim for a combination of carbohydrate and protein (3:1 ratio), as found in Recovermax, in this period as this little bit of protein actually improves transport of carbohydrate to the muscle stores. Including protein in your post workout food or drink is certainly worth doing according to a study conducted in 2004 which looked at the effect of different recovery beverages on marines. This study found that the addition of 10g protein to a carbohydrate formula was shown to lead to “33% fewer medical visits, 28% less bacterial or viral infections, 37% less treatment visits for joint or muscle problems, 83% fewer visits for heat exhaustion and less muscle soreness after training when compared to a carbohydrate formula without added protein.” It seems that adding protein to your recovery food could reduce your injury risk as well as refueling you efficiently. If you’re not sure what to eat or drink after a run why not try one of the following options to support speedy recovery and ensure you are refueled for race day.

Recovery Smoothie’s

Deliciously refreshing, simply select two to three fruits of your choice, add 200ml of apple juice or ‘my favourite’ innocent smoothie mix, whizz around in your blender and then add a scoop of Protrient powder. As we work our way into the warmer months you may want to add a little ice for a lovely cold smoothie shot.

Protein enriched smoothie:

  • 1 banana
  • ½ apple (You can eat the other half while you’re making it!)
  • 200ml banana & strawberry innocent drink
  • 1 scoop Protrient

Sports Nutrition Recovery formulas

Although you can always make up a shake for a quick and tasty recovery, you will not find the mix of nutrients that specifically designed recovery drinks contain.

Recovermax contains a mix of maltodextrin and dextrose for quick and sustained energy replenishment plus whey protein for its protein source, assisting with muscle repair. It also contains 5 grams of glutamine in addition to approx. 1g naturally found in the whey protein. This hits the correct amount recommended in research to improve markers of immune function (ideally ingesting another 5g two hours after this) and can be a welcome bonus to support the heavy training that precedes the marathon. Providing electrolytes too to replenish the salts lost in sweat after hard training, Recovermax offers a premium range recovery formula with great functional benefits.

Whether you choose a home-made smoothie or a specific pre-designed recovery formula, it’s important to eat again within two hours to encourage good glycogen restoration and really support good recovery, but make sure you are no tempted to simply skip the immediate feeding and end up waiting a couple of hours for your meal. Think immediate recovery and it will really make a difference to how you feel after your run and ultimately your marathon performance.

What about the regular diet?

Eating more carbohydrate in the general diet will also support replete stores on the start line. Some will take this as their opportunity to eat many more calories, which isn’t really the point. You should maintain your calorie balance at your regular level but increase the percentage of your calories coming from carbohydrate during this week period to approximately 70%. Still opt for complex carbohydrates in your general diet rather than sugars as these are both better for general health and steady energy supply.

If you’ve carbohydrate loaded correctly, it’s likely that you’ll wake on the morning of the marathon feeling a little bloated. Don’t let this alarm you, as you should expect to gain a couple of pounds when your carbohydrate stores are full, as your body stores 2.6 grams of water for every gram of glycogen in the muscle. This inevitable increase in water storage will actually provide some benefit itself, helping to prevent dehydration during the race.

On the day

On marathon morning, eat a light, high-carbohydrate breakfast providing between 300 and 500 calories, such as a bagel with jam and a banana a few hours before the start. This will help to restore your liver’s glycogen level, which helps to maintain your blood sugar level.

If you’ve experimented with taking on carbohydrate during training runs then you can use this to your advantage during the marathon in order to avoid the risks of carbohydrate depletion. If you are offered a gel or drink on the course, however, that you have not tried in training, this is best avoided as eating unfamiliar food and drinks may upset your stomach. The key is to have tried and tested your drinks and gels in training as you will need extra carbohydrate, fluid and salts on the course.

Keeping your stores full

The three key nutritional areas to focus on during the run are:

  • To remain hydrated
  • To take on extra energy
  • To replace the salts you lose in sweat

One hour prior to the marathon you should sip on 500ml of a quality carbohydrate drink such as Viper Active mixed to a 5 – 6 % solution, stopping drinking twenty minutes prior to the start. Then once you are 30-40 minutes into the marathon you should aim take on approximately 500-850ml of fluid for each hour of running. Typically reaching 850ml per hour is difficult in a race situation but try to ensure you are at least meeting the lower end of this recommendation. Ideally you should replace 60g of carbohydrate per hour, but again, this is hard to do if you are just relying on a carbohydrate drink. A carbohydrate drink will typically provide 30-40g of carbohydrate per hour if you are meeting 500ml intake, so ideally you would also replace additional carbohydrate by using 1 Viper Active Gel per hour. Otherwise you could drink water and use 2 gels per hour to meet your need.

The importance of salts

Choosing a drink containing electrolytes is important for events of the marathons duration as taking on just water can dilute sodium levels in the blood as we lose salts through sweat during the event. This can lead to unfavorable symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and in severe instances of extreme water intake (symptomatic of hyponatraemia) coma and death.

Just drinking water, squash or a sports drink without these salts can also lead to an increase in your need to urinate, which is not ideal in the middle of the marathon. Salts have an added advantage of reducing urine output and keeping you running rather than queuing for the toilet, so make sure they are in your drink.

Viper Active Gels contain salts in addition to carbohydrate so are ideal to replace that lost in sweat when you don’t have access to Viper Active drink. Combining each gel sachet with 250-300ml water per 30 minutes in the later stages of the marathon will keep your energy levels up to support a good performance. Take a small sip of gel and wash it down with water. Hold it in your hand with the top folded over and then sip again a few minutes later and continue with water. Eating the gel in one go leaves you at risk of stomach cramps as concentrated carbohydrate enters the body without enough fluid. Again, practice, practice, practice so that you know your body gets on with your products.

With a couple of weeks of reduced training running up to your planned marathon, a few tweaks to the diet in the week prior and a sensible refueling strategy for during the marathon you can ensure you are doing everything you can for a successful and enjoyable event. Hopefully when you cross the finish line your burning question will be ‘where was the wall?’