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What to Eat During a Marathon

There are many options for what to eat during a marathon, including chews, gels, real food and liquid nutrition. This post will break down all of the options to help you form your marathon nutrition plan!

Woman with sunglasses running ultramarathon

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Let’s consider that you’ve fueled properly before your marathon and your nutrition leading up to the marathon was precise.

You’ve followed all the protocols for what to eat before a marathon. You’ve done the carb loading, the tapering and you’re ready to PR on race day.

Now, the next part is to avoid hitting the wall in your race and adequately fueling for a marathon.

And to do so, it requires taking in enough fuel (aka carbohydrates), hydration and electrolytes to match your body’s output.

That means you have to prioritize nutrition during your run. To run the full 26.2, your body will need more input and energy than what it has stored.

We’ve created this guide so you’ll know what to eat during a marathon.

Let’s learn how to properly fuel your entire 26.2 miles so you can successfully finish that race that you worked so hard to train and prepare for.

What Should a Marathon Runner Eat?

When making a nutrition plan for a marathon, your overall diet and diet quality counts!

We want your diet to be varied – rich in calcium and Vitamin D for bone health, full of fiber, magnesium and phytonutrients from various fruits and vegetables, high in whole grains, protein and healthy fats.

We want your meals to be balanced, with of course, carb-rich healthy athlete snacks thrown in, like Ancient Grains Granola or Superfood Oats.

    A good example of making balanced plates is by using the performance plates method.

    performance plate hard training day

    What to Eat Before a Marathon

    First, let’s review what to eat before a marathon.

    Remember that carbs are the most important nutrient for fueling your runs. A low carb diet will not benefit you before a marathon.

    plate of bagels

    Prior to your race day, you’ll want to carb load for a marathon 36-48 hours before a race, combined with a training marathon taper (reduction in miles).

    Nutritionally for carb loading, the goal is to eat about 10 g of carbs for every kg of body weight in a 24 hour period.

    Focus on easy-to-digest foods to prepare your body for the big day:

    You’re eating foods to increase your running stamina as you build up for the race.

    While high-fiber foods are typically recommended as part of a healthy diet, they may slow digestion and irritate your runner’s gut.

    The same goes for fatty foods. So you’ll want to limit those foods in the days leading up to the marathon.

    There are also gluten free carbs that you can eat if you have any sensitivities.

    It’s also okay to have your regular morning tea or coffee before your marathon. But make sure you’re also hydrating with water or sports drink as well.

    Here are some hydration guidelines.

    • 2-3 hours before activity, drink 20 oz. water or sports drink
    • 10-20 minutes before activity drink 10 oz. water or sports drink
    • Pre-hydrate to produce a light-colored urine

    What to Eat During a Marathon

    You’ve been training for months and it’s finally here. Race day! The big question is now: What do I eat during a marathon?

    Honestly, it’s not drastically different from your half marathon nutrition plan – likely, just more carbs, fluids and fuel.

    Of course, you’ll want to start your race day morning off with a low-fiber, high carbohydrate race day breakfast.

    Remember: Rely on something familiar. Race day isn’t the time to try something new.

    Once your race starts you’ll need fuel throughout your run.

    Runner holding huma energy gel during long run

    Your glycogen stores will carry you through the first part of the marathon, but at around the 45-60 minute mark, you’ll need to consume simple carbs, such as:

    • running gels
    • running chews
    • simple sugars, like dates
    • sports drinks

    The general recommendation is 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, though some athletes may do better with up to 90 grams of carbohydrates/hour.

    Fueling should be done at regular intervals so the body and brain are accustomed to consistent energy coming in.

    For example, every hour, plan to take 2-3 gels or chews, or instead, every few miles rely on taking them.

    Gels, chews, and sports drinks are often generously handed out at fueling and hydration stations during marathons. But do not try anything new on race day.

    volunteer holding water bottle out during race

    Often, race registration websites will let you know what type of fuel they’ll provide. That way you can practice with those fuels ahead of time.

    Or, you can bring your own fuel, which we will discuss in more depth below. What you should eat during your race is up to your personal preference.

    Most runners like to use a belt, vest, or pack to carry their race day nutrition. This is all something you practice in advance!

    Real Food to Eat During a Marathon

    Sure, there are many products available for endurance athletes. However, you can stick with actual food during your run if that’s what you’d prefer.

    However, eating while running a marathon may not be easy for everyone. The trick is to find something convenient to prep and carry.

    raisins on a scooper

    During a race, you’re looking for easy-to-digest sources of carbs like these:

    Gels to Use During a Marathon

    Energy gels for running are a quick and easy way to get in much-needed carbohydrates. They combine glucose, fructose, and sucrose for rapid energy.

    In addition to carbs, gels often contain electrolytes—essential for proper hydration. And some also contain caffeine, which can boost your running performance.

    runner opening energy gel for running

    Gels come in packets that are easy to tear and squeeze in your mouth, no chewing required.

    Most gels have around 21-24 grams of carbohydrates, so you’ll generally need 2-3 per hour. Don’t be scared of carbs! Fueling during a marathon requires ample carbohydrates.

    Here are some of the best energy gels for running. We recommend visiting your local running store to buy these, but you can also order online.

    Running Chews to Eat During a Marathon

    Like energy gels, chews are conveniently packaged for you to take on the run.

    Chews come in a variety of flavors and may contain extras like electrolytes and caffeine, and the best energy chews for a marathon are ones that you like and can get down.

    Most options have around 20-25 grams of carbs, so again, you’ll need to take 2-3 servings per hour.

    red chews for runners

    Here are some of the best chews for running:

    Liquid Nutrition to Use During a Marathon

    Eating during a marathon isn’t for everyone!

    Another way to get in those carbs is through your liquids. Hydration is also an essential part of your race day success, especially if you’re a salty sweater.

    Plan to get adequate sodium and fluids in!

    green, purple and red electrolyte drinks

    Some general hydration tips during a marathon include:

    • Drink before you are thirsty
    • Drink a couple of sips or gulps (approx. 4-8 oz. water or sports drink) every 15-20 minutes. It’s best to drink consistently vs. large amounts at one time, sporadically.
    • Aim to consume 500 to 1000mg of sodium per hour – it’s best to work with a sports dietitian to figure out your sweat rate!
    • A sports drink or mix will also provide carbohydrates for fuel and electrolytes

    Combining hydration and fuel can simplify the process so you can focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

    Liquid nutrition options can be carried in handheld bottles or hydration packs for running. You may want one bottle with just water, and one with liquid nutrition.

    girl running in hydration vest

    It should be noted that a ton of hydration and liquid nutrition products contain minimal carbs, so you need to read the nutrition label.

    If you’re planning to get fuel from your liquids, avoid the products that say “zero” or “light”.

    Some liquids that will both hydrate and provide fuel are:

    After you cross that finish line, you can celebrate…and replenish.

    Here are some tips on what to eat after a marathon.

    Of course, all of our nutritional needs may vary slightly, so it’s essential to listen to your body and experiment during training to find what works best for you on race day.

    If you have the means, working with a sports dietitian who can help you come up with your nutrition plan or meal plan for marathon training can be very beneficial and personalized to you!

    References:

    • Mata F, Valenzuela PL, Gimenez J, et al. Carbohydrate Availability and Physical Performance: Physiological Overview and Practical Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1084. Published 2019 May 16. doi:10.3390/nu11051084
    • Wang Z, Qiu B, Gao J, Del Coso J. Effects of Caffeine Intake on Endurance Running Performance and Time to Exhaustion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2022;15(1):148. Published 2022 Dec 28. doi:10.3390/nu15010148
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