Do you feel overwhelmed with your marathon meal plan, and want to make sure you’re getting the necessary nutrients? Or, is your half marathon nutrition suffering? This post will break down a sample long distance runners diet plan to help give you ideas and knowledge for meeting your nutritional needs.
As always, remember these are general recommendations, and for individualized recommendations, please work 1-1 with a dietitian who can cater to your needs.
Table of Contents
Fueling for Long Distance Running/Exercise
Carbohydrates give your body energy. They are the primary fuel source for moderate to hard exercise, especially for endurance (aerobic) exercise. As exercise intensity increases, the percent of carbs used for energy increases and the percent from fat decreases.
Studies have found that during endurance events such as the Ironman triathlon and marathon, faster finish times were correlated with high carbohydrate intake rates(1). Despite this, many athletes are not consuming adequate carbohydrates to satisfy the demands of their exercise regimens, which is why we are so passionate about having a proper marathon fueling strategy.
While low carb running may seem trendy, the research shows that it’s not helping performance at all. Plus, there can be side effects.
One study found that 74% of participants (NCAA Division I female collegiate athletes) failed to meet the minimum carbohydrate recommendation(2).
Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks in the 2-4 hours before exercise helps to:
(1) Restore liver glycogen
(2) Increase muscle glycogen stores
(3) Prevent hunger, which may impair performance
(4) Provide a psychological boost, which can help avoid bonking in a marathon
Fueling Leading Up to The Race or Long Run
The goal for fueling leading up the race is high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat and fiber.
The aim is to fill up your muscle fuel stores with carbohydrates and to not consume anything that sits too heavy in the stomach or takes a long time to digest, such as fats and fiber. Here are some ideas of what to eat before running in the morning.
The same principles go for ultra distances. A vegan ultramarathon runner may want to focus on simpler carbs with less fiber, or real food options. Here are some of the best foods and snacks for ultra running.
Several days prior to the race or long run, you may want to eat less fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, butter, cheese, etc. and less fiber such as certain fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, etc. and focus more on simple carbs such as less-fiberful fruits and veggies, applesauce, fruit juice, non-whole grain foods such as white pasta, etc.
If you’re wondering is pasta good for runners, yes, it is a great runner’s food that is rich in carbohydrates, which are necessary before a race.
You’ll still want to include some lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and/or dairy products.
The night before the race or long run, you may want to eat a meal such as grilled chicken breast, some light veggies, pasta with marinara sauce, and bread. You’ll want to test out your night before meal and find what works best for you.
Pre-Workout Breakfast Ideas
The morning of a race or long run you’ll want to consume something easy to digest and high in carbohydrates such as bread, bagel, low-fiber fruits or fruit juice, dairy products (if that sits well with you), cereal, etc.
You may want to include a little bit of lean protein or a little bit of fat to keep you full and satisfied longer, but nothing that sits too heavy or causes you any GI issues.
Examples of pre-workout breakfast ideas:
- Wheat or white bagel or bread + peanut butter + banana + low-fat milk
- Oatmeal with some nuts or nut butter + berries + cinnamon
- Fruit smoothie such as strawberry, banana, pineapple + Greek yogurt + almond milk
- Sweet potato + almond butter + low-fat milk
- Yogurt parfait with fruit & granola
Again, you’ll want to experiment with this pre-workout meal or snack during training to find what works best for you and doesn’t cause any GI issues.
If you feel unable to eat breakfast prior to early morning exercise, consuming ~30 grams of easily digested carbohydrate (e.g., banana, carbohydrate gel, or sport drink) 30 minutes before exercise may improve performance and energy.
General Pre-Workout Fueling Guidelines(3) include:
|Timing Before Exercise (Hours)||Carbohydrate (g/kg body weight)|
For example, a 150-lb. athlete is about 68kg (150/2.2). So 4 hours before exercise, they would aim to consume up to 272g of carbohydrates. But if they were eating closer to exercise, such as 1 hour before, they would aim to consume less, such as up to 68g of carbohydrates.
Post-Workout Snack/Recovery Ideas
Post workout, we need to look at nutrition for recovery. This is ideally going to include carbohydrates, protein, and fluids. The goal is to refuel, rebuild, and rehydrate post-workout.
There are more examples in this post about recovering from a half marathon.
The sooner you have a post-workout snack or meal, the quicker your body will recover. This means less soreness, less fatigue, quicker recovery time so you’re ready to go for the next training session.
Carbohydrates are, again, our body’s main fuel source. So post-workout we need to refuel the muscles with carbohydrates. The longer or harder the workout is, the more carbohydrates you will need to refuel and recover. See the table below for specific amounts.
Protein is necessary for muscle recovery and rebuilding. Protein requirements post-workout are determined by your body weight. See the table below for specific amounts.
Creatine and BCAAs may not be necessary supplements if one is getting enough protein in the diet. See more in this post on BCAAs vs creatine.
Fluids are necessary to rehydrate the body. This is going to be individualized based on body weight, muscle mass, gender, age, sweat rate, environmental factors, location of workout, etc. A general guideline is to drink 16-24 ounces of fluid for each pound lost during training.
Recovery Nutrition Guidelines Post-Workout
|Body Weight (lbs.)||Carbohydrates (g)||Protein (g)|
Recovery Nutrition Ideas & Examples:
- Greek yogurt with fruit and granola
- Chocolate milk
- Oatmeal with milk, fruit, nuts
- Sandwiches (PBJ, Turkey, etc.)
- Smoothies made with frozen fruit and Greek yogurt
- Eggs, toast, 100% fruit juice
Lunch and Dinner Ideas for Recovery
Ultimately, using the Athletes’ Plates(4) from The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOC) are a great starting point for fueling your body with adequate energy and nutrients at regular meals during training.
Depending on your overall/weekly activity level, you will want to modify your intake accordingly.
Essentially, the more active you are, the more carbohydrates you will need to fuel your body.
Additional Snack Ideas
Similar to meals, when snacking between meals, we want to aim for a combination of foods groups. General rule of thumb is to try and get at least 2 food groups at each snack.
Examples of carb + protein snacks:
- Berries & Greek Yogurt
- Pineapple & Cottage Cheese
- Toast & Eggs
- Granola/Protein bar
- Fruit Smoothie (with Greek Yogurt or other protein source)
- Crackers & Tuna
Examples of carb + fat snacks:
- Apple & Peanut Butter
- Chocolate Milk & Almonds
- Popcorn & String Cheese
- Trail Mix with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit
- Crackers & Hummus
- Toast with Avocado
Having a protein and/or fat with your snacks will help you feel full and satisfied for longer. However, if your snack is close to a workout, you may want to skip the protein or fat and simple go for a carbohydrate-based snack to fuel your muscles without the potential for GI distress. Again, this is very individualized.
The bottom line when fueling for long distance running or other aerobic exercise is to consume adequate energy and food groups. Ideally, you’ll be consuming 3 meals + 2-3 snacks per day, depending on your training level and mileage, individual energy needs, and your hunger and fullness levels. Working with a Registered Sports Dietitian can be very helpful to help you figure out how much your body needs, look at timing of nutrition around workouts, and to fuel your body properly for energy, recovery, performance, and health.
Example ~2100 calorie day for a 55-year-old male runner
1 cup Greek yogurt
2 slices wheat bread
1 cup berries
1 Tbsp. peanut butter
½ – 1 cup cooked veggies
4-8 oz. grilled chicken
1/3 cup brown rice
¼ – ½ avocado
2 pieces string cheese
1 cup pineapple
½ cup – 1 cup cooked veggies
3-6 oz. roasted turkey breast
½ cup pasta
2 tsp. olive oil + parmesan cheese
12-24 oz. Fairlife milk
- Pfeiffer B, Stellingwerff T, Hodgson AB, Randell R, Pöttgen K, Res P, Jeukendrup AE. (2012). Nutritional intake and gastrointestinal problems during competitive endurance events. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 44(2), 344-51.
- Lenka H. Shriver PhD, Nancy M. Betts PhD, RD & Gena Wollenberg PhD, RD, CSSD (2013). Dietary Intakes and Eating Habits of College Athletes: Are Female College Athletes Following the Current Sports Nutrition Standards? Journal of American College Health, 61(1), 10-16.
- Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th ed. (2012)