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.
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.
This plays into your marathon diet plan because as your training increases, your nutrition plan should evolve as well. The research shows that proper carb loading for runners can help improve endurance exercise by up to 2-3%!
Studies have also 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. One study found that 74% of participants (NCAA Division I female collegiate athletes) failed to meet the minimum carbohydrate recommendation(2).
Therefore, knowing what to eat before a long run and throughout the day is important.
The Purpose of Carbohydrates in Training:
Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks in the 2-4 hours before exercise helps to:
- Restore liver glycogen
- Increase muscle glycogen stores
- Prevent hunger, which may impair performance
- Stabilize blood sugar, for performance benefits and overall well-being
- Provide a psychological boost
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.
With these recommendations, 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.
Several days prior to the race or long run, you may want to eat less of certain foods, like fats and fiber, and more simple carbohydrates and lean proteins.
Before a Race, Eat Less:
- full fat dairy
- fibrous fruits/vegetables
- whole grains
Before a Race, Focus On:
- low fiber fruits and veggies
- fruit juice
- non-whole grain foods such as white pasta, white rice, white bread
You’ll still want to include some lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and/or dairy products.
When deciding what to eat the night before a long run or race, focus on something such as grilled chicken breast, some light veggies, pasta with marinara sauce, and bread.
Depending on your tolerance, you may be able to use more/less oil and cheese. You’ll want to test out your night before meal and find what works best for you.
What To Eat The Morning Before a Race
When deciding what to eat the morning of a race or long run, you’ll want to consume something easy to digest and high in carbohydrates such as bread, a 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 for a longer period of time, 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. With practice, your gut can be trained to take in carbohydrates during and before long runs.
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 (150lbs/2.2).
So, 4 hours before exercise, they would aim to consume up to 272g of carbohydrates (4*68). 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.
For a beginner, I’d recommend slowly inching up to these numbers, as aiming for these numbers without training the gut may be uncomfortable.
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 of a marathon or half marathon nutrition plan after the run or training to refuel, rebuild, and rehydrate post-workout. The sooner you have a post-workout snack or meal, the quicker your body will recover.
Proper half marathon recovery means less soreness, less fatigue, and a 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 also necessary for muscle recovery and rebuilding. Protein requirements post-workout are determined by your body weight. See the table below for specific amounts.
Lastly, 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. This would apply to a marathon nutrition plan as well as a diet for half marathon training.
The only difference would be that when training for a marathon, needs will obviously be higher, so a proper marathon nutrition plan will either include larger portions of food, or more commonly, more frequent eating instances.
Recovery Nutrition Guidelines Post-Workout
|Body Weight (lbs.)||Carbohydrates (g)||Protein (g)|
So, what does this look like?
Marathon Training Diet Plan 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 In a Marathon Eating Plan
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.
They also take into account the quantity of training. So, whether you’re training for a 5k, half marathon or full marathon, the principles still apply.
In short, depending on your overall/weekly activity level, you will want to modify your intake accordingly. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you will need to fuel your body.
Additional Snack Ideas In a Half Marathon Meal Plan
Similar to meals, when snacking between meals, we want to aim for a combination of food groups. The 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
These combinations are extra important in a long distance runners diet plan because they provide sustained energy to fuel and recover from workouts and prevent the constant “runger” associated with high training volumes.
Listening to your hunger is very important throughout training, although there are some instances you will likely have to eat when you don’t feel hungry.
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 simply 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, consider the timing of nutrition around workouts, and to fuel your body properly for energy, recovery, performance, and health.
Sample Half Marathon Meal Plan
Here’s a sample half marathon meal plan for guidance. Remember, a female marathon training diet will look much different. Each plan will need to be personalized to your needs.
Also, marathon nutrition needs will vary slightly than nutrition for half marathon training.
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)