Ask the Experts: Marathon Nutrition with Ruth McKean

Catch the highlights from Friday's lunchtime debate, when ASICS Target 26.2 dietitian Ruth McKean answered your questions about marathon nutrition live in the forums

Q. I have a question about fuelling for an early morning race. I had a trail race last Sunday with a 9am start, but I didn’t feel hungry enough at 7-7.30am for a good breakfast (oats, cereals etc). I think this was because I had too much to eat the night before! How important is what you eat the night before? Is it more important than what you eat an hour or so before an early morning race? Anthony Cassidy

A. If this is the case, then eat less the night before, as you don’t need to carb load for this sort of race. Eating before the race is important as blood sugars will be low and this is likely to effect performance.

The advice for Wonder Woman may also help you. Try a couple of slices of toast or take up to half an hour to eat those oats. Start with very small amounts and work up on this to a small breakfast. It doesn’t need to be large but I would aim for 50g of carbs in this pre-race meal.

Q. I’m training for the Brighton Marathon and I’m struggling with my nutrition. I’m losing more weight than I want to, as I’m clearly not taking on enough carbs. Is there an easy way of ensuring I eat enough of the right foods daily to maintain my weight during this month of longer runs?

I’ve heard you should keep grazing throughout the day, so I’ve started snacking on fruit and nuts regularly, as well as increasing the carbs and protein in my three main meals. ClaireLB

A. The fact you have started grazing is great and I would not want to suggest you increase this until you see how this affects your weight (in case you gain more than you want!).

Weigh yourself a couple of times per week (first thing in the morning after your first pee) to monitor this. Aim for three meals and 2-3 snacks per day. Any of the ones I’ve already suggested in above posts would be great, as well as fruit and nuts.

Eat a couple of hours before runs, as well as having a snack or main meal after. You appear to be doing the right thing.

Q. I'm training for the VLM and it's been going really well. However in the past couple of days I've been struck down with a virus (runny nose, cough, feeling exhausted). Luckily it hasn't put me off my food!

Is there anything I can do nutrition-wise that might help me to get over this? I should be running 20 miles on Sunday if at all possible, but at the moment I'm struggling to walk to my local shop and back. KatyB

A. I’m glad to hear training has been going well so far. Be careful you don’t overdo it when you’re not feeling great. If you are running and your heart rate or resting pulse is not as it should be, then perhaps rest will be the best option. Getting sufficient sleep is another top tip!

A good diet is so important day-to-day (and more important than supplements) as there in no supplement known to definitely boost immunity. In the first 24-48 hours of a virus you can try a zinc supplement (sold for this in shops) but I would only take this up to seven days. You may also want to take a vitamin D supplement (25ug) until the marathon - by that point you can stop, as we might get some sunshine! (Vitamin D is linked to immunity and you cannot absorb any vitamin D until around April in this country).

Echinacea is also a supplement you could try but I think the zinc and vitamin D may help more. If you have lost too much weight too quickly this can also affect immunity. You should ultimately listen to your body and if you’re struggling to walk to the shop, this may be a sign that you’re very run down. I hope you start feeling better very soon.

Q. I have suffered from GI issues during a couple of recent races, with stomach cramps and emergency Portaloo visits costing me PBs (as well as being unwelcome experiences in their own right!).

It's not always a problem, but I'm not sure how to prevent it and I would really appreciate some guidance on a dietary strategy for the three days or so pre-race to prevent this.

I'm keen to avoid the Imodium strategy because I want to avoid tampering with bodily systems as much as possible, so any guidance as to what to eat or drink and when would be really useful. I'm sure pre-race anxiety and the physical stress of racing also play a part and I’d be interested in your views on those if possible. Aeon

A. The most useful recommendation is to avoid solid food three hours before a race and use liquid foods instead. You might also find a low fibre diet in the two or even three days before a race works (although it may take a couple of days for normal bowel patterns to return afterwards).

This means eating white bread, pasta etc, very little fruit and vegetables and no wholegrain cereals (although a soluble fibre such as porridge is likely to be fine). Certainly avoid caffeine and try to have a toilet visit before running. I know some runners who find this advice works really well, for others meds appears to be the only thing that works. Also, do not chew chewing gum etc for at least a day before the race.

A low fibre diet is not recommended every day, but if this works before key races this may be useful for you. You can get some vitamins through different fruit juices and use liquid meal replacements as well as the foods mentioned above. I do hope this works for you.

Q. I seem to remember there was some talk about using a protein:carbohydrate drink during exercise rather than as a recovery drink. What's the current thinking on this? FerrousFerret

A. More sports companies are doing this now. I think it’s a very useful strategy for an ironman, ultra running (any distance more than a marathon) or multi-day races. Due to muscle breakdown, it’s logical to have amino acids in the blood when this is going on. Also, when doing these races it can be hard to get enough carbs and protein in the time when they'll be useful. For events under the four hours mark, carbs are still the best strategy at the moment.

Q. How much do you consider commercially branded sports and recovery drinks or gels as necessary in endurance sport? Water and jelly babies have seen some of us through for years… kittenkat

A. They are nothing special, essentially they often have what you need in a ready made package. With the mix of right foods you can get all you need in a race (carbs, fluid and when you need it, salt).

Jelly babies and water work. If you need the salt (and often people don't), the salt and small amount of glucose in sports drinks helps you to absorb water quicker - sports drinks and isotonic gels work really well for this. It really comes down to what works for you.

Q. I'm unsure about calorie intake and expenditure. I'm a tad short and I’ve always been a little overweight (although two years ago I followed a juice-based plan and lost two stone between new year and the VLM in April. I've kept that off since, but I can't seem to shift any more.

I usually run 25-35 miles per week, and my Garmin suggests I burn 3000-4000 calories per week running. I appreciate I do eat and drink some of that back, but when my scales say I have a BMR of 1400, I'm not sure what I can do. Am I really burning off half my BMR with a seven-mile-run? I weigh myself once a week and keep track of it, and I cannot find any link.

My diet is generally sensible. I don't do fast food and I eat plenty of meat and vegetables. I rarely drink these days - I might have had six pints this year so far! Iccle Jim

A. It is so hard to help with the little information I have above. Perhaps a change of routine in running may help, try some more intense running within these miles.

Are you sure there are no extra calories coming from drinks such as smoothies, fruit juices or fancy coffees?

The more muscle mass you have the more likely you are to burn calories when resting, so perhaps add in some circuits or light weights to increase muscle?

Q. I am running the Brighton Marathon and I’m staying in a hotel the night before. The race starts at 9am and I’m not sure what time I should eat breakfast and what sort of foods would be good. On my long runs I’m able to eat porridge or Weetabix at least an hour before a run of approx 22 miles and I take two gels on the way. What would you recommend to eat the night before and in the morning? Jimmyp

A. A well-practised breakfast is what is needed and practise not only the type of food but also the timing.

I would eat at least two hours before the race and choose cereal (porridge or Weetabix is perfect) with some fruit juice. You can then have a banana 1-2 hours before or if you like, sip on a sports drink.

If you’re only using two gels, you may be a very fast runner but I would carry an extra one at least.

The night before eat a low fat meal. Choose pasta or rice with a tomato based sauce or a large jacket potato with baked beans, with glass of fruit juice of full sugar cordial or a soft drink. Then, as you’re in a hotel make yourself a jam sandwich (before leaving home) and eat this before bed!

Q. I'm getting a bit bored with sandwiches, are tortilla wraps any good as a substitute for bread? Do they have enough carbs? knight rider

A. Try some other options: oatcakes, crackers, pasta, rice, cous cous salads or try different types of bread. Mix it up to keep it interesting!

Q. Other than protein, what would you recommend to speed up muscle repair? Having recently suffered from a sprained metatarsal joint, can you recommend any foods or supplements to promote tendon and ligament healing? sal f

A. Funny you should ask this, as an athlete I work with also asked me this question yesterday!

There is nothing out there that is proven to help. You could logically claim that foods which enhance collagen production would be useful, such as vitamin C containing foods (brightly coloured fruits typically) and certain amino acids or proteins found in animal protein (meat, fish, eggs and milk products) but this is really digging to suggest something.

I’m sorry, time and good all-round nutrition is the only thing likely to help. Glucosmine is also very unlikely to help.

Ruth McKean: Thanks everyone, I think that’s all of the questions answered. Best of luck to you all.

Previous page
Ask the Experts: Marathon Nutrition with Ruth McKean
Next article
10 Foods You Should Eat Everyday


Discuss this article

Hi-i'm doing VLM again this year (done the last 5 years), i'm 60, followed the run 3+2 programme this year, doing approx. 50 miles per week, as i've been recovering from a pubis synthesis injury the last 12 months, so doing lots of core work etc. My best is 3h 23m  (in 2010 on 80 miles per week) which i'd like to improve upon but i've been struggling with a tightness/cramp in my right hamstring for the last 4 weeks or so. Speaking to various physios. PT's etc. they seem to think it may be a lack of potassium in my diet, i also sweat excessively. My usual diet is:-

Breakfast-Organic porridge 60g (dry) or Mueseli -50g with 20g dry porridge/nuts/cranberries/sunflower/sesame seeds, in total 110g.

Lunch-pot of rice pudding or a couple of pieces of toast with jam before a run and a tuna/ beetroot sandwich afterwards.

Dinner-basically anything but mainly a salad, mostly protein but sometimes with a side of pasta, mainly to keep my weight down, i'm 1.72m tall, 72kgs weight.

Tend to go to bed about mid-night and have 7 hours sleep-i'm semi retired.

I been advised to eat more potessium enriched foods-advocados, bananas, spinach etc. also, i'm aware i have very little fluids during the day and under a 10 mile run, i don't take any with me. Looking at previous comments i don't seem to be eating/drinking enough and of the right variety. I use Nuun tablets  and drink SIS on longer runs and generally eat protein within an hour of finishing. I've stayed away from Lucozade type of drinks as these seem to have a lot of sugar in them.

Posted: 11/04/2012 at 11:35

We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.