Marathon nutrition Q&A with Ruth McKean

ASICS Pro Team Nutritionist Ruth McKean joined us recently for a Q&A webchat about nutrition strategies in the lead up to a marathon. Catch up with the highlights.

Ruth is a member of the British Dietetic Association and Health Professional Council, she is a leading sports dietician and an advisor to the Scottish Institute of Sport. She is also a former Scottish National 5,000m champion.

Q1) I'd be interested in nutrition for the ordinary person on an ordinary wage with wife/husband and kids. Too many suggestions these days involve fancy new age foods like quinoa or exotic berries not to mention expensive ones like avocados and (tasteless) chicken breasts. - William Brown 7

 A1) Thanks for your post. There are some basic nutrition principles that you need to consider to perform well and stay healthy (not just for the short term but also long term health). A good diet will help support consistent intensive training (that marathon training usually requires!) while at the same time reducing risk of illness, & good recovery from training can also help promotes adaptations to training (ie changes that happen that make you fitter or able to run for longer etc). My job is often to get the basics right in someone’s diet and often I manipulate energy intake to achieve certain goals such reducing body fat levels or improving recovery etc. To do any of these things you do not need to include expensive foods.

So consider the basics you need. The base of all meals should contain carbohydrates and in an ideal world should be mostly wholegrain versions; so wholegrain pasta, rice, cereals or other carbs such as potatoes (all varieties are fine) and bread (homemade can be cheaper and easy if already have a bread machine). Quinoa is not new age, it is just more traditional in other countries and due to the world getting smaller in terms of trade we now see these foods in the UK. These are a choice however, not 'needed', nor is a diet necessarily better for having these foods in it as that will depend on bigger picture of someone’s diet.

The next food you need to think about in a meal is protein: you have the obviously ones such as meat, fish, eggs and cheese but you do not need to eat meat or fish everyday. Cheap options are lentils & other pulses such as beans. You only need to eat up to 2 portions of fish per week (up to 4 if heart problems) one of which should be oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines/pilchards, trout). You can buy these quite cheap or as vacuum packed and you still get the fish oils.

Then you must consider colour in your meals – your vegetables (or fruit but always try and get a decent about of veggies in meals) and try and use a variety - the more varieties the bigger the range of vitamins & mineral your body will get. Frozen is cheaper and could actually be fresher than any supermarket varieties & buy what is in season.

The price of food has gone up but if you plan your meals and avoid buying too many extras such as chocolates, 2 for 1 offers you don’t need etc, you can eat well. People can feel it is too much hassle to meal plan (and you may not be one of these people) BUT you can save a lot of money by planning meals and probably eat better and use the principle cook once eat twice (freeze the extra). A tin or carton of chopped tomatoes (you can get for as little as 35p) with some herbs and garlic can make a sauce that can feed a family without the salt content etc. Fat is important in your diet but a little oil (olive sunflower, linseed, rapeseed etc) is a great source, as is your oily fish (oily fish also has vitamins D in it).

Recovery foods post-run can be a bowl of cereal and milk - it's perfect as a recovery food. It has the protein & carbs. Drink water for fluid replacement as salt from food will help with the fluid replacement. These foods advertised as 'super foods' such as berries are very high in antioxidants (and they are to be fair) but if you eat at least 5 but ideally more of other brightly coloured fruit and veg and have a good mix/variety of these then you will get a good source of antioxidants. You can buy berries frozen too and add to natural yogurt etc. I think if you plan you can eat on a budget and not waste foods then you have to spend time on planning.

Gels: the convenience of gels for some is the ease digestion. They are compact, stay fresh in foil and only need one gel for say 5 jelly babies and this is probably what makes them popular and of course the marketing, but they are no different to eating jelly sweets if you work out the carbs to be the same. You have to eat a lot of smaller jelly sweets such as jelly beans to match a gel. In hot marathons sweets can get very sticky or in cold conditions harder to chew. Some people find out what gels suit them then rarely use these until marathon day but jelly sweets are also fine! Work out the pros and cons for you.

So look past the marketing and really see what needs to go in your trolley to make simple inexpensive meals.

Q2) I’m in week 8 of an 18-week marathon training plan. My marathon is in May. I managed to find a plan, which I can hit most sessions, despite being away from home 12-14 hours a day during the week. As a result, 2 of the ‘quality’ sessions are done on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday is typically race pace miles (this will be getting up to 8 miles in the coming weeks), and Sunday is a long slow run, designed to be on tired legs, after the fast work on Saturday. In various of your posts, and in general, nutritional advice centres around eating to match your exercise, however, I actually find I am most hungry on the days I’m not running (Friday and Monday). In effect I have to do a carbo load before each weekend to manage these sessions. This weekend it was 7 miles race pace, followed by 14 mile LSR on Sunday. I’m taking electrolyte drinks and energy gels for the long runs, but what advice would you have for eating for the rest of the day, so that I can still do other things. I do like to lay around recovering, but I don’t think I should take more than 90 minutes on this! And would you recommend I stick to my Friday carbo load? – Angela Isherwood 2

A2) Because you are doing the 2 sessions back to back I would say yes, do increase food on the Friday and be very sharp on your recovery during the weekend. So after your race pace session ensure you eat at least 50g of carbs as soon as you can post run as well as 10-20g of protein. This could be a 500ml low fat milkshake (supermarket own brand or otherwise) -  this would be around 50g carbs and 19g protein; or Nesquik powder and 400ml skimmed milk would have around 50g carbs and 14 g protein. Or have 60g bowl of cereal and 250ml milk (58g carbs and 18g protein) or a cottage cheese sandwich on 2 thick slices of bread and a 150g pot of yoghurt (49g carbs and 30g protein) or bean on toast - ½ can on two thick sliced bread (60g carb and 19g protein). Include fluid as well water or fruit juice diluted 1/4 with water. Suggest no more than 500ml immediately post run – the bladder can only hold so much! Then sip on water/fluid little and often throughout the day. Then 2 hours later eat a further snack or meal. On the Saturday and Sunday increase supper a little, so before bed try some toast and honey or bowl of cereal.

I would only use your drinks and gels on runs longer than 90minutes, so on a 14mile run this would be wise, especially after a session the day before.

Q3) I'm running 2-2.5hrs long runs on Sunday and struggling to keep my energy up - gels make me wretch, as I haven't got a sweet tooth. I find I am so distracted by feeling sick that I can't run as well & feel demoralised. I have tried quite a range and although a few of them I can manage to keep one sachet down, any more & that feeling returns. Is there any other more natural or less sweet options you know of that I could try. - Sarah Blunt 2

A3) I know a very good runner that has raisins during a marathon with no problem, but they are sweet. Have you tried drip-feeding some jelly sweets, say 2 sweets every 10 minutes as the drip-feeding can work better for some feeling sick? I do know people that use Rice Krispie bars, malt loaf and even flapjacks, but stomach issues can be a problem and a flapjack is not an easily digested food at all and not one I would recommend but the point being they appear to work for that individual with no energy issues.

I do think the drip-feeding may be your best option. You could try the more natural sweets that are made with fruit juice. Keep trying different things but drip feed would be my first suggestion. Even sweets made from fruit juice or not a healthy option for day-to-day consumption!

Q4) I have started cramping around 14/15 miles on the long runs. Lots of advice from fellow club runners about hydration, carbs, gels and electrolytes. I weigh just over 200 pounds, do I need more fuel than say a 168 pounder. My pace is a pretty solid 9:30min mile in training. – LeeB James

A4) Although on some occasions I do think fluid is partly or a full cause of cramp in many runners I do not think this is always the case. In fact it's unlikely in many runners. Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (cramps that only occur during exercise) most commonly occur in the in calf for runner and can range from just twinge to being very painful. This occurs when the muscle involuntary contracts and does not relax. It is thought this is due to unusual stimulation of the muscle but really the exact cause is not known. However cramp occurs more readily in tired muscles (i.e. at 14/15 miles into a run) and therefore if only occurring in races or when upping miles in long runs it may be lack of your muscles able to cope with the exercise at this stage of the race and often something has to change in training - for example at end of very long runs putting in race pace efforts when muscles are tired. If you are coached then speak to your coach about this. I don’t think this is nutrition related as although hydration (dehydration) has been associated as a possible cause of these cramps, in fact the evidence is not that strong to support it (although those that are exceptionally sweaty individuals with other factors are perhaps more likely to cramp). You may also have heard that cramp is linked to the loss of potassium, calcium and magnesium but this has very little support it as there is little of these lost in sweat. I would say that if you do not fuel well before these races or long runs that might also increase the chance as under-fuelling will mean muscles will fatigue earlier. So if running more than 90mins perhaps sufficient fluid/fuel along the way may be useful. You may find that your overall weight also may play a part in this. Some runners have very muscular builds or too much body fat and perhaps this is too much of a load on the body.

Some suggestions to reduce risk of cramp are as follows:

  • Stronger & fitter muscles are more resilient to fatigue and hence cramp so work on strength and fitness
  • Be very careful when changing speed/intensity particularly during the later stages of a race. Fatigued muscles take longer to adapt to increased intensity.
  • Wear comfortable, unrestrictive clothing and footwear.
  • Practice good hydration practices both before and during exercise - perhaps you could try using a electrolyte drink and sip on this the morning before a race (so nuun, high five zero, SIS Super hydro) and even 500ml in the evening before race. Saying this, I am not convinced this will be the issue or certainly not the only one).

Q5) I would like some info on the lead up to a first marathon say the week before what to eat and drink and because you are on a rest week do you downsize your portions or eat more to build up for the race?

Also 'normal' foods to eat during a marathon would be useful. I plan for malt loaf, banana etc but any ideas would be good. – Bart Everton

A5) I would suggest you eat as you normally do with the exception of cutting down/out on extras such as biscuits, chocolate, desserts, and even reduce portion sizes a little for days 7, 6, 5, 4 before marathon & perhaps even for day 3. Then for days 2 & 1 before marathon I would mostly eat carbs and cut right down on protein in meals (fish, meat, pulses, eggs etc) and all fatty foods. For example, a meal plan might look like this for a 70kg athlete :

Breakfast: 60g cereal with 200ml of skimmed milk, 2 slices of bread with jam or honey or 500ml of a low fat milkshake & 150ml fruit juice.

Snack: 550ml fruit squash (full sugar varieties) with large banana and 4 jaffa cakes.

Lunch: baked potato with beans and 50g dried fruit.

Snack (afternoon): 400ml fruit squash & bagel with jam or honey.

Evening meal: Pasta (100-120g dried weight) with tomato-based sauce, 500ml fruit squash or 500ml fruit juice and scoop of frozen yoghurt.

Before bed: Bowl of cereal or 2 x toast and jam/honey.

Do not worry about the lack of protein, the above has enough (from milk, yoghurts and even pasta and bread and it is only for a couple of days).

Race morning foods should be tried and tested cereal etc, and also test the timing of foods before you run.

The food during a marathon should be easy and quick to digest - that is why simple sugars are used (fat or protein take longer to leave tummy and unlike carbs cannot start to be digested in the mouth). Jelly sweets rather than expensive gels are fine but as mentioned above there are pros and cons to this.

Q6) I need quick family style recipes & ideas. I have 1 veggie son in the mix. Like everyone I am flat out doing training, family, & my job. Also I can't stomach the gels so whilst I try everything on the market what alternatives are there? Finally can you give us a few ideas for a whole day - breakfast, snack, lunch snack etc for training days & non-training days? – cowgirl 668

A6) I think I have probably answered most of these points already but good website such as the Australian Institute of Sport has recipes for and from athletes and veggie options to suit all the family. Some of the foods need to be changes to British brands but there is enough on there for ideas.  

Have you tried different types of regular jelly sweets?

If you are training for more than five days a week for a marathon, my view is that all days for eating are training days (so rest days are recovery of fuel days). I know that appears simplistic the only exception is down weeks and first part of taper I would reduce all portion by no more than a ¼ but this will depend on your body composition (if you struggle to keep weight on then less than this) and no extras such as biscuits, crisps, chocolates, cake or very little.

Q7) I am having trouble knowing if I’m eating enough. What should my daily calorie intake be whilst marathon training? I don't know if this helps you answer but I'm 36, 5ft 4inch and weigh 8 stone. I'm currently running 45+ miles, 5 times a week. I'm also a busy mum of two small girls so don't tend to sit down much! – Katy1

A7) Not really enough information to give very sound advice but it sounds like you don’t need to lose any more weight, though I don't know your body composition (body fat etc) so am just going on height and weight. Some questions you need to honestly ask yourself: are you struggling in recovery from runs? Is your training very up and down? Are you often injured or unwell etc? Do you have a regular menstrual cycle? (If not, it could be a fuel issue and it is very important that you do have regular periods.) Do you leave long gaps between eating? Are you eating at least 2,000kcal per day (although I suspect you may need close to 2400-2500kcal)? If you are full of energy, are not up and down on your runs and can answer positively to all of the questions you may be doing okay but without seeing what you eat I am guessing somewhat and going on experience. Could you write down an account of what you are eating and show it to someone that could be objective on it? The busy mum aspect, I totally understand but if you can find time to marathon train you must find time to eat. I suggest 3 meals and 3 snacks per day. I bet you never leave the house without snacks for the girls, do the same for you! You will be amazed with a little planning on the weekly shop how much better snack choices and meals can be and how easy they can be. Meals do not have to be fancy! 

Q8) I'm looking for some advice. I've recently being diagnosed with the following intolerances: cows milk, peanuts, white sugar (any refined sugar). I'm in the process of getting a second opinion but in the meantime can you suggest any gels or anything that I can eat on long runs if refined sugar is out? Maltodextrose is in EVERY gel that I can find.

I've heard some good things about Beetroot juice - would you recommend this? Do you think it's wise for a serial marathon runner to avoid cows milk? – Emmy H

A8) Have you been told these are allergies or intolerances? If allergies you must avoid as it can affect your immune system. If intolerance then small amount in your diet may not be a problem and if you do eat these foods you may suffer sore tummy but it will not damage your body longer term but you should avoid to reduce symptoms. I do also wonder who diagnosed you as I am not sure that the NHS or other medical person would tell you are intolerant to refined sugar. Do you eat excessive amounts of white sugar in boiled or jelly sweets/confectionary, coffee etc? There is refined sugar in so many foods from cereal, bread etc and I question how you would be able to absorb fruit sugar if you cannot have refined sugar however refined sugar should be limited in diet to as little as possible except perhaps when running a marathon. You will struggle to find any gels or jelly sweets that will suit but I would ask you if you have run well with these in the past, I suggest you use them on marathon day if you have no symptoms.

Peanuts and milk are more common but you have not mentioned if it is cows milk protein or the lactose in the milk you have problems with - again it makes me wonder who tested. If it is lactose than just move to lactose free milk if cow milk protein use soya enriched with calcium or rice/almond milk (goats milk etc will have the protein in it so do not use if it is the cows milk protein that is the issue). Nuts you need to avoid but seek proper medical advice on this and ensure this is not an allergy that you can react to in a severe way.

Beetjuice is not for drinking during a race, I doubt many could stomach this! It tastes rather bitter. But again the sugar from the beetjuice could be an issue. If using this, use before a race and use up to two bottles so for example at 4 hours pre race and 2 hours per race. This is meant to enhance the time you will fatigue at, it has some decent research behind it but not conclusive. It is the dietary nitrates found in beetroot that is the magic ingredients but you can find dietary nitrates in spinach, cress, lettuce, celery beetroot and other foods as well but the beet juice is in a concentrated form so you can have high amounts in one shot.

Q9) I read the advice you were giving to the Asics crew regarding carbo loading for their half marathon with a view to using the same strategy over two days before the marathon. It seemed you were suggesting a lot of food but on the day it really seemed to help them - I think they said as much themselves.

It was interesting the foods you suggested using and those to avoid and recommendations on keeping the correct balance of carbs/protein/fat.

Is it possible for you to summarise this here along with the amount of carbs needed. (I'm about 115lb).

Also, when it comes to gels in the marathon, how many would you recommend and at what time? I usually take me first one at 13-14 miles but in my last marathon took the first one at 7 miles and I actually think this was better. - Minni

A9) The food that I have posted will appear a lot for you as you only weigh 155lb. For you I would only recommend you have 400-500g when carb loading and as mentioned above cut out all the extras fat and even protein to keep the overall calories down,

So a plan for you could look like this:

Breakfast: 50g cereal & 150ml milk with one slice of toast with honey/jam and 200ml of fruit juice.

Snack: 500ml milkshake or medium banana and 500ml of fruit juice/squash/cordial.

Lunch: 2 slice of thick bread with banana and honey filling, 150g pot of yogurt or medium baked potato and beans.

Snack: bagel and honey/jam (split in two and have over full afternoon) and 500ml of cordial/squash.

Evening meal: 90g dried weight pasta/rice and tomato based sauce and 300ml of fruit juice or a chopped fruit & pot of yoghurt (150-200g).

Before bed: cereal bar or 1 slice of toast and jam.

This is around 450g of carbs.

A10) It's as simple as a big pasta meal with some garlic bread on a Saturday night, a bowl of porridge & honey 2 hours before my long run Sunday morning and I'm good to go for a 2 & half hour 20 miler with just a 500ml bottle of water to keep me going on the way round.

Gels / drinks / sachets / fuels etc are all a fad and convenience for not preparing in advance. What do you think they did in the days of a few cups of water around the London marathon course?! – Aliscott 78

A10) I do think the fluid is over-rated, drink to thirst when weather conditions are mild but plan to drink when hot!

The gels etc are useful in marathon racing for reasons mentioned but I agree too many people use these too often in training. However you must use these in training a few times if they are going to used in a race, to find out if they are going to work for you and some people do train better on long runs using these. Everyone is an individual and must find out what works for them. Carb loading may well mean you need less during a race.

Elite runners do not eat or drink much during races but they finish in just over 2 hours!

Good day to day nutrition will also make a big different on race day as good recovery and good overall nutrition can help you adapt to the training you do.

Q11) Some athletes... notably Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, have famously moved to gluten free diets - despite not being "gluten intolerant"... with apparently startling effects. I have 3 questions on this subject.

1/ In a sentence or two, how does this help someone who is not gluten intolerant?

2/ If you're going "gluten-free", do you believe that you get 90% of the benefit if you cut out 90% of your gluten? Or is it one of those things that you really need to virtually eliminate in order to gain much benefit?

3/ Is there some way of finding out how much gluten is in consumer products?  For example, normal porridge oats and many rice-based snacks often say "contains gluten" on the back of the pack. But I expect that the gluten content in such products would be very small (but they obviously have to declare it as an allergen). My motivation here is that, if I'm not actually gluten intolerant, I don't want to pay triple the price for "gluten-free" versions of porridge, just to eliminate the last traces. - Run Wales

A11) Interesting questions. There was no apparent reason for these athletes to go gluten free but I suspect it just made them think longer and harder about what food they could actually eat which may well have improved their diets (and Andy Murray changed coaches which may have been a big factor). It is a fad in the elite world at the moment (with some groups) and can help people lose weight and feel full of energy but simply because they are eating less bread (often people eat 6 slices or more of bread a day which from a nutritional view point is a lot) or eating better & placebo effect. There is no evidence that is will make you a better athlete but if it makes you in around about way eat better then perhaps this is for you. Unless allergic to gluten then excluding 100% is not needed and you could not do this anyway. I would suggest if you want more information go to the website as it has loads of great info and explains all about the oat issue.