After a long break from marathon training, during the Pandemic I found myself prepping for the Chicago marathon, which turned in to training to run my first ever Ultramarathon…solo. Building miles and getting refocused on a running diet was an ongoing focus.
What’s important in a running diet plan?
- Eating enough calories to maintain energy as the miles increase
- Not relying on sugars and quick carbs, but whole foods for fuel
- Focusing on eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass
- Including a wide range of nutrients to prevent runger
- Figuring out how to eat 5 servings of vegetables a day for maximum nutrients
And more importantly, remembering that a runners diet doesn’t mean restriction.
It means a style of eating that supports your goals!!
Who hasn’t spent the last mile of a long run fantasizing about a huge slice of cake, a burger or maybe for you it’s the sound of an ice cold coke fizzing in the can. There’s not a darn thing wrong with enjoying these foods because our body is reminding us that it needs fuel.
But obviously an entire day or week or month of eating these foods isn’t ideal for boosting our endurance training.
Marathon Runners Diet
We have a tendency to focus on those treats and the idea of a high carb lifestyle as the way that marathon runners should eat, but nearly everyone will tell you that’s lead them to gain weight.
It seems impossible to be running more miles and gaining weight, but the wrong foods, the wrong fueling and the stress of the miles makes it all too common.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- Importance of a runners diet plan to success in training
- Runners diet plan examples
- How much protein runners need
- How many carbs runners need
- How many calories do runners need (separate detailed article)
- How to fuel long runs with whole foods (separate detailed article)
If we looked at a pyramid of what matters most when it comes to our running performance a lot of people would be disappointed to realize that all the running supplements and recovery tools are near the top (meaning least important, but still useful once you nail down your nutrition).
This pyramid is a great way to put where you spend your time in perspective.
What we’ve all come to learn is that every body works differently in regards to fueling and race day nutrition, but the one thing that all endurance athletes NEED GOOD QUALITY food the 75% of time they’re not training.
What should long distance runners eat?
The number of calories runners need depends a great deal on body size, speed and percentage of calories burned from carbs or fat.
I fully recommend working with someone to make those determinations, but you can use online calculators to get you starts.
However, as I’ve stated previously with those calculators I’d be eating enough to gain weight, not maintain and definitely not lose body fat.
- You don’t want to have massive calorie deficits, which can lead to energy swings that make training harder
- You don’t want a high volume of calories from sugary processed foods which cause inflammation
- You do need to plan ahead for meals to eat enough quality foods
I do NOT like to share what I eat because there’s no guarantee it will work for you, but in Macros for Runners there is a sample day of eating from one runner and I will give you and idea of mine now.
In the following sections we’ll breakdown each component of during a workout, carbs and protein.
Following is a sample day from while I was running 50 miles per week, strength training 3 days and worked with someone to figure out how to keep my energy steady.
- Pre-run: 1/2 scoop protein powder with 12 oz water (usually some green juice), + 1 tbsp nut butter + 1/2 cup cheerios (I’m usually only awake for 30 minutes or so before I run, so I keep is small and fast)
- Breakfast: 1 slice Ezekiel bread, 2 oz avocado, 1 turkey hot dog, clementine and 1/2 scoop protein powder
- Snack: 1 slice Ezekiel cinnamon raisin bread, 2 tbsp nut butter, 1/2 apple
- Lunch: 4-5 oz chicken breast, 2 cups greens, 4 oz baked potato (usually a piece of dark chocolate too)
- Snack: 1 cup cheerios (I love cereal), 2 tbsp nut butter and often some jerky
- Dinner: 5 oz ground turkey, 4 oz sweet potato, asparagus
- Snack: 1/2 Perfect Bar
Not so much in to meat? Checkout this post on transitioning to be a plant based marathon runner.
You can definitely be a vegan runner, but you need to do the proper planning to not only hit your calorie goals, but the amount of protein needed to ensure you maintain muscle.
Especially for females who may have issues with low iron, which can cause a host of issues.
What is the best diet for marathon training?
As you can see above I tend to run something close to the Zone Diet and that works for my body and the way I train with Low Heart Rate burning more fat than carbs.
Some runners really like the high fat diet for endurance athletes, but I’ve found they have issues sticking to it long term and we now know that for women it can lead to hormonal imbalances.
- Long standing rules have said runners need 60% of their diet from carbs, but we’re seeing more and more that’s not true.
- One of the main issues is at that rate, few runners are getting it entirely from whole foods and instead are eating a lot more processed sugary treats.
- The best diet is one that leaves you feeling good, helps your body to repair quickly and prevents bonking from sugar crashes.
Eating higher protein helps maintain muscle mass when you’re in a calorie deficit, really important for endurance athletes who are almost always going to be low on calories after massive workouts. And LADIES listen up that post workout 30 minute window is really important for you!!
Protein expert Stuart Phillips, PhD from McMaster Univeristy says runners need a minimum is 1.6 grams per kg of body weight per day (2.3-3.1 for muscle building).
- 1 gram per lb of body weight often works as easy math for women
- Eating enough protein helps manage the hunger from marathon training
- Eating enough protein helps keep hormones in check and prevent muscle loss
- Protein can absolutely be a combination of plant and meat sources
- Try not to rely just on protein powders, you want the full range of nutrients from food, plus it’s more filling
It’s also important to remember that you need to get in ENOUGH calories to prevent muscle wasting.
A consistent period of being in calorie deficit means your body will begin to use muscles, not fat, to provide the energy you need for those long workouts.
Read more on maintaining muscle mass with endurance training >>
Over 100 years of research back the idea that we need carbs to perform and studies are showing that those on keto are not performing as well come race day, plus developing longer term health issues like low testosterone.
Our bodies need proper nutrients to fully recover from each workout and to work hard when we ask it to! Even if you’re doing LHR training and burning mostly fat, there’s a saying that “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.”
YOU MUST EAT CARBS. They give you energy and are important for well rounded diet.
A good 4:1 ratio of Carbs and Protein after your workout is key to recovery. Examples:
– Brown rice and eggs
– Turkey wrap
– Oatmeal and cottage cheese
– Cheese on GF toast
– Quinoa and chicken or pork bowl
The meals consumed after workouts should be protein/fat/vegetable based.
These are the “building blocks” of good nutrition, and your body will naturally crave them if you fueled properly before. And remember this isn’t about perfection or being a zealot about your food!
When you are too low in carbs, your sugar cravings will increase and you will feel fatigued in training. You may also find you have trouble sleeping! That’s because your body is stressed and struggling to recover.
Checkout more post run meal ideas >>
Tips for a Healthy Runners Diet
There will be times when life happens, we’re stuck without proper food because we’re traveling or at the mercy of a work conference filled with pastries and a lunch wrap of iceberg lettuce.
But a marathon runners diet is in fact part of their training!
If you can nail your nutrition 80-90% of time, then that’s great!
The other 10% of the time, do whatcha can don’t freak out about it. Sometimes that stress just causes more damage.
- Remember that high quality PRE and POST run meals mean you won’t need to take in as many quick carbs like gels during the run.
- Pack snacks to take with you that don’t need to be in the fridge like an apple, jerky, nut butter packets, roasted chickpeas, protein powder
- Think about meals being a BALANCE of both protein and carbs, this will keep you from getting that raving hunger just a short bit after eating.
- Actually eat enough at your meals so that you don’t need to just rely on snacks, which often aren’t as high quality food.
- Decide you’re going to commit to meal prep because your goal matters
- Change your thoughts around food from restriction to eating for performance
- Focus on NUTRIENTS and you’ll find your food falls in to place more easily
- Hydrate like it’s your job…cause it kinda is.
- Don’t worry a great deal about variety, if you’ve found a way of eating that’s allowing you to eat enough and high quality, stick with it. This also helps reduce hunger interestingly.
Thanks to my friend Lindsay Cotter, a blogger and Nutrition Specialist over at Cotter Crunch for contributing a lot of great information to this article, she has worked with many amazing Sports Nutritionists, and endurance athletes, including her own husband who raced professionally for years!
Hope you found these tips somewhat useful in creating your own optimized marathon training nutrition!
Still looking for more information?
Checkout these additional articles on a healthy runners diet:
- Sports nutrition for runners
- Running for weight loss guide
- Avoiding common running nutrition mistakes
- How to fuel long runs with whole foods
- How to fuel during a marathon
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