Eating For the Long Run: The Marathon

The Marathon. Twenty-six point two miles of running. People on the outside do not understand how important that point 2 is. Or how the last 6.2 miles feels like a completely different race than the first 20 miles. Your fueling during training and even the race itself will impact your performance and recovery. In this article, we will address optimal nutrition during training for the race.

Calories: First you need figure out your personal fuel requirements. Many people successfully do this by keeping track of body weight. Depending on whether you want to lose, maintain or gain weight, monitoring that scale is the best way to decide if you are eating too much or too little. Keep a journal of your weight and weigh every morning at the same time, preferably in the buff. A two to three pound change is not significant but anything more or less reflects real weight gain/loss. (Hydration losses after training are another topic.)
Below are some healthy recommendations that you can modify depending on your personal goals:

Dairy: 3 to 4 servings per day
Milk is one of the most easily digested sources of protein for humans and has the perfect assembly of essential amino acids, second only to the egg. Anyone over 6 years of age should be eating nonfat dairy products. The carbohydrate, protein and calcium are exactly the same in nonfat milk (the native form) as it is in high fat milk. The highly processed form of milk, dubiously labeled “whole” milk, has no additional health benefits for an adult, assuming you do not have a chronic disease. And I hope that old myth that milk is bad before a workout has been debunked. It is all about what works for you.

Dairy Suggestions
(1 serving = 12g carbohydrates, 8g protein):

8 oz. nonfat milk
8 oz. nonfat yogurt (any flavor)
1 scoop (½ cup) ice cream
1 scoop (½ cup) frozen yogurt

Breads/Starches: 3 to 6 servings per day
Whole grains are the name of the game. Bleached, enriched, and even unbleached in the label means that the flour is not whole grain i.e. the fiber and B vitamins have been removed in processing. Some people require a ‘fiber adjustment’ period while converting to whole grains that involves bowel and flatulence issues; but within 2 weeks the healthier higher fiber diet will be the norm with no uncomfortable side effects.

Bread suggestions
(1 serving = 15g carbohydrates, 2g protein):

1 slice whole grain bread
½ cup whole grain pasta
½ whole grain bagel
½ whole grain English muffin
1 potato (fist size)
½ cup peas, beans, or corn
½ cup winter squash
2 rice cakes
5 whole grain crackers
¾ cup whole grain cereal

Fruits: 4-6 servings per day
Nature’s candy is good for us! Yea! Not only does fruit provide a pure form of carbohydrate that the body can use for immediate energy, it also provides fiber and a boat load of vitamins and minerals. Variety is the key. Eat lots of fruit and lots of different kinds, preferably in their natural form- avoid juices, canned, cooked, dried or stretched formulations.

Fruit suggestions
(1 serving = 15g carbohydrates):

1 small apple or orange
15 grapes
2 small plums
¾ cup berries
¼ cantaloupe
1 cup watermelon
½ 9” banana

Vegetables: 6 servings per day
Finally, a food group that has no real limitations. Those 6 servings written above are a minimum! That’s right- you should eat at least 6 servings a day. This group gives us carbohydrate and protein, tons of fiber and no fat! Not to mention vitamins and minerals we get no where else! Have I used enough exclamation points to make the point that vegetables should be eaten in vast quantities and varieties? Still, most of us will not do it.

Vegetable suggestions
(1 serving = 5g carbohydrates, 2g protein):

broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus,
carrots, brussell sprouts, spinach,
greens (kale, turnip, collard, etc),
tomatoes, beets, etc.

Meat: 1.4g/kgBW per day
This is our primary form of protein and endurance athletes have a higher need than the average person; thus the higher recommendation. While we have a very specific need for protein, it still makes up a relatively small proportion of our caloric needs. Over-eating protein will not enhance performance or muscle building for the runner. It will only slow you down. Make sure your protein choices are of high biological value.

Convert body weight to kg
BW (lbs) = BW (kg) / 2.2

Calculate Protein requirement
BW (kg) * 1.4 g/d = g protein/d

Meat suggestions
(1 serving = 7g protein, 5g fat):

1 oz. beef, chicken, pork, turkey
1 oz. fish
1 egg
1 oz. cheese
¼ cup cottage cheese
2 Tbsp peanut butter, nutella
¼ cup beans + ¼ cup brown rice
4 oz. tofu

Everyone is different. The above suggestions are just ways to help you begin the quest of finding the best nutrition plan for training. Try to stay within the guidelines of 60% calories from carbohydrates (CHO), 20% from protein and 20% from fat. The servings recommended per day above are a good start. Keep the food groups in the same relative proportion if you need to increase or decrease the amount per day. And remember, Eat Your Water!

NOTE: For a more complete list of food suggestions and serving sizes, go to or

Kathleen Deegan, PhD, MS, RD
Sports Nutritionist, California State University, Sacramento
SRA Fueling Specialist

Coming next time…
The Truth about ‘Training Low’

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