While everyone gets a little stressed and excited about covering all 13.1 or 26.2 miles on race day, there’s something far more important than the length or timing of your longest run. It’s more important than your choice in shoes. Any cagey veteran will tell you that it’s not the distance on race day that’ll do you in. After all, if your day goes totally south you can find a way to make it to the finish line even it if means walking.
Give up? On race day, your finish is what you eat. Training aside, the fourth discipline of nutrition is what can help you reach your goals. Messing it up can also leave you far short.
A great race is as much a test of what defines you as it is a test of what fuels you — literally. But there’s a big difference between having a plan…and executing a plan. Let’s get into some details.
Your Basic Marathon Nutrition Plan
The best plan is both simple and proven. Simple as in you can get it, use it, carry it and digest it with relative easy. Proven as in it’s the plan you have formulated and actually tested in several of your longer training sessions. In other words, it’s probably no different than what you’d do on a regular long run day.
Whatever you choose to eat, there are a few key pointers to keep in mind:
- Less is more. Despite what you might think, you can have too many calories on race day. Remember that it’s always easier to add more calories, but not so much fun to “remove” them when running.
- Liquid is best. Whether it’s a drink or a drink mix or a gel, liquid calories are far easier for you to consume and process while running under race day stress.
- You must test. I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating — having a plan is good, but having a plan that you’ve tested in several long runs is way better. Race day nerves alone can make the most bulletproof plan go horribly wrong.
- You are your own worst enemy. Running too hard, running without breaks, and skipping aid stations are all common mistakes that can lead to nutritional complications. Don’t make your race any harder than it already is!
You can learn more about the Marathon Nation recommended nutritional strategy by reading our other major post on marathon nutrition.
Adjusting for Temperature
The biggest factor that can affect your tested nutrition plan is the temperature. Basic running “stasis” is about 60-degress Farenheit. By stasis I mean the place where you can run to your full fitness potential and suffer minimal external effects on your nutrition. Once you exit that window, you need to start modifying your plan. Here are some pointers regarding weather.
On Cold Days…you will be less likely to drink even though your body will need it. You won’t sweat as much, and you won’t necessarily feel the immediate cues to continue taking in fluids. Eating shouldn’t be a problem, although if your core temperature starts to drop over a longer event, you might have issues as the body will eventually begin to shunt bloodflow away from your gut to your brain and other critical organs as a protective measure. So run cold, by all means, but do it properly!
On Hot Days…you will feel dehydrated pretty quickly. In order to take in more fluids safely, you’ll need to increase your drinking frequency (not simply volume). If you are relying on the course and your fluid options are limited by a fix distance, then either consider carrying some of your own fluids as a supplement or plan on slowing down a bit at each aid station to ensure you take in enough fluids. A safe recommendation is taking 20 steps at the station — so run to the person you want to take fluid/food from, then start walking, drinking and counting.
Since your body will be using all available fluids to function, you’ll need to make sure you take in a good amount of water with each fuel source you consider. Gels are easy to carry, but still require water. Anything more solid than that will require significant fluids for your stomach to process.
Not only will you need more fluids, you might be tempted to try a new flavor or type of beverage simply because you are thirsty and it’s right there in front of you. Do so with caution!
Adjusting for an Early Start
Sometimes it’s not the weather, it’s the time of day that gets you. There are quite a few marathons out there, including the Disney Marathon, that require runners to start at a less than optimal time. Aside from doing several training runs at that time of day, there is little else you can do to physically prepare for the early start.
From a nutrition standpoint, you can use those key runs to begin adjusting your pre-race fueling plan. Remember that you should finish eating your pre-race meal about three hours before race start. Since this could mean eating in the middle of the night, you might need to find an easy-to-make and eat option that will allow you to get right back to bed. One example is a pre-made smoothie (Odwalla comes to mind) that has a ton of good calories. And don’t forget you’ll need to practice getting to bed early as well…you don’t want to wake up at Mile Two and realize you forgot something critical to your day!
Adjusting for Stomach Cramps
If you have run afoul of the nutrition gods, there is still hope for you. It’s not a great place to be, but you may still be able to adjust and recover. The best way is to slow down, instantly, so your body can begin to deal with your gastric distress.
This simple act will give your body the wiggle room it needs to get to work, and it will give your brain a moment to review the situation and find out what went wrong. It’s not easily done, as many runners equate walking with failure, when in most cases it’s actually part of a coherent strategy to get your race back on track.
- Did you run too hard? If so, slowing will help.
- Did you eat too much? If so, you now have time to absorb the food.
- Have you overloaded on sugars? If you ate a gel and followed it with sports drink, that could be enough. Sipping water will do the trick.
In addition to slowing down, remember to continue to sip water as you will still need it when you pick the pace back up again.
It’s A Wrap
While there is no one best way to solve a particular nutrition problem. the longer you run and the more often you race the more likely you’ll be able to overcome most nutritional problems. In fact, your goal should be to learn to recognize the warning signs and fix things before they become full-blown problems.
Do you have any experiences or other tips to add? Please post them in the comments below!