Many people have their go-to meals that repeat on the regular, like taco Tuesdays or pizza on Fridays. But your standard diet may not be ideal for the week of a marathon or a half marathon.
Determining the best plan for feeling tip-top on race day entails plenty of trial and error. To give you a starting point, we reached out to Lauren Antonucci, the director of Nutrition Energy in New York and a specialist in sports dietetics, to help you sip and chew your way to the finish line and beyond.
In addition to knowing what’s best to eat before and after a race, you need to know what works for you during a race. The guidelines below outline what you should expect to consume during longer events. Practice and experiment with different food options during your long runs—ideal fueling and hydration varies from runner to runner and may also be affected by the heat.
If you’re running a half marathon:
“Since most of us will be out running for at least 90 minutes during a half or longer, we should aim to take in 30–60 grams of carbs per hour plus 24–32 ounces of fluid,” Antonucci says. A sports drink may have everything you need, but if you prefer water, then add gels, energy chews or other sources of easy-to-eat and easily digested carbs. If the weather will be very hot and humid or if you have a history of muscle cramping, you may want to consume extra sodium, from a salt packet or electrolyte tabs.
If you’re running a marathon:
The marathon presents a greater challenge to most runners because of the amount of fuel you burn while running for several hours. “You can try to increase your carb intake up to 60–90 grams per hour, since the event will last more than 2 hours,” Antonucci says. Similar to her half marathon suggestions, she says a combination of sports drink and gels or chews work well for this distance, and you should add electrolytes or salt at least twice or about every hour.
READ MORE: How to Develop a Race Day Fueling Strategy
As a general rule during training, you’ll want to focus on eating healthy, nutrient-rich foods. But in the days leading up to a race, you should cut back on fiber, choosing white rice over brown and possibly even shying away from that big lunchtime salad full of hearty greens, depending how your stomach reacts on the run.
Here’s a plan for how to choose what to eat and when as you approach the big day and recover from your race.
Week before the race
Antonucci says to increase carbohydrates and slightly decrease protein. This may look like a little more rice than usual and a little less chicken.
48 hours before the race
Focus on eating more carbs and decreasing fiber, and you can skip protein from one or two meals per day. For example, you may switch your usual scrambled eggs and multigrain bread with avocado and cheese on sourdough.
READ MORE: What You Need to Know to Run a 1/2 Marathon
Night before the race
Take in extra fluid and salt to help pre-hydrate by eating soup or pickles or drinking a glass of V8 juice, Antonucci suggests. You want to continue to eat carbs and maybe a little protein (no bigger than the size of your palm). Definitely skip roughage and high-fiber foods, such as beans, salads and certain crackers, cereals and bread. Stick with white bread, rice or pasta, because these are more easily digested.
Again, carbs are king. If you’re running a half marathon, you want to get about 300 calories, such as a bagel or toast and banana. For a marathon, you may need up to 500, Antonucci says. Eat what has worked well on your long run mornings. There’s no need to skip your coffee, but you may want to have a smaller cup, depending on the height of your nerves, and have some water too.
READ MORE: 8 Common Marathon Mistakes to Avoid
During the race
With your focus on carbs in advance of the race, you’ll have topped off your glycogen stores, but they will be depleted during a marathon or half, so you need to practice fueling during your long runs. Because it might be hard to choose among drinks, gels, chews and bars, Antonucci explains how she works with clients: “I always start with a sports drink, because it contains all three things every runner needs: fluids, carbs and salt. Once we figure out how much sports drink an athlete needs and can realistically drink per hour, then I add additional chews or gels for more calories or salt packets/electrolyte tabs to meet their sodium needs.” However, she adds that people won’t get enough calories from just gels, chews or bars.
READ MORE: Expert Tips for Optimal Race Day Fueling
After the race
First you want to re-hydrate, so drink up (and not only in the beer tent!). Water is always a good option, but consider fluids with salt plus carbs and protein—this could be a high-protein recovery drink at the finish line. And don’t delay your post-race meal, assuming you feel up for eating. Antonucci says you want about half your body weight in grams of carbs (so 60 grams for 120-pound runner) plus 20 grams of protein. You could have a bagel with eggs and smoked salmon or soup and a sandwich.
Days following race
Continue to hydrate, listen to your hunger and eat healthy foods. Did you know that your body is unable to restock all the fluids and calories burned on a run with on-the-go fueling and hydration alone? Thus why recovery hydration and fueling is so important. Antonucci says, “It takes the body up to two weeks to fully recover/repair from a half marathon and up to three weeks for a full marathon.” Focus on fruits, vegetables and anti-inflammatory foods (fish, nuts, avocados, hummus) to help facilitate recovery and get you ready to train again!