As in most sports, marathon running has its grand slam events; those iconic races (outside of the Olympics) that attract the most prestige and attention, and also the most runners. Many amateur runners have the goal of completing one of these events (with the London marathon most popular to runners in the UK), whilst a dedicated few will attempt to run all of them (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York). In 2016, I ran them all, becoming only the 5th Briton and 16th globally to complete them in the same year.
My journey to the world majors started in 2015, when I ran my marathon PB (and the qualifying time for Boston, London and Chicago) at Manchester. This marked the culmination of a new and more focussed approach to my running, not only better quality training, but also taking a serious look at the impact that nutrition can have on performance and recovery.
There is loads of advice available to runners on nutrition strategies:
- Carbs are good...
- Carbs are bad...
- Mix your colours...
- Run fuelled-up...
- Run fasted...
- Haribos are a superfood.
The best advice I can give is to approach nutrition just like you do the rest of your running. Training provides the perfect opportunity to try out what works and what doesn’t (learning from failure is an important part of the learning experience), so that by race day you have a strategy that works for you.
My approach to running nutrition is really quite straightforward and focuses on two elements: calorie intake and macronutrients (i.e. balance between carbohydrate, fats and protein). Like many marathon runners, I thought I ate quite healthily, that carbs were always a good thing, and that as my mileage increased I could probably get away with eating what I liked. I got some professional advice on how to build a nutrition plan based on my physical characteristics (age, sex, build), level of normal activity (i.e. in my case I have a sitting down job!) and my training.
The plan we developed, and which I still use, looks something like this:
- Non- or light training days – 2,000 calories (carbs 25%, protein 40%, fat 35%)
- Heavy training days – 2,700 calories (carbs 40%, protein 25%, fat 35%)
In summary, a lot less carbs and a lot more protein. Out went porridge and cereal for breakfast, with pasta relegated to the most strenuous of training days. In came more fat, particularly eggs and dairy, with no need to worry about the low-fat varieties. I started using protein supplements (PhD products are my personal choice) as a convenient way of boosting my protein intake – there’s only so much chicken you can eat! I was amazed at quite how much food you can have for 2,000 calories if you choose well.
And the difference it made to my running? Weight loss, toning up, more energy, faster recovery. What’s not to like?
In the 3-4 days leading up to a marathon I would begin to increase my carbs intake more, including plenty of isotonic sports drinks and snacking on protein bars and flapjack, whilst carefully adding bread, potatoes and/or pasta to at least one meal a day. I try and eat well the day before a marathon, but key for me is to not eat too late. I would try and eat my last meal no later than 15 hours before the start of the race and 3 hours before I go to bed.
A particular challenge of these races was the fact they were overseas, and I found it quite difficult in Tokyo finding drinks and snacks in the supermarket that I recognised and felt comfortable taking so close to a big race. Future trips were made with plenty of stuff in the suitcase, so it’s worth being prepared, especially if you don’t recognise or know you don’t get on with the on-course nutrition. As it turned out I had no problem with any of the provided brands (Lucozade, Gatorade, Powerade or Pocari Sweat) and you can usually try them out at the Expo.
I am an early riser on marathon day (a killer in Chicago that had a 7:30am start) and find I need to eat around three hours before the start of the race. Typically, this would include porridge or rice pudding and a large mug of tea. Then in the hours up to the race I may have a banana or small flapjack and slowly sip on a 500ml bottle of isotonic drink (still not perfected that balance between staying hydrated and not having to stop mid-race!) I have wondered whether I ought to try and get more fuel in before a race, but attempts in training have just left me sluggish and bloated, plus sometimes I’m just too excited/nervous to want to eat anything.
One of the advantages of the world major marathons is that there are drinks stations (water and isotonic) at every mile along the course. This negates the need to carry anything with me from the start (which I may do in a smaller race) and promotes the sensible strategy of having little and often. I just made sure I took something on at almost every point, even if just a few sips, which helped kept me topped up (particularly important in Boston and Berlin which were the warmest of the six races).
Typically for a marathon where I’m running between 3 and 3½ hours I would expect to take between 5-6 gels (I usually use High 5 gels, with a mixture of with and without caffeine), starting at around mile 9 and then taking one every 3 miles or 20-25 minutes. It’s a routine that worked for me at all the races, with nothing in the way of ‘gel-cramps’. I used to carry jelly beans/babies with me on a marathon but found I very rarely touched them, and simply reached the finish line with a sweaty lumpy mess of sugar in my pocket. Again, at the bigger races there are always such things to be found around the course if you need that little sugary boost. The hot day in Boston brought out offers of popsicles (Mr Freeze for those in the UK!) which was a welcome relief as I trundled my way up Heartbreak Hill.
POST RACE NUTRITION
During my training I try to be sensible, with some good carb/protein input straight after a long or hard session (again PhD Recovery works well for me, or failing that a normal chocolate milkshake). After a race I usually feel ready to eat pretty quickly, and I’ll usually have some snacks and an electrolyte drink (High 5 zero) waiting for me with my kit bag. Again, these bigger races were great because there was plenty on offer to runners at the finish, and I’d often finish a bottle of water and a banana before I’d left the finish area. It would then be a case of finding something more substantial (definitely savoury) before heading back to the hotel to stretch, shower and change. Always time for a celebratory ice-cream of course. Chicago was the best for that.
The races themselves were all very different in terms of experience and also my own performance. Injury though the winter meant Tokyo was a very steady run (more mind over matter I think), whilst having London and Boston in the same week creates its own challenges, especially with post-race recovery and refuelling. Chicago and Berlin were fast, whilst New York was again a steady run around to complete the set. Travel and flights can also play havoc with sleeping and eating patterns, and I found it particularly important to make sure I did eat and drink enough in the 2-3 days before race day. Arriving a few days ahead of the race will help to settle your body’s routine and hopefully ensure you reach the start line in the best possible shape.
Nutrition is now a key component of my running routine and an important consideration throughout my training period, and not just in the days and hours leading up to the race. Try it yourself, you’ll definitely see the benefits.
Next up for me is the Brathay 10in10; 10 marathons in 10 days in the Lake District. Now that’s going to require a totally different nutrition strategy…