Marathon Fuel | What to Eat, When and How Much on Race Day

You’ve spent months getting ready to run 26.2, don’t let your marathon fuel plan be an after thought because it could make or break your day.

You’ve heard runners talk about bonking or hitting the wall, which is a less scientific way of saying they ran out of gas. This can certainly happen simply from lack of training, but often it’s due to fueling.

On race day, we’re pushing our body harder than most long runs:

  • That means our HR is higher
  • That means we’re burning a higher percentage of carbs for fuel
  • That means if we don’t keep adding fuel the body will burn through it
  • The brain will also try to hold us back because we’re pushing harder and it’s not being fed it’s primary source of energy – glucose

How often should you take gels during a marathon?

Traditional advice was a gel every 30-45 minutes, but for most runners that was too much and results in a host of stomach issues.

Most gels are 150 calories which is at the HIGH END of what female runners need, especially when using a gel that is straight carbohydrates. And this is once again because most studies and data are based on men.

Bob Seebohar of eNRG Performance has been helping to change this mindset.

I did a metabolic test with him a few years ago that was so eye opening. To a lot of people I was under fueling on the run, but he showed me that I had intuitively figured out how much was enough.marathon fuel tips

This chart shows based on increasing intensity the range of needed calories from carbs for workouts over 2 hours.

You’ll see that many female runners will do just fine with closer to 50 carb calories an hour. Not 2 gels! Your gut is receiving less blood, which means digestion is much harder while running…so it pays not to over do it.

50 calories from carbs is about 13grams, which is roughly equivalent to:

  • 1/2 a Honey Stinger Waffle
  • 1/2 GU gel
  • 3 Skratch Labs Energy Chews
  • 3 Barnana energy chew bites

Your total needs may be higher based on body weight and running at a greatly higher intensity than normal. But still…2 GU’s in an hour probably not helping the way you’d hope.

Marathon Fueling Plan

What you eat during the race is just a piece of the puzzle. It’s also key to focus on your meal the night before a marathon and your pre-race breakfast.

NO SKIPPING BREAKFAST!!! You’re setting yourself up for major issues by limiting those calories.

  • Start line pre-workout – or first part of a gel
  • 45 minutes half a Muir energy nut butter or eating bites of a Nature Fig Bar
  • 90 minutes eating bites of a bar (I like something with a little caffeine)
  • 135 minutes eating bites of a Nature Fig Bar or Barnana bites
  • 180 minutes (3 hours) 1/2 Honey stinger waffle or half a gel
  • 225 minutes 1/2 Honey stinger waffle or half a gel
  • maybe one final block or bit of gel as you hit that 24 mile mark
  • You should also be sipping water or electrolytes throughout (no gulping) – make it a habit to sip every time your watch chimes a mile if you can.

This is a rough plan to take in 50-80 calories per hour, moving from a little bit of a fat to things that are closer to straight carbs later in the race.

Early in the race you can better utilize fat and won’t get a sugar crash by starting off with that varied fuel source.

**Hilly races can be an exception because the higher your HR is shooting up, the more carbohydrates your body is burning. In those cases, I’ll actually organize my fueling around taking something a little before any of the major hills.what to eat during a marathonPictured above mamabear_runs_marathons

Important Fueling Tips

I think part of the fueling plan is mental, so a couple key things to help you not over or under eat.

  • Remember we aren’t trying to fuel for a future need, we are trying to keep our blood sugar level from dropping during the race. Part of the eat a whole gel mentality is thinking we can top up for future needs in the race.
  • Remember even if you eat breakfast two hours before even starting, you will likely benefit from those quick carbs on the start line. You want your body to feel primed to go.
  • Caffeine is a proven performance enhancer. It’s also known to make you need to go. So TEST caffeine use on long runs or tempo runs ahead of time.

Want to avoid stomach issues during the marathon?

  • Practice fueling with different things during your long run
  • If you plan to use the course sports drink, test it
  • Practice long runs with the same type of course or intensity (that changes how you handle food)

Natural Energy Gels

Did you know women have fewer fructose receptors than men, which means that added fructose has greater likelihood to cause stomach issues??

Ah ha, perhaps why your training partner does great on a gel that you do not.

Energy gels range from standard brands like GU to more natural options listed below. Standard gels can often lead to GI distress due to the fructose, so try several different brands to see how you feel afterward.

A few natural energy gel favorites (of mine and those I polled) include:

You may find that you need a few different options on race day. Varying the fuel source could keep your stomach happy and your brain more interested in eating when you might prefer not to.

Foods to Eat During a Marathon

Can’t stomach a gel? I’m right there with you for the most part, which is why I started testing out a lot of other options. I find this to be super common among trail runners and that shift in thinking has helped my stomach tremendously and given me lots of new ideas.

Just keep in mind that you’ll need to practice chewing something gummy while running.

It’s not as easy as you think and 1 blok or a couple beans are not the same volume of energy as a gel (which is ideal for some, but not all!)

A few of my go to picks are:

The main downside here, is I find people munching on them as snacks. HA! We don’t need that much sugar between runs.

If all the sugars in gels and chews makes your stomach revolt, whole foods might be a better option.

What about Liquid Marathon Fuel Options?

Maybe. Like gels, chews, and whole foods, sports drinks replace some of the lost glycogen stores.

In addition, the electrolytes contained in the sodium and potassium help with fluid retention lost from sweating.

  • UCAN marathon fuel: Utilizing a super starch they claim both no stomach issues and no crashes. You’d take 1 scoop to start the race and 1 scoop per 60-90 minutes running… so you’ll need to pre-mix and ensure you can tolerate that volume of water.
  • Tailwind Nutrition Endurance is also designed to prevent stomach issues and does well mix in your hydration pack. You’ll need to drink consistently to keep getting in enough calories.

One Nuun tablet contains just 10 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrates. While it’s great for hydration, it’s not the best choice for fuel.

Regardless, hydration is part of fueling and should be incorporated into your training and racing nutrition plans because we know dehydration is going to drop your energy and slam you in to the wall.Marathon Fueling Plan

Pictured here Clairesmarathonmusings

What about Caffeine on Race Day?

Many energy gels and chews include caffeine for an extra boost during a long run. If you’re not a regular consumer, then don’t just go all out on race day. That could be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, experiment with one gel or chew per hour and see how your body takes it. Or try consuming a cup of coffee in the morning 30 minutes or so before heading out on a long run, as caffeine can take 45 minutes to peak in your system.

Be sure to pay attention to how coffee affects your GI system. Does it make you need to run to the bathroom immediately, or does it take a little while to work its way through? Make sure you know the answer before leaving for that long run.

If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you can get a bigger caffeine boost by giving it up completely for 3 weeks prior to the race. It will feel like rocket fuel that day. In fact, that’s why I like to use it on race day. I rarely have caffeine, so it’s a great energy tool for me.

Looking for more sports nutrition, we’ve got tons of ideas to keep you fueled:

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