Quite a few people have been asking me recently whether I’ve changed my diet since I started training for the Manchester Marathon, or what they should eat for marathon training. I don’t pretend to be a sports nutritionist, but I have done quite a bit of reading on the subject and learned a lot about it! I usually have a pretty healthy diet anyway but have made a couple of adjustments over the last few weeks.
The main tweak I’ve made to my diet is to think more about eating certain foods on certain days or at certain times… not in an obsessive kind of way, but basically eating carb-based meals before runs (especially long ones) for energy and protein-based ones afterwards to help with recovery. So, for example, if I’m running late morning (my preferred time) I’ll probably have porridge for breakfast, then a lunch with plenty of protein afterwards – favourites recently have been sardines/mackerel/eggs/beans/peanut butter on toast (not all at once!) or salad with tuna, avocado or mixed beans. Recently I’ve had a bit of a thing for Morrison’s tinned Mackerel in Spicy Tomato Sauce, it’s really tasty! If for some reason I can’t run til later on in the day I’ll probably have some homemade soup and a wholemeal roll for lunch beforehand, then a protein-based dinner including something like salmon, chicken or red meat afterwards. On a Saturday evening I usually have pasta, then for Sunday breakfast some porridge or toast to fuel me up for the long run – and ideally a roast dinner later! You get the idea. I think this has really helped me, certainly energy-wise.
I’ve also been trying to ensure that I get enough iron, as this is really important for distance runners – especially women, who need more iron anyway. I’ve been eating red meat once a week, am snacking occasionally on dried apricots and have become slightly obsessed with spinach, especially in curry!
After long run it’s important to refuel quickly and well, so when I get home I usually make up my own chocolate recovery drink of whole milk, a banana and some cocoa, whizzed up with my hand blender; this is a combination of carbs and protein that can be absorbed really easily and get to work on refuelling and recovery very quickly. Chocolate milk is supposed to be really good for recovery and the cocoa in this does make it taste great! If I’ve had a shorter run or been cross-training I just eat a banana.
On days when I’ve done a hard or long run I’ve noticed that I’ve definitely been feeling hungrier than usual. Usually I don’t really feel the need to eat anything after dinner, but one Sunday night recently I woke up at 3am feeling so hungry I had to get up and eat something! So now on some days I have a bit of supper and don’t feel guilty about it. And before you start thinking how smug and perfect I am, I also have weaknesses! On long run days I do allow myself the odd treat like a bit of cake (usually homemade) or a couple of glasses of red wine.
I could go on about this sort of thing til the cows come home, but if you want to read about it in more detail I highly recommend Anita Bean’s Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. A brand new edition of this has just come out and I’m very tempted to buy it as mine is a few years old now.
Anyway, here are my top nutritional tips for beginners training for a marathon, although they could probably apply to anybody doing any endurance exercise. At the risk of stating the obvious, you should already be eating a healthy, balanced diet – and this is certainly not the time to be following faddy regimes such as Atkins or Dukan or trying to shed the pounds. If you need to lose weight, you will!
Try to focus your eating on lean protein, good carbs, pulses, nuts and lots of fruit and veggies. This doesn’t have to be expensive – look out for special offers in the shops and plan meals around them.
Ditch the junk as much as possible – takeaways, bad carbs, booze and refined sugary things won’t do you any favours performance-wise. Think of your body as a performance car that needs quality refuelling!
Fats are essential for joint care and injury prevention, especially those found in foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocadoes. Make yourself a super salad dressing; mine contains flaxseed, olive and walnut oils, plus organic cider vinegar, herbs and mustard – fab!
Drink plenty of water, especially after runs. Even in cold weather you still sweat quite a bit.
Make sure you get some dairy in your diet – running is hard on the bones! If you’re vegan you might want to consider taking a calcium supplement.
Don’t be afraid to eat a bit more than usual as the mileage increases – you’re definitely burning more calories – but make sure it’s quality food.
If you’re a woman or a vegetarian (or both!), consider taking an iron supplement.
Hard training can suppress your immune system, leaving you prone to infection, so make sure you get plenty of antioxidants in your diet to boost it. A variety of brightly-coloured fruit and veg really help with this (and a bit of dark chocolate too!).
Hope this helps a bit. I’d love to know what you think and hear your own top tips for marathon nutrition and refuelling. I’ll write another post about fuelling up for and getting through race day closer to the time. Happy training!