Food tips, myths and facts, Running

What to eat before and after a marathon

What to eat before and after a marathon (Thinkstock)

Preparing for a marathon takes lots of time, hard work and plenty of motivation. In other words, a marathon isn't something you should rush into and is rather an event you should ease into so that you're both physically and mentally ready to tackle those 26.2 miles.

Many people prepare themselves for a marathon by first completing smaller running events, such as a 5K or even a 10K race. This is a great way to gauge whether you feel ready for something a lot more challenging. Remember though, while you might have completed the 10K, it doesn't mean that running a marathon will be easy – so make sure you don't become too complacent.

If you run regularly, the preparation period for a marathon is between 12 and 14 weeks, during which you should train daily and ensure you are fueling your body with the right nutrients. If you don't run often, training for a period of 26 weeks (half a year) is necessary.

But what should you eat just before you run and after you've completed your race?

The night before

What you choose to eat the evening before you run your marathon will help to stand you in good stead for the duration of the race.

Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient to consume because they are a great source of energy, and you'll need plenty of energy to cover 26.2 miles. When consumed, most carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in muscles and liver. This glycogen is then burned during running and when it runs out, the body has to slow down as it turns fat into energy.

To avoid running out of glycogen and hitting 'a wall' during your race, make sure you carb-load the night before. This doesn't mean loading up on bowls of pasta and bread. You must choose carbohydrate-rich foods that are easy to digest, so you won't feel bloated on the morning of your marathon.

Foods like oatmeal, pancakes, quinoa and sweet potatoes are high in carbohydrates and all easy-to-digest options, helping you get a good night's sleep in preparation for the big day. Remember that the foods you eat before the marathon shouldn't differ from those you eat during training, so ensure you include these foods in your diet from the outset.

On the morning

While you might have nerves on the morning of your race, it's crucial you eat breakfast. You need to give your food time to digest, so try to eat three hours before you begin the marathon. If you have an early race, get up earlier to eat and then go back to sleep.

Your breakfast should be no different to what you'd eat before a long weekend run. Don't try something new, as you don't know how it will affect your body during the race. Eating a good carbohydrate, protein and vitamin C source is an ideal pre-marathon breakfast.

Although you'll have carb-loaded the previous night, you'll still need to top your body off with energy to start the day. Protein, on the other hand, will help to improve your metabolism.

Immediately after

Once you've completed your marathon, it's important to provide your body with nutrients to help your muscles recover.

After you cross the finish line, reach for a protein recovery drink. This will offer hydration, while the protein will help to repair muscle damage and boost recovery.

Since you'll have burned glycogen during the race, you'll need to restore your energy levels by consuming a carbohydrate-rich food, like whole grain cereal with milk and fruit.

One hour after

The build-up and duration of a marathon can be stressful and take their toll on your immune system, interfering with your body's antioxidant reserves.

Antioxidants help to prevent cell damage and can be found in foods such as blueberries and raspberries. Around one hour after your run, make a bowl of granola, Greek yoghurt and these antioxidant-rich fruits.

The carbohydrates in the granola will work to replenish your muscles' energy stores, while Greek yoghurt has twice as much protein as regular yoghurt, which helps muscles with building for repair and recovery.