Meal ideas and planning tips from a self-proclaimed foodie and seasoned marathon runner.
Written by: Susanna Kirby, Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon Ambassador and Organizer of Running for Brews - Chattanooga
I love to run, but I love eating more. While training for this year’s Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon, I’m often asked what I eat before, during and after a long run to sustain energy throughout the training process. As a self-proclaimed foodie, the meal planning process is one of the highlights of training for a marathon.
Let me be clear, I am by no means Chattanooga’s fastest runner; so, if you are seeking a recipe to guarantee qualification in the Boston Marathon you will not find it here. Nor am I a licensed nutritionist—although I did consult with a nutritionist when writing this post as to not share false information. I’m just a girl who loves to run and eat delicious food that nourishes my body, so I can perform my best.
Most marathon and half marathon training plans follow a structure in which you increase your mileage weekly, often with one long training run every week. When determining what food regimen suits you, I recommend using each of your “long runs” as a dress rehearsal for the main event. It’s a great opportunity to get to know how your body responds to different types of foods and drinks. No single nutrition plan works for all athletes, so the best thing you can do is test out healthy foods, gels, chews, sports drinks, and homemade snacks to determine what helps you perform your best, so you’re set up for success on race day.
Here’s a look at how I eat when training for a marathon.
What’s on my plate?
1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 teaspoon of honey, and 1 sliced banana, spread atop an English muffin or a rice cake and 8-12oz of black tea.
As a general rule, I eat a meal about 45-90 minutes before my run. For longer runs, I eat a larger meal which requires extra time for digestion. Most often, I prepare a meal with protein and easily digestible carbs. I strongly suggest avoiding dairy products, acidic foods, and high-fiber items. Trust me, you do not want to experience tummy troubles when you are eight miles from home and a functioning toilet.
Don’t get creative on race day—stick with what your body knows! By this point you should have a set menu; a combination of foods and drinks that give you sustained energy and don’t upset your tummy. If your race is scheduled to start before you usually wake up, you may be tempted to brew a cup of coffee or tea. Keep in mind, if caffeinated beverages aren’t part of your typical pre-run meal, today is not the day to test it out. If you have an earlier than usual race time, plan ahead by build your body’s acceptance of caffeine by including small amounts with your training meals.
What am I taking with me?
I have a high caffeine tolerance, so I typically gravitate towards caffeinated gels and chews. However, caffeine can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal system when consumed during a long run, so incorporating it in moderation during training will let you know how your body responds to it.
It’s important to determine how much to consume and at what frequency to do so. You shouldn't wait until you feel hungry, thirsty, or cramping to consider eating or drinking something—be proactive! I aim to consume roughly 90-100 calories for every 40-45 minutes of activity. If you are a heavy sweater or plan to train and/or race in warmer months, you may want to consider snacks with extra sodium. Creating a plan that ensures you consume enough fluids, electrolytes, and carbs is necessary to fend off cramps, gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue.
When race day rolls around, your plan is in place. If your plan involves eating and drinking the items the race provides, make sure you thoroughly read any race literature as it may detail where certain food items are located along the course. For beginners especially, I would recommend toeing the starting line with your own nutrition in case the race does not provide snacks that align with your typical mid-run items.
What is my go-to make ahead meal?
The joy of cooking with a slow cooker is that you can load the ingredients into it before a long run, and the meal is ready when you return! Cashew chicken is one of my favorite make ahead recipes for a satisfying post run meal.
Foods that help your body recover after a run are just as important as what you eat before and during a run. First, I try to replenish electrolytes immediately after a long run by reaching for a V8, chocolate milk, or pickles before I begin stretching. (PSA: Don’t skip stretching!) Long training runs will leave you tired and hungry. Whether you prepare a meal ahead of time or treat yourself to a meal with friends, a high protein, high carb meal is essential for nourishing your body. When possible, consider recipes with turmeric—a natural anti-inflammatory.
I typically begin visualizing my post-race meal about two miles into my race and use it as motivation to get to the finish line. Once you get there, celebrate—you deserve it! Whether it’s a Little Debbie, an ice-cold beer, or the promise of brunch with friends that lured you to the finish line, treat yourself to whatever your heart desires. The Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon has great post-race snacks provided like sweet and salty snacks, fruit and ice-cold beer! If you don’t already have them on, make sure you throw on a pair of Sockwell graduated compression socks to aid in recovery (you better believe you will be sore) and get to snacking.
The Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon is a not-for-profit, locally owned and operated race weekend that consists of a marathon, half marathon, team relay, 5k and kid’s fun run. The race was established in 2016 when our founding partners came together with the mindset of creating a professional event that would have a positive impact and benefit the local community.