Going the distance: How to eat for endurance events
Eating right goes hand-in-hand with preparing for an endurance event such as a marathon. Learn more about nutrition for endurance events.
Nutrition is always important for the Warfighter. But when a Warfighter is training for a marathon or other endurance event, nutrition is crucial for optimal mental and physical performance. Following these nutrition strategies can optimize every aspect of your performance. But remember: Although it’s important to make good nutrition choices just before and during an endurance event, the best nutrition plan starts well in advance—in the days, weeks, and months prior. Visit HPRC’s Nutrition section to learn about everyday nutrition for optimal performance.
Rule #1: Never operate on an empty tank
In many ways, your body is like a machine. It needs the right fuels to make it work properly. Fuel up with carbohydrates (“carbs”), healthy fats, and protein before training so you don’t run out of energy.
Strategy #1: Stock your fuel stores
Give your body plenty of time to digest and store the nutrients you eat. Most endurance races start early in the morning, so eat carb-rich meals and snacks in the days leading up to the event. But don’t forget to include some lean protein, healthy fats, and plenty of fluids.
Ideally, the evening before the event you should eat a meal that provides about four times more carbohydrate than protein (a 4:1 ratio). A few suggestions:
- Pasta with lean chicken, tomato sauce, salad, bread, fruit, and low-fat milk
- Vegetable Lo Mein with tofu, fruit, and soymilk
- Pita sandwich with lamb, cucumber, and tomato; rice, fruit, and low-fat yogurt
- Turkey, sweet potato, salad, fruit, and low-fat milk
- Brown rice with veggies and chicken, salad, bread, and fruit
Some athletes find that pre-race nerves can trigger large meals to “sit” in their stomach and cause discomfort. Instead, they prefer to eat a large carb-rich lunch and a smaller (also carb-rich) meal in the evening, such as a hearty chicken noodle soup and crackers, or granola with low-fat milk and fruit such as strawberries or a banana.
Strategy #2: Top off the tank
30 to 60 minutes before the event, be sure to “top off” your fuel stores. Aim for a snack that provides 200–300 calories. Choose mostly carbs and be sure to drink plenty of fluids—water is best. Liquid or soft foods digest more quickly, but experiment on training days with a few different types of foods to see what works best for you. A few suggestions:
- Unsweetened applesauce, English muffin, and a little honey
- Banana, low-fat almond milk, and a low-fat granola bar
- Fruit and low-fat yogurt smoothie
- Orange or grapefruit and a bagel with jam
Rule #2: Be sure to hydrate
Your body is mostly water! Water is critical for nearly every aspect of your body’s functioning. Losing even a little body water weight—just 2.0%—without replacing it can harm your performance.
- Strategy #1: Drink sports drinks
During the event, sports drinks are a good choice because you need both fluids and carbs. Drink about three to eight ounces of a sports drink every 15–20 minutes during exercise. If sports drinks upset your stomach, you can dilute them with water, but be sure to experiment during training to see what works best for you. Quick tip: one ounce is about one “gulp” of fluid.
- Strategy #2: Use sports gels or chews sparingly, if at all.
If you choose to use sports gels or chews, be sure to drink sufficient water too (three to eight ounces every 15–20 minutes), because gels and chews don’t keep you hydrated.
- Strategy #3: Be consistent
Most athletes preparing for an endurance event use the same brand of sports drink, chew, or gel during training days that the event organizers will provide (or take their own) so there are no “surprises” on event day. Look for a brand that has about 15 grams of carbs per eight-ounce serving (check the label). It all depends on what works best for you. The general rule is ”Do not try anything new” on event day!
Rule #3: Refuel your tank
The period immediately after the event is called the Refueling Interval, or RFI. The RFI is a crucial period because it provides a brief “window” of time to replenish the fuels you’ve used up during the event. Missing out on this opportunity may slow down your recovery, so it’s important to eat a refueling meal within about 45 minutes of completing the event. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids too.
- Strategy #1: Go for carbs (simple)
“Simple” carbs digest quickly and help you restock your fuel stores fast. Eat about 25–50 grams of carbs. Why that range? It takes your body size into consideration: the lower end of the range is for smaller athletes—less than 150 pounds—and the higher end is for larger athletes.
- Strategy #2: Add some protein (lean)
Lean protein such as fish, chicken, low-fat dairy products, or beans helps your body repair your muscles. Eat about 12–25 grams of protein. Again, this range takes body size into consideration: Athletes weighing less than 150 pounds only need about 12–15 grams of protein.
- Strategy #3: Don’t forget fluids
The RFI is the perfect time to start replacing the fluids you lost during the event, because food helps your body absorb fluids better. Drink about 20–24 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight you lost. (Be sure to weigh yourself before and after the event.)
- Strategy #4: Keep it low-fat
During the RFI, your body needs nutrients fast! Choose low-fat foods that are easy to digest. Avoid heavy sauces, cheeses, and fatty desserts for best results.
- Strategy #5: Put it all together
Refueling is important to replenish glycogen (stored carbs), restore electrolytes, replace fluid losses, and repair damaged tissues.
A few suggestions:
- Low-fat chocolate milk and fruit
- Low-fat yogurt with fruit, granola, and juice
- Tuna, crackers, fruit, and water
- Stir-fried rice with tofu and veggies and low-fat soymilk
Rule #4: Take care of yourself
Your body needs time, rest, and the right foods to recover from an intense endurance event. Choosing the right foods will help you recover faster and sleep better.
- Strategy #1: Include plenty of carbs (complex)
“Complex” carbs digest slowly to provide your body energy throughout the day. Choose whole-grain bread, rice, or pasta as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Strategy #2: Add some protein (lean)
Your body will continue to rebuild and restore damaged muscles, even after the RFI. Choose lean protein such as fish, chicken, low-fat dairy products, or beans to meet your body’s needs throughout the rest of your day.
- Strategy #3: Choose healthy fats
Not only is fat an important fuel for an athlete, but it helps cushion your joints, insulate your body, and protect your cells. Healthy fats come from nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils, such as avocado or olive oil. Go easy on the fat, though. Eating too much fat can sabotage your weight goals.
- Strategy #4: Fluids
It’s important to drink fluids throughout the day to keep your body working right. Your body needs water to absorb many of the nutrients in fruits and vegetables. And water helps move toxins out of your body as urine and sweat. Men need about 13 cups of fluid each day; women need about nine. You can get water from—you guessed it—drinking water, but also from juices, tea, coffee, and juicy fruits and vegetables such as oranges, grapefruit, watermelon, kiwis, tomatoes, celery, and cucumbers.
A Rule to Live By
Rule #5: Eat real food
The foods we’ve suggested for the different phases of nutrient timing are just that: suggestions. What you choose to eat will depend on what foods are available, especially if you’re deployed, stationed abroad, or have a limited food budget.
- Strategy #1: Focus on food, not supplements
Just be sure to follow the general guidelines above and choose real foods—whether you get them from the chow hall, a restaurant, or your home kitchen.