Training for a marathon takes a lot of ambition, motivation, hard work and, of course, sweat. But what exactly can improve your time? Certainly, what matters is how often you train and stick to a running routine to build strength and endurance, but at the top of the formula for race-day success is a proper eating strategy.
Female runners, in particular, tend to eat too little, says Antonio, trying to attain that long, lean body of a runner. "It's true that thinner, leaner runners tend to be the fastest runners," he says. "However, that doesn't mean you'll run better at 10 percent body fat versus 12 percent body fat."
In fact, developing a strong nutritional plan can be the key to shaving the last few minutes off of your time.
The key, it seems is the right balance of healthy carbohydrates and protein.
During your months of training, Antonio recommends eating unprocessed carbs over traditional marathon fare: brown rice over white rice, whole wheat pasta over white pasta and a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. "Stay away from sugar in between training," says Antonio, who adds that sugar merely gives you a quick energy boost, but will not sustain you for the long haul. Sugar-loaded energy foods are best used just before a race for an added jolt.
Slowly work new foods or eating strategies into your diet, to prevent the stomach problems that runners often complain about. "Protein, in particular, tends to upset the stomach if you are not used to it," says Antonio. So, early on in your training begin to eat a tiny bit of protein and gradually increase the amount. Hopefully, then, your stomach will stay quiet during the race.
The rest of the food planning comes down to three specific times of a run: before, during and after.
Before you hit the pavement, you need to get some sugar into your body. There are carbohydrate-loaded gels now available that contain high levels of sugar to get your body going. These are best taken just before a long workout, says Antonio. Sports drinks can be good before a race, too, just be sure they have the words "high glycemic" somewhere on the label. That tells you the drink contains sugar that is ready to be used by your body for energy.
If you don't like the gels or sports drinks, and prefer to eat a small breakfast before a run, try a small bowl of oatmeal about two hours before you run. That way, between breakfast and your workout, your body will have begun to digest the oatmeal, giving your muscles the energy they need.
Keeping it Going
The worst thing a runner can do whether it is during a race or while training, is get dehydrated. Dehydration can slow you down and, worse, cause those painful runners cramps. The best beverage during a race is a sports drink with added protein or amino acids, which help the body repair sore muscles. "You recover better, and you are going to run better," says Antonio.
During a race, you don't always have a large variety of sports beverages to choose from, but water will do.
"Sports drinks are better than water, but water is better than nothing," says Antonio.
It is possible to drink too much water during a race. So, drink enough to quench your thirst, but stop before the water slows you down. Since marathons generally occur in the cooler months, heat stroke is less of a concern.
After the Finish Line
Eating immediately after a race is the last thing on the mind of marathoners, but it may be the most important thing they can do to ensure that their body has all of the nutrients it needs to repair worn muscles and prevent soreness.
For this snack, again, proteins and carbohydrates are the key. "As little as 100 calories will help," says Antonio. In fact, some studies show that this small addition to an exercise regimen can reduce soreness as well as lower the risk of heat exhaustion, infection and joint problems.
"This is a strategy that can be implemented across all areas of athletics," emphasizes Antonio.