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Nutrition and hydration tips

To run a marathon you have to prepare and train hard. – FOR ADVICE FROM WOOLWORTHS ON NUTRITION FOR ENDURANCE RACES  

In the process you will have used lots of energy. Our bodies are like cars that cannot run on empty and will perform at their optimum when properly fuelled. A good diet filled with the right nutrients is an essential part of any exercise routine, but it’s especially important for endurance athletes participating in events like the marathon.

Follow the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon nutrition tips so as to ensure that your body is equipped to take on your challenge;

Foods are made up of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Marathon runners and athletes in general should eat a diet high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat. Another key nutrient that is a must for athletes is water. You should know why these nutrients are important, as well as how much of them you should eat and how much water you need to drink before, during and after exercise.

If you follow these guidelines you can be sure that your body will be adequately and properly fuelled, hydrated and ready to perform at its best!

The Carbohydrate Factor

The body’s preferred fuel for running (or any endurance sport) is muscle glycogen. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate. If muscle glycogen breakdown exceeds its replacement, glycogen stores become depleted. The result is fatigue and inability to maintain training and racing intensity. In order to replenish and maintain energy levels during training and racing, it is suggested that the marathoner’s diet needs to be carbohydrate-rich.

The best sources of carbohydrate are grain products (preferably whole grains) such as bread, rice, cereal and pasta, as well as certain fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy foods.

The Power of Protein

Protein is needed for muscle growth and repair. Regular physical training tends to reduce muscle protein breakdown and protein loss from the body. Protein helps to rebuild muscle, so is particularly important after a long run to repair damaged tissue and stimulate the development of new tissue. Protein is essential for body strength and recovery.  Good protein foods to eat after a run include milk, cheese, yoghurt, red and white meat and eggs.

Should your diet be low in carbohydrates, your body will use protein for energy rather than for muscle growth – further breaking down your body’s ability to repair and recover


Dietary fat is often blamed for many health problems; however, fat is an essential nutrient for optimal health. Adipose tissue (stored fat) provides cushion and insulation to internal organs, covers the nerves, moves vitamins (A, D, E, and K) throughout the body and is the largest reserve of stored energy available for runners.

Types of Dietary Fat 

  • Saturated fats are found primarily in animal sources like meat, egg yolks, yogurt, cheese, butter, milk. This type of fat is often solid at room temperature. Too much saturated fat has been linked to health problems such as high cholesterol and heart disease. Because of this, saturated fat should be limited to no more than 10% of total daily calorie intake.
  • Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are typically found in plant food sources and are usually liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats have health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Common food sources include olive and canola oil, avocados, fish, almonds, soybeans and flaxseed.
  • Trans fat has recently been added to the nutrition labels of most products. Trans fatty acids are created (naturally or man-made) when an unsaturated fat is made into a solid. Trans fats, like saturated fat, should be limited because they increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.
  • How Fat Provides Energy Fat provides the highest concentration of energy of all the nutrients. This energy density, along with our seemingly unlimited storage capacity for fat, makes fat our largest reserve of energy. These reserve levels of fat are an integral part of an endurance runners diet. Using fat for fuel for exercise, however, is dependent upon the following important factors:
  • Fat is slow to digest and slow to be converted into a usable form of energy.
  • Converting stored body fat into energy takes time. The body needs to breakdown fat and transport it to the working muscles before it can be used as energy.
  • Converting stored body fat into energy takes a great deal of oxygen, so exercise intensity must decrease for this process to occur.
  • For these reasons, athletes need to carefully time when they eat fat, how much they eat and the type of fat they eat. In general, it’s not a great idea to eat fat immediately before or during intense exercise.

The food sources of good fats include Avocado’s, fish, almonds, soybeans, olive oil, flaxseed, eggs, and yoghurts.

Training diet – what you should eat when running a marathon;

Be prepared

You need a different balance of nutrients at each stage of your training plan. With a few weeks to go, now’s the time to try out foods and recipes to make sure they work for you.

 A few weeks before

Experimentation and changing your meal plan needs to start two to three months before the actual event. This is to ensure that the options you choose are not going to cause your body to react in unwanted ways! Experimenting with foods before and after a run and finding recipes you like is important. Low GI carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice are ideal to introduce into your general diet. These foods build up your carbohydrate reservoir. The final week is the time for real carbo-loading, so make pasta and porridge your friend.

Before long runs

A few hours before any long run, eat a meal high in low GI carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat to give your body all the nutrients it needs for the next few hours. Yogurt smoothie with fruit, porridge with fruits, a chicken sandwich and fruit or toast with honey are all good options to try.

During long runs

It’s important to replenish your carbohydrate stores during runs of 90 minutes or more. The body can only store certain amounts of glycogen and after a few hours of running, your fuel tank warning light will flicker on unless you frequently top up your carbohydrate stores. High GI carbohydrate foods are best during a run as they release energy quickly.

Choose specially designed sport gels and isotonic drinks, or try bananas, oranges, honey, dried fruit, and chocolate or jelly sweets. Fuel every 45-60 minutes during a long run, with around 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (e.g. a large banana, white bread honey sandwich or energy gels), and don’t forget to stay hydrated with plenty of fluids and electrolytes.

After long runs

For about 30 minutes after your run is the best time to refuel to ensure optimal benefits. The typical type of food to eat just after exercise is one that contains a mix of carbohydrates and protein – suggestions include chocolate milk is a good mix of protein and carbohydrates, or our favourite is a yoghurt smoothie with lots of fruit. Drink plenty of fluids too to replace water and electrolytes lost through sweat.

Carboloading before the race:

‘Hitting the wall’ is every distance runner’s fear. It might sound like an old wives’ tale, but it’s a phenomenon that can happen to anyone, no matter how much training you’ve done. It occurs when the body’s carbohydrate fuel tank – the body’s preferred energy source during high intensity activity that is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen – gets low and the brain and muscles show signs of fatigue. If you hit the wall during a marathon you’ll know about it, every step feels like wading through mud. You can avoid the dreaded wall by ‘carbo-loading’ before and during a run to maximise your energy stores, which means stocking up on lots of carbohydrate-rich pasta, potatoes, and certain fruits and vegetables.

In summary

A balanced diet, rich in natural whole foods is essential for optimal performance. With focus on carbohydrates for optimal energy – both during training and racing, proteins for muscle growth and recovery and eating the correct fats. Fluid intake is essential throughout.