What to Eat and Drink When Running a Marathon: 11 Rules

What to Eat and Drink When Running a Marathon: 11 Rules

We will discuss sports food and supplements that help to overcome a long distance. So, what should you eat and drink during a marathon?

In the pre-start zone you can quite often hear discussions about on-distance fueling. A lot of beginners don’t plan to eat or or drink anything during the race. Let's figure out whether it's possible to finish a long distance with no refueling and consider sports nutrition to boost your results at half marathons or marathons.

Hydration on a marathon

Hydration on a marathonDuring running a lot of heat is generated - to cool down the body uses sweating. It means that high-intensity physical activity increases necessary fluid intake: even with an average physical load, the intensity of sweating increases a few times and may lead to dehydration. Dehydration causes serious disturbances in metabolic processes, including energy metabolism.

During a long run, the loss of fluid in the body has a long-lasting character: during the marathon, the loss of fluid can reach 5 liters. It leads to a sharp decline in effort efficiency and fast physical fatigue. Over 8% fluid loss puts athlete’s health under the risk. What can be done to avoid this?

When answering this question, many experts agree: during high-intensity training and long-distance competitions it is necessary to drink according to the scheme and use carbohydrate-electrolyte solutions.

During sweating human bodies lose a lot of salts. Basically, these are sodium, potassium and magnesium salts. Sodium is involved in fluid exchange regulations in the body. Potassium is necessary for increasing stamina. Magnesium is vital to prevent cramps; besides it increases muscle strength and takes part in protein synthesis.

Nutrition on a marathon

Carbs are the main source of energy during the race. During prolonged physical activity, when there are almost no carbohydrates available for energy purposes, the body automatically switches to using fats as energy. The longer you can run on carbohydrate fuel, the better.

Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen (complex carbohydrate). Unfortunately, its amount in muscles is limited and the body needs to renew it regularly. Specialists believe that body’s own glycogen reserves are enough for 90 minutes of marathon run. If you are not an elite runner, then you will spend your glycogen reserve before your cover half the distance. Therefore, for inexperienced runners it is extremely difficult to run half marathon (or a marathon) by using body’s energy reserves only.

Feeding stations in the marathon and half marathon

Nutrition on a marathon

World sports supplements market is growing year by year, offering a variety of special products for runners. Now almost all marathons organizers provide participants with feeding stations. There you can find food, water and various kinds of sports supplements. Sometimes (on starts with fewer participants), the organizers provide athletes with an opportunity to bring their own foods and drinks.


At feeding stations athletes can take slices of bananas, oranges, apples, bread, crackers, dried fruits or chocolate. These foods have the necessary high calorie value but can cause unpleasant feeling in the stomach.

Quickly chewed pieces of food, especially rough food, can injure the esophagus walls. Food that is carefully chewed and well-moistened with saliva passes the digestive tract easily. It is necessary to thoroughly chew any snacks during the race, because it provides better absorption and helps the body get maximum nutrients.

This type of feeding is not suitable for advanced runners and professionals. They run at a very high speed, and just won’t have time to thoroughly chew food on the go.


Water regulates body temperature and helps to transport nutrients and transform them into energy. Normal physiological level of cell saturation with water is the key to effective functioning of all organs and systems, cells nutrition, energy reserves replenishment and reducing oxidation processes.

If you don’t consume enough water, it negatively affects blood, brain and muscles. Lack of fluid in the body leads to inability of the body to maintain its normal internal environment.

All researchers agree that on a long-distance run in addition to ordinary water athletes should use special sports drinks containing a source of energy (carbohydrates) and electrolytes. They can replenish the water balance faster than pure water.

Sports nutrition for a marathon runner: energy gels, isotonics, energy bars

Energy gels

Energy gelsThey are based on synthetic variation of glucose, created from chemical reagents to maintain energy during long-distance running. Sports gels helps avoid dehydration and provide athlete with energy.

The ratio of maltodextrin (complex carbs) and fructose (net carbs) is usually 2:1. Energy gels taste like a liquid jam and is extremely rich in carbs.

This type of feeding is convenient, as gels can be easily swallowed and are available in small and convenient packages. Energy gel should be consumed with a considerable amount of water.

High-quality gels also contain succinic acid, BCAA and microelements: sodium and potassium. The effective ratio of net and complex carbs should be 70/30. Energy gels are recommended for use at marathon and ultramarathon distances, especially if the athlete is not sufficiently prepared for the competition.


Isotonic is a drink used for prolonged intense training. Isotonic solution contains electrolytes and carbohydrates. The primary task of this drink is to maintain the water-salt balance in the body. Isotonic contains chloride of calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium. Due to this, it quickly recovers energy losses. However, it shouldn’t replace pure water. Use it as a supplement.

Isotonic and energy drink are completely different things. Isotonic contains maltodextrin and fructose in a ratio of 2:1. This formula helps to increase carb absorption by 40%. Isotonics should have natural flavor and mild taste. It is worth saying that the energy value of isotonics is lower than in energy gels.

Energy bars

Energy bars contain a complex of net and complex carbs to ensure rapid energy supply during high intensity workouts and replenishment of the body's energy reserves.

One bar usually contains 20% of the recommended daily intake of vitamins B1, B2, C and E, niacin, and is well absorbed due to the low-fat content.

Professional sports bars can be divided into two groups: high carb (carbohydrate content up to 70%) and high protein (contain more protein than carbohydrates). One of the drawbacks of sports bars is the necessity to chew the bar. This is not a problem for an amateur runner with a 7 min/km tempo at the marathon distance; but is quite challenging for a runner with a running tempo over 5 min / km.

Rules of nutrition for the marathon and half marathon

  1. The amount of fluid consumed should be approximately equivalent to its losses due to sweating.
  2. Start drinking before the start. You need to drink about 0.5 to 0.7 liters (10-12 oz. – the amount depends on your weight) of isotonic for the last two hours before the start.
  3. It is well-known that during a fast run the athlete’s stomach cannot digest more than 200 ml (4 oz.) of liquid at once. If you drink more, this extra liquid will simply fill the stomach, and won’t provide any additional benefits.
  4. Start drinking at the first feeding station, not after you feel thirsty.
  5. The classical scheme of sports supplements intake: the first energy gel tube is taken 40 minutes after the start, and then 20-25 g (0.7-0.9 oz) every 30 minutes. Most often, athletes take their own favorite gels on the track: they are liquid and are easier to use on the run. Calculate the supply of gels as follows: 1 gel (a single package) for 30 minutes of running. Larger athletes may take energy gels more often in comparison not lightweight ones. Remember that you need to start using gels earlier than you start feeling exhausted. The energy reserves in an amateur athlete last for about 2 hours of running.
  6. For advanced runners, we note that the energy consumption depends on the runner’s pace, as well as on their weight. For example, a professional runner (a marathon faster than 2:20) weighing 60 kg needs 50% more gel than a novice runner weighing over 85 kg.
  7. Avoid carbonated drinks, because carbon dioxide can hit hard on the stressed liver. Also avoid drinks with caffeine. Caffeine during the run can lead to stomach problems.
  8. Do not mix ordinary food, gels and isotonic at once. Choose only one energy source each time you need. Experts do not recommend mixing ordinary food with sports drinks, because the former is best to be taken with water.
  9. Do not experiment on important starts. Use tested sports nutrition and drinks that you used during your workouts. Avoid new sports drinks offered by someone else.
  10. Remember that the competitive metabolism differs in an elite runner and in an amateur runner. In an average person, the energy is wasted irrationally, and hypoglycemia manifests itself more quickly.
  11. After you have crossed the long-awaited finish line, don’t forget about proper restoration.  Within an hour after the physical exercise, you need to drink recovery isotonic drinks with amino acids to optimize the process of post-workout recovery.

The market of sports supplements is diverse. In this article, we provided general recommendations on nutrition during long runs. Keep in mind that each athlete is different, so we recommend you testing each product before the start and pick up the one that is right for you.

In another article, we provided at outline of a nutrition plan for the marathon distance. The article is useful for those, who is going to conquer 42.2 km by running.

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