Many marathon runners follow a special carbohydrate diet before the competition. The meaning of the marathon diet is to first reduce the glycogen stores to a certain minimum limit, and then force the body to accumulate it for future use. Replenished carbohydrates accumulate in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen, which in turn serves as body fuel during prolonged training and competition. Many experts believe that such a diet can be beneficial for running a marathon.
According to most studies carried out on this topic, carbohydrate diet helps runners avoid the ‘marathon wall’ phenomenon that occurs after 32-35 km, if these runners expect to finish the marathon faster than in 3 hours.
The idea of this diet is to first create stress for the body: deplete glycogen sources and almost not replenish it with food. It is followed by carbo loading stage to help the body accumulate more glycogen, creating a larger reserve than before. The so-called “overcompensation effect” is triggered. And these reserves are very helpful during the marathon.
It should be noted that specialists from different countries have different opinions about this diet. So, do many elite marathon runners. Some believe that this is only suitable for runners who have a result faster than 2:50 in their pocket. Others, on the contrary, practice carbo loading with amateur athletes who have a result of 3:30-4 00. Nevertheless, many marathon runners use carbo loading and consider it effective.
Over 60 years ago, Scandinavian scientists conducted research with endurance sports athletes. They established that eating a high carb meal before the competition helps improve athletes' performance. Scientists have found that the content of glycogen in muscles varies depending on the diet; a high carb diet contributed to glycogen levels increase and increased performance indicators. It was found that a high carb diet with reduced proteins led to an increase in glycogen stores.
Main principles of carbohydrate diet to get prepared for a marathon
If your marathon is planned on Sunday, then the diet should start from Monday - 6 days before it. Usually for 3 days of unloading there are 3 days of carbo loading. The diet should be accompanied by proper training.
The marathon diet consists of two parts - carbohydrate unloading and loading. The goal is to maximize muscle saturation with glycogen. In addition to 3 days of unloading / 3 days loading there are 2/4 or 2/5 schemes, but they are less common. The regime needs to be picked individually, because all bodies are different.
When an athlete cuts down carbs, the body reacts very stressfully. After such food restrictions, the body starts overcompensating mechanisms and will store more than previously – up to 3-4 mg.
During carbohydrate unloading, the decrease in glycogen takes place in 3 days: from Monday to Wednesday. Exclude flour, most fruits, dried fruits, chocolate, cookies, bread of all sorts, most vegetables, honey, potatoes, cereals, sweets, and sugar from your diet. You can eat vegetables containing no more than 5 g of carbs per 100 g of product.
After the first stage of the diet, glycogen stores are reduced to a minimum, and the body tries to switch to fat storages.
For proper carbo loading you need to sufficiently increase the amount of carbs, rather than the amount of food eaten. During the entire carbohydrate diet, it is important to drink a lot of liquid to help carbs accumulate in muscles, rather than being excreted from the body. The main rule of low-carb days is avoiding absolutely any carbs (cereals, flour, sweet, and unprocessed carbohydrates such as fruits and starchy vegetables). Your diet should consist of proteins - poultry meat, beef, fish, eggs, hard cheese, cottage cheese.
Stick to light training during the diet - short distances and short accelerations. Right before the start it is important to do a short intense, aerobic-anaerobic workout. Then switch to carbo loading from the evening of the day 3. It is also important to avoid fatty and spicy food.
Carbohydrate diet: example
We take Sunday for the race day.
Part one: carbo unloading, excluding maximum carbs from your diet
- Monday. Day 1 free of carbs. Breakfast: tea with no sugar added, cheese or cottage cheese. Lunch and dinner: cheese, fish, meat, broth, 1 egg (no yolk).
- Tuesday. The breakfast is the same. Lunch and dinner: cheese, fish, boiled meat, egg white, red caviar, low-fat broth. Exclude fried foods.
- Wednesday. The breakfast is the same. It’s better to avoid coffee and cocoa during this week. Tea is preferably black or green with no sugar added, cheese or cottage cheese. Lunch and dinner: cheese, steamed or boiled lean fish, meat, egg white, red caviar, low-fat broth. Exclude fried foods.
Part two: carbo loading
Carbo loading is planned from Wednesday evening till late Saturday, with a peak on Friday.
- Thursday. Breakfast: tea with sugar or a spoonful of honey (but do not get carried away by honey this week - it relaxes muscles), a bun, a toast with jam. Second breakfast can be similar. Lunch and dinner: you can eat whatever you want, preferably in small portions every 2 hours, mostly pasta, rice, buckwheat, lean kefir or yogurt.
- Friday. The menu repeats those on Thursday. Limit fresh vegetables, grape and apple juices, which cause fermentation mechanisms in the intestine.
- Saturday. Keep following the same diet. Try not to overeat, especially at night, to get a good night's sleep before the competition.
- Sunday. You need an early breakfast, 2 hours before the start. Cook oatmeal with water, add bananas or dried fruits. Drink a cup of tea with sugar.
The list of products allowed for low-carb days before the marathon: meat, fish and seafood, eggs, dairy products with no added sugar (yogurt, butter, milk, cheese, curd, yogurt, cream, sour cream), cucumbers, bell peppers.
Key products for carbo loading should be rich in slowly-digested carbs: rice, all kinds of cereals, potatoes, durum wheat pasta, grapes. Consume all products in your usual servings, avoid overeating.
Carbo loading doesn’t imply eating cookies, cakes, chocolate, sweets, ice cream, marshmallows and other net carbs. Your body won’t get anything useful from them, except for fat.
Remember that the most important day of carbo loading is Friday. Many beginners get loaded with carbs a day before the start, but this is already ineffective. In addition, it is important to remember that a carbohydrate diet is not a complete change in your habitual diet, just a temporary shift.
If you run a marathon for the first time, using a carbohydrate diet is not recommended.