I am about 4 weeks away from my first marathon of 2014. I want to do three (3) more long runs before the race, but I also need to start thinking about tapering and how to prepare for a good marathon experience. After all, my goal is to run the Denver Colfax Marathon in under four (4) hours. I had a setback with my training, but now for the last 11 days I am back at running and working out and so I am very excited about the final 4 weeks of my marathon training cycle. So, in preparation for my marathon madness this posting is about what to eat the week before the marathon. After all I will have 3 marathons to prepare for.
I am sure you heard about carbo-loading before a big race and that is definitely part of my plan. Most runners however have fear of gaining weight while tapering and eating carbs while reducing their running, carries a certain stigma. There are good carbs (complex carbs) and there are bad carbs (simple carbs). During your taper it is very important to avoid simple carbohydrates such as doughnuts, cookies and candy and whatever else false into the same type of category. These simple carbs will give you a short boost (think sugar rush), but then leave you feeling tired as soon as they are used up. The result? You will crash and burn (in regards to your running that is). The other issue is that carbs fill your muscles with glycogen and that process will also add water to your body making you feel heavy and eventually bloated. If you carbo-load for a week you will pay the price in adding unnecessary weight, unless you have a detailed meal plan in place. This potential weight gain is one of the biggest fear runners have when it comes to carbo-loading and tapering (I am sorry if I am repeating myself here).
The most important day for Carbo-Loading is …
What you want to eat during the week before your marathon are the complex carbohydrates and while you do so you want to gradually increase the intake of these carbs towards the race day. The biggest day for carbo-loading is the day before the race. Why is that? Several studies have shown that the day before the race is most important when it comes to carbo-loading. Even the breakfast on race day is less important compared to how much carbo-loading you do on the day before the race. The minimum amount of carbs one should consume on the day before the race is calculated as follows: 7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (=a quarter ounce for every 2.2 lbs. of bodyweight). In my case that would mean that I would have to consume roughly 600 grams of carbohydrates the day before the race (~160 lbs. bodyweight / rounded up the final number to 600). Now do the math and figure out how to consume such an amount of carbs in form of complex carbohydrates. It sounds easy initially, but it is not – especially if you consider the fact that the numbers mentioned are representing the minimum amount of carbs that you should consume.
Where do you find complex carbohydrates?
These complex carbohydrates are to be found in vegetables and whole grain bread and whole grain or whole wheat pasta, and certain cereals. So, how would a meal plan for the day before the race look like at all? Let’s start with breakfast. As an example a 2-cup breakfast bowl of high quality oatmeal mixed with 2-percent milk and raisins plus a glass of orange juice provides your body with about 500-550 calories (depending on how many raisins you mix in). This breakfast provides you with about 100 grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of protein, and maybe about 10 grams of fat (Skim Milk). Not a bad start if you ask me. I love oatmeal and my favorite brand is Coach’s Oats that I buy at Costco.
Let’s look at the lunch and dinner options. I mentioned whole grain pasta before. Personally I am not a big fan of whole grain pasta because of the its taste and texture and I definitely need a good sauce to go with it as otherwise I would not enjoy the meal at all. Honestly, I’d rather eat normal pasta, but then a lot of it. One cup of whole grain pasta roughly carries 70 grams of (complex) carbs. So, your lunch should probably be about 1.5 serving sizes in pasta alone. One serving size is about 1 cup (source: Barilla). Add sauce and maybe some Parmesan Cheese and some breadsticks and you could reach about 120-150 grams of mainly complex carbs. Do something similar for dinner and you have roughly 300 grams of carbs covered with lunch and dinner. Not bad, but let’s look at the total numbers.
So, at this point we are at about 450 grams of carbs. In my case I would still be short about 150 grams of carbs to reach the minimum intake of carbs on the day before the race. So, I would add some Honey Whole Wheat Bagels from places like Einstein’s to my diet for the day before the race. I love bagels and in this case they make for a great meal-in-between option. To be safe we should be taking the sugar out of the occasion because then each Honey Whole Wheat bagel roughly carries 25-30 grams of complex carbohydrates. It still poses a challenge though, because even if you eat 2 bagels between breakfast and lunch and 2 between lunch and dinner you only add about 100-120 grams of carbs to your meal plan.
Did you reach the minimum amount of carbs to eat yet?
But I think at this point you are very close to reach the entire goal of eating at least 600 grams of carbs on the day before the race. You still have to drink fluids and orange juice and sports drinks will fill the gap. Yes, those are more simple carbs, but overall you are on the track to properly carbo-load on the day before race with most of these carbs coming from complex carbs. If you find ways to exceed the minimum amount of carbs, go for it. Please keep in mind that you might want to try this out during your training first and do not make the day before a race the first time you try this. Your training cycle is time to experiment so that when the race day comes you know exactly how your body responds to your way of carbo-loading. One of the most important rules for us runners is after all “try nothing new on race day”.
What about the second last day before the race?
Even if you avoid carbo loading for most of the week before the race, the second last day before the race is important as well. The dinner on that day is very important to give you a head-start. You still need to plan for a carbo-rich dinner the second evening before the race and of course for a carbo-rich breakfast on the race day itself. And as mentioned you want to gradually increase the amount of the good carbs (complex carbohydrates) during the week before the race, but you want to be careful to adding too much too early because carbo-loading the wrong way comes with a gain of weight. You want to avoid a significant weight gain before running your marathon. So, your overall strategy could meant to eat “normal” for most of the week and then use the last two days before the race to top off your glycogen stores. The timing is important because one carbo-rich meal is not going to do the trick.
So, how does your plan for eating during the week before your marathon looks like? In my case I will gradually increase the carb intake through the week, but I will stick to the good carbs. My shopping list will include green beans, broccoli, carrots, beets, spinach, cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes. I often snack on cherry tomatoes and sliced bell peppers when I am work and so it is easy for me to increase the amount of veggies that I will eat. The evening before the race I will go thru at least half a bottle of Orange Juice as well. I did this the last few times when I ran half marathon races and I felt really good during those races. I will probably drink some Gatorade during the days, but it is also important to drink a lot of water the day before the race and I prefer water over Gatorade so I am not sure if I will drink a lot of Gatorade. My race day breakfast will be a big bowl of Oatmeal and then about 30 minutes before the race I will eat two slices of white sandwich bread with a heavy portion of Nutella. What are you going to eat during the last 2-3 days before the race and how does your race morning routine look like? Please feel free to leave a comment below.