Marathon Race Day Eating

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | By Hal Higdon
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Have a question about running? You're in the right place. Every Tuesday, world-renowned coach, author and athlete Hal Higdon posts and answers athlete questions here. You can submit your question by joining the discussions on Hal Higdon's Virtual Training Bulletin Boards.


I am training for my first marathon following one of your programs. The marathon is next week, and I feel ready except for one area. I never eat before running, because I feel very full when I do, even if it's only a quick snack. I do use gels during long workouts, however. Everything I read says you should eat before long runs. Okay, except I also read that you shouldn't change anything for race day. So which way do I go: eat or not eat?


The Golden Rule is: Do nothing different immediately before a marathon. So that answers one of your questions. Let’s discuss the rest.

Yes, it usually is a good idea to eat something before long runs and particularly before marathon races, but you really need to decide what to eat and when. The answer to that is somewhat complicated and depends on individual preferences. For short races such as a 5-K or 10-K and maybe up to the half marathon, you probably do not need to eat before you run. Assuming you wisely choose a meal rich in carbohydrates the night before, you will have stored ample glycogen in your muscles to go the distance. For a marathon, however, the night before meal won’t get you much past the 20-mile mark. You definitely need a pre-race meal the morning of the run.

The problem with that strategy for this, your first marathon, is that you have run out of time. No time to experiment with different fueling strategies, but let me tell you what works for me. Before a major marathon, carbs the night before is a given. So too is a light carb snack before going to bed. An energy bar and a sports drink should be enough. Then, I like to wake up 3-4 hours before the race start and have a final snack, which might feature a bagel or sweet roll washed down with a glass of orange juice and/or a cup of coffee. I need those 3-4 hours to digest even that little food. That might mean getting up as early as 2:00 in the morning for a race like Disney or Honolulu with their pre-dawn starts, but then I go back to bed for an hour or two. Nobody sleeps much before a marathon anyway.

As for liquids, I stop drinking 1-2 hours before a race, but drink again a few minutes before beginning to run. I discuss this strategy in greater detail in my book, Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide. Too late to help for your first marathon, but if you plan a second marathon, use the long runs to practice race-day fueling and refueling. We all different, and we need to find the pre-race and pre-run plan that works for us.

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