Fueling up for a marathon: Keys from a pro

By Becky Wade

September 12, 2017

Whenever I’m having a conversation that turns to running, there are two questions I can almost guarantee I’ll be asked: “How many marathons have you run?” and “What do you eat?”

If you’re asking the first, my answer is probably dozens fewer than you and most likely in an unimpressive number of states. And if you’re asking the second, my response depends on the amount of time we have. The short answer: a huge amount, a huge variety, on a feeding schedule reminiscent of a newborn baby. The long answer is a play-by-play of every morsel that goes down my hatch during a day of Chicago Marathon training. There’s a lot of variability from day to day, but this is what a typical Wednesday—with a long workout in the morning and an afternoon double—looks like from a fueling perspective:

5:30am. First things first: coffee (20g, usually made in a V60). In between pours, I toast a blueberry bagel, slather both sides with peanut butter, and arrange banana slices on top of each. A drizzle of honey and a shake of cinnamon, and we’re good! Although this is what I eat before every long workout and marathon, it’s also my standard breakfast before morning races of all distances. I always wake up hungry, and I know my body performs well off that meal.

6:00-7:00am. While I get dressed and go through some activation exercises, I start hydrating with the electrolyte drink that I’ll use in my workout. This can be tricky because there’s a fine line between being hydrated and being waterlogged. But even a few sips over the course of an hour can help, especially on warm days.

7:00-9:30am. During the two to three hours I spend warming up, working out, and cooling down, I sip periodically from my bottle, also sucking down a gel or two during the really long ones. (Full disclosure: I’m sponsored by Clif Bar and rely heavily on their electrolyte mixes and energy gels. I’m a fan of all things citrus, so typically go with the Clif lemon-limeade electrolyte drink and caffeinated citrus gels.) I try to follow roughly the same drinking schedule I’ll use in Chicago: a few big gulps of fluid every other 5K, with a 100-calorie gel in between.

9:30-10:30am. The moment I finish cooling down, replenishing what I’ve expended becomes my priority. If I’m lucky, Will (my fiancé) has prepared one of his elaborate smoothies the night before and all I have to do is grab it out of the freezer and let it thaw while I run. Brace yourself for the ingredient list: pineapple, watermelon, berries, banana, apple, beet, carrots, celery, spinach, kale, collard greens, tart cherry juice, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, chia seeds, ice and a few scoops of protein powder. It’s basically a trip to the produce section in a glass. I try to drink slowly so my body has time to absorb all of the goodness I’m feeding it.

Noon. By the time I get home from the gym, where I’ve put in a short strength session and hopped in the pool, my appetite is approaching teenage boy levels. It’s time for a real meal. I start by toasting two fat pieces of sourdough. (I’m a wannabe baker in my free time, currently trying to master Tartine Bread.) Then I go to town with whatever toppings I’m craving, which more often than not involves mashed avocado, two eggs scrambled as slowly as my patience allows, and either feta or goat cheese crumbled on top. On the site, I munch on raw veggies (like carrots, celery, and sugar snap peas) dipped in hummus. Meanwhile, water—lots of it.

3:30pm. Snack time! With a rumbling stomach and a second run looming, I need something that’s both satiating and that settles well. This is when I raid my Clif Bar stash, usually gravitating toward a Nut Butter Filled bar. I brew a second cup of coffee to go with. About an hour later, I’m out the door for any easy 45-minute run.

6:30pm. Summer evenings in Colorado are synonymous with grilling. While Will cranks up the grill and preps the meat, I wash and chop whatever produce we still have from Saturday’s farmers market: fingerling or sweet potatoes, bell peppers, onions, green beans, and squash usually make it in the mix. With that, we’ll have a big steak that’s been seasoned with an Alton Brown-inspired barbecue rub. A glass of red wine is a welcome addition.

9:00pm. Some people insist on going to bed several hours after their last bite of food. I’ll never fall into that category. One of the very last things I do before I hit the sack is to eat some sort of snack, ideally with plenty of protein. Greek yogurt with honey, figs, and pistachios usually does the trick. I’m also a big milk fan, and in a habit acquired from my dad, I cap every night off with a small glass of skim.

In a marathon build-up, some days feel like a never-ending feast. On the one hand, a lot of food is required to sustain 100+ mile weeks, and eating food is fun. On the other hand, it takes some effort to plan and prepare it all, and that part’s not so glamorous. Nor is the possibility of becoming hangry at literally any moment—or the damage control required in the aftermath. That said, my two best food tips for anyone prepping for a marathon are: practice your raceday nutrition until it’s rock solid; and never leave home without a snack.

Becky Wade

Native Texan, Rice University grad, Colorado transplant. Specializing in the 3K Steeplechase and Marathon. Author of “Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe,” which is available on Amazon and wherever else you get your books.