For marathon runners: what to eat and how to recover

In the second of a two-part series, we look at key areas of focus to enable a marathon runner to excel and remain injury-free.

Published : Dec 20, 2019 22:30 IST

Runners in action at the Tokyo Marathon in Japan.
Runners in action at the Tokyo Marathon in Japan.

Runners in action at the Tokyo Marathon in Japan.


Everybody can run, but not all can sustain long-distance running for more than 5km unless they train for it. Distance running is a part of training for every sportsperson. However, not every sportsperson can run a marathon. Elite runners train for years to get the best performance out of the human body. In my last article, we explored the issues a runner’s body has to face and the requirement of planned nutrition to help the runner achieve incremental performance from their body.

The nutrition requirements of any runner depend on gender, age, weight, and the amount of fat, muscle and water, and bone distribution. The human body has stores of energy in the form of carbohydrates (muscle and liver glycogen), protein (muscle) and fat (subcutaneous and visceral fat). Good nutrition will maintain and enhance these reserves to a better level.

READ| Nutrition for marathon runners

In training to run faster and longer in quicker times, a runner has to push the muscles and the aerobic capacity of the human body. We can use nutrition to hack the metabolic system to deliver energy reserves quicker and also help in a quicker recovery time.

Runners should divide their nutrition based on the calories required to live normally and the calories required for running. Once you ascertain the calories needed for each activity, you break it down into smaller meals during the day.


On waking up in the morning

I advise most runners to nibble on nuts, seeds or fruit before they run. Milk is advisable if you are lactose-tolerant and have no cholesterol or inflammation markers. Else, a cup of green tea with a small bowl of oats or cornflakes (maximum 50gm). I, personally, have one egg and a slice of gluten-free bread with honey as soon as I wake up and then I go about getting ready for my run. So, from the time I wake up and the start of my run is about 40 minutes. I eat within three minutes of waking so that my food is almost digested as I start my warm-up.


Most runners train at the crack of dawn. Eating breakfast and running immediately is uncomfortable. Hence, breakfast is best had post-run. The sooner one eats breakfast after a run, the quicker is the nutrition for recovery being delivered to the body. A good breakfast post-run has to be high in calories, which should be 60 percent carbohydrates. The thumb rule in sports nutrition is 7-10gm per kilogramme of bodyweight. Ideally speaking, breakfast should be 30 percent of the day’s carbohydrate intake. For a person who weighs 70-kg, my breakfast prescription would be around 250gram of carbohydrates. Protein has to be 1.6-1.8gm per kilogramme of body weight, or 20-30gm minimum per meal. Fats have been making a comeback in nutrition over the last three years. For more than five decades, fats have been wrongly criticised and athletes have been using low-fat diets to promote better body weight. However, new research and data are advising fat consumption from nuts and seeds as beneficial.


Most recreational runners eat a late lunch post-2pm. I advise an early lunch for both elite and non-elite runners. If calories can be loaded in the first eight hours after the run, my experience has shown a better recovery the next day.


Dinner, like lunch, should be early; 7pm is the ideal time. Most runners start at 4am. So, an early-to-bed requirement is on the cards. Eating just before you sleep is asking for the calories to be stored as fat due to the slowing of metabolism. Three hours before you sleep is the best time for dinner.


If your pre-run is early morning, you can consumer a branched-chain amino acid supplement or do a coffee shot if your genes are able to process caffeine for sprint performance.

During the run

Hydration is key. Too much may cause discomfort in the gut as water sloshes around as you run or may dilute your salts so much that you cramp. Electrolytes – salts like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride – will keep your muscles firing through a long race. Gels that contain carbohydrates and caffeine may be recommended for seasoned marathon runners.


This probably is the most important nutrition for recovery. A good protein smoothie with adequate carbohydrates and some amount of coconut or almond oil works best.

5 pm snack

Most marathon runners hold a day job, so by 5pm they will be extremely hungry. This meal, in my opinion, should not be a nibble. Instead, you should focus on eating well. My all-time favourite recommendations at this time are rolls, wraps and sandwiches with higher protein content. Coconut water or lime juice to wash down the snack is good. Corn bhel , boiled peanuts or popcorn also do the trick. Energy bars from RiteBite, Yoga Bar, Huda Bar and Flat Tummies are easy-to-carry options when one is on the go.

Common deficiencies in runners

Calcium and vitamin D: When a runner has low calcium or vitamin D levels in the blood, it results in slower times, aches and pains in the bones and joints, as well as tight muscles or cramps in severe cases. If a blood test confirms lower-than-normal levels, ask your doctor or sports nutritionist to recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements. All greens are rich in calcium. My favourites for marathon runners are dates and figs. In a customised nutrition plan, I recommend a good calcium supplement along with a vitamin D dosage that is tweaked according to the blood reports.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found in non-vegetarian foods. The body has the ability to produce its own in the gut. Many of my clients, once DNA-tested, are found to have a gene that does not absorb vitamin B12 too well, and the corresponding blood tests also direct the sports nutritionist to recommend a supplement. The best bet is a vitamin B complex supplement. Injections by a doctor are sometimes needed due to chronic low levels. Don’t be afraid; these are only natural molecules that somehow your body may not be absorbing.

Iron and ferritin: Haemoglobin is the iron bound to protein that carries oxygen to the exercising muscle. A deficiency of iron and the protein ferritin results in laboured breath, slower times and longer recovery from hard runs. According to the International Olympic Committee sports nutrition guidance, a level of lesser than 70 nanogram per millilitre allows for medical sports doctors to bench athletes till they recover their levels. At my QUA Nutrition Clinics, we see so many runners below this level. However, the lowest permissible level is 20ng/ml. So many clients operate in that zone that they think is acceptable, but in reality they are literally starving their muscles and recovery.

For the joints and ligaments, I would advise clients that clock more than 80km per week to look at a gelatin- and collagen-based supplement of about 5gm each per day. Please be advised: both are of animal origin. I do have many vegan and vegetarian runners. For them, a carefully constructed diet that has the necessary amino acids from a range of beans will be helpful in ensuring better raw materials for your soft tissue.

The author is the sports nutritionist toNitendra Singh Rawat, an Olympic marathon runner who holds the Indian record for the fastest time at the Mumbai Marathon, andcan be reached at for a runner’s diet.

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