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One of the more important aspects of full- or half-marathon training is proper nutrition. How you choose to fuel your body can affect your performance during training and on race day. The right diet can work hand-in-hand with cardio training and conditioning as you prepare to run a marathon.

Proper nutrition gives us the energy needed to train for distance races. When we neglect carefully choosing the food we’re putting in our bodies, we can end up tired and at greater risk for injury. In addition to helping keep our bodies healthy, proper nutrition also helps with avoiding hitting the dreaded wall that so many runners encounter during their last few miles.

This wall is in part due to muscle glycogen depletion. Glycogen, which our body gets from the carbohydrates we consume, is stored in our muscles and delivered to our bodies through the bloodstream. In order to not hit a wall while running a half or full marathon, our bodies need to have enough glycogen stored to hold us over.

This is enough of a challenge for runners who choose a typical healthy diet. Runners who choose to follow more constrictive diets, such as the paleo diet, veganism, or gluten free, must pay extra attention to their nutrition. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, Director of Sports Nutrition at UPMC Sports Medicine, shares her tips on how to be mindful of your eating habits while training.

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Paleo Diet and Marathon Nutrition

The paleo diet, also known as the caveman diet, is designed to have humans eat in the way our bodies were genetically designed to eat. Followers of this diet typically eat:

  • Lean meat
  • Fish
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Seeds

At the same time, they try to avoid:

  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Sugars
  • Salty foods

Although there is no record of cavemen running marathons, you can still follow the paleo diet while training with some modifications and mindfulness.

The paleo diet is designed to be low-carb, but for our bodies to properly fuel themselves during marathon training, a certain level of carbohydrate intake is needed. Leslie recommends expanding your diet to include healthier carb options such as quinoa, barley, or potatoes. Adding a variety of carbohydrates to your diet will allow your body to get the other forms of fuel it needs.

Veganism and Marathon Nutrition

Followers of a vegan diet eliminate all animal products, including meat and dairy from their diets. Those minding this diet typically consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Because of their limited diets, they also tend to consume fewer calories than average.

During training, runners are burning more calories, so it’s important to increase your food consumption in order to get enough fuel for your body. Leslie also recommends making sure to consume enough protein. This can be found in soy products, such as:

  • Tofu
  • Edamame
  • Meat replacement proteins

Beans, lentils, and hummus are also good options.

Gluten-Free Diets and Marathon Nutrition

Gluten-free diets have recently become a growing trend with more and more followers. There are a number of medical conditions that require this diet. If adapting this diet is not medically necessary, Leslie does not recommend runners follow this plan while training.

For individuals following a gluten-free diet, they have removed all forms of gluten from their meals, including: grains, wheat, barley, and rye. For many people, foods containing gluten are their main source of carbohydrates. Leslie says that for this reason it is important for gluten-free runners to be selective with their carbs, but not completely eliminate them because that will deprive the body of necessary energy. The good news is that gluten is not necessary to help your body run well.

During training, Leslie recommends including:

  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Potatoes
  • Gluten-free whole grains
  • Gluten-free sports bars and gels

Keto Diets and Marathon Nutrition

The ketogenic diet has gained a lot of popularity lately. Many individuals in the endurance sports community have embraced this diet due to their perceived health and performance benefits. However, the ketogenic diet has only been shown to benefit individuals with epilepsy, and not the general population without this diagnosis.

The ketogenic diet removes almost all carbohydrates from a nutrition plan and implements a high intake of fat with a moderate intake of protein. A typical keto diet will include less than 50g of carbohydrates to move the body into a state of “ketosis.” This means the body is using ketones for energy rather than glucose. The general reasoning for transitioning to this diet is because endurance athlete’s fat stores are in the tens of thousands compared to a few hundred calories of carbohydrates, and so they’ll be able to be more efficient during distance training without the crash.

Research has yet to prove if the keto diet is an effective training diet for any type of athlete, especially the endurance athlete.

With these nutrition tips, constrictive diets don’t have to slow down your half or full marathon training or race time. To learn more about our marathon training tips and services, visit our marathon training site or call 1-855-93-SPORTS (77678) to schedule an appointment.

About Sports Medicine

Sports bring with them a potential for injury. And if you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. We serve athletes from a wide variety of sports across every demographic: young or old, male or female, pro or amateur. We partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and over 60 high school, college, and regional teams and events. We’re working to build better athletes. We use cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques to help you recover and provide education on how to prevent injuries.