What to Eat and Drink During a Marathon

Participating in a marathon is more than a test of endurance; it’s a journey fueled by the right nourishment. Let’s explore the best strategies to keep you running strong.

Imagine you’re at mile 20; your energy is dipping, but then you remember your well-planned nutrition strategy. This isn’t just a scenario; it’s what sets successful marathoners apart. Here, we dive into the essentials of marathon fueling.

The Significance of Early Fluid Intake

Why Your First Sip Matters as Much as Your First Step

Glass laid on the table fill with water.

In marathon running, timing isn’t only about how fast you cross the finish line; it’s also crucial when determining when to hydrate. Every runner, new or experienced, may wonder: When is the ideal moment to take that first sip? The answer, while seemingly simple, can profoundly impact your marathon experience.

The consensus among many seasoned runners and sports nutritionists is to initiate fluid consumption around the 3-mile mark. But why this specific point? Here’s the rationale:

  • Early Adaptation: It sets a sustainable hydration rhythm.
  • Preventing Dehydration: You’re proactively replenishing fluids lost through sweat.
  • Maintaining Energy Levels: Vital electrolytes are replenished, keeping your muscles happy.
  • Avoiding Overcompensation: It prevents the risk of cramps from late-race overdrinking.

Optimal marathon performance starts with early hydration around the 3-mile mark. Stay energized, hydrated, and set the tone for success. For expert advice, explore Crafting a Successful Hydration Strategy for Runners to prepare for race day.

Choosing the Right Beverage

Electrolytes and Sugars: The Dynamic Duo

A woman hydrates with a drink after a workout in nature.

A Runner’s Reflection: Sarah, a seasoned marathoner, shares, “Switching to electrolyte drinks with a bit of sugar changed my marathon game. I felt more energized and less fatigued.”

Advantages of Electrolyte Beverages with Sugar

  • Electrolyte Balance: No more cramps!
  • Quick Energy: A timely boost when your glycogen dips.
  • Optimal Absorption: Gets to your muscles faster.

Spotlight on Popular Choices

Gatorade and Powerade – what makes them stand out?

  • Gatorade: One of the most recognized sports drinks globally, Gatorade is formulated to rehydrate, replenish, and refuel. Its blend of water, electrolytes, and sugars is specifically designed to meet the needs of athletes and those indulging in high-intensity activities.
  • Powerade: Another heavy hitter in the sports drink arena, Powerade offers a blend of four key electrolytes lost in sweat. Its formulation also includes vitamins B3, B6, and B12, which play a role in energy metabolism.

During your marathon preparation, making the correct choice in sports drinks is pivotal. To refine your hydration plan with Gatorade and similar choices, explore our in-depth resource, “How Much Gatorade Should You Consume in a Marathon?” Uncover the scientific strategies for a triumphant race.

Timing Your Drinks: The First 45 Minutes to Two Hours

Why Timing is Everything

Marathon Hack: Drink early for better absorption and consistent energy. This helps in:

  • Staying Comfortable: Less stomach upset.
  • Preventing Dehydration: Staying ahead of fluid loss.

Water Stops: The Art of Hydration On-the-Go

Strategies for Success

A man's silhouette drinking water against an evening sky.

Tips include:

  • When to Walk or Run: Balance hydration with your race goals.
  • Navigating Crowds: Stay calm and aim for less crowded spots.
  • The Pinch-and-Go Technique: Learn this to drink without slowing down.

When to Run and When to Walk

The debate between running versus walking through water stops often boils down to two factors: your physical condition at the moment and your marathon finishing goal.

Target Finish Time:

  • Sub 3 hours 45 minutes: If you’re aiming for a finishing time of 3 hours 45 minutes or faster, the recommendation leans towards running through the water stops. Every second counts when targeting such ambitious times, and maintaining momentum becomes paramount.
  • Above 4 hours: For those who have set a goal of 4 hours or more, walking through water stops can be a strategic move. This allows for a short recovery, ensuring thorough hydration, and offers a momentary break without significantly impacting the overall time.

Navigating Crowded Stops

A water stop can, at times, resemble a bustling marketplace, with runners converging from all directions. Here’s how to efficiently tackle such scenarios:

  1. Anticipate and Plan: As you approach a water station, gauge the crowd. If you see a dense group, consider either speeding up to get ahead or slowing down momentarily to let the bulk pass.
  2. Stay Alert: Be aware of runners around you. Some might suddenly stop or swerve to grab a cup. By staying alert, you can avoid collisions and ensure smoother navigation.
  3. Opt for the Ends: Most runners tend to cluster around the beginning of water stops. By heading towards the end of the station, you might find it less crowded and easier to grab your drink.

Minimizing Time Wastage

Efficiency at water stops doesn’t mean you rush but rather that you make the most of every moment.

  1. The Pinch-and-Go: Grab a cup, pinch the top to form a funnel-like spout, and drink on-the-go. This technique reduces spillage and allows for easier sipping while moving.
  2. Carry It With You: You don’t need to finish your drink right at the station. If you feel the need for more hydration, grab an extra cup and continue sipping as you run. This ensures you’re adequately hydrated without the pressure of downing it all in one spot.
  3. Avoid Overhydration: Just because there’s a water stop doesn’t mean you need to drink extensively. Listen to your body. Overhydration can lead to discomfort and other issues. Aim for 6 to 8 ounces every stop, adjusting based on your needs.

The Role of Energy Gels

Your Secret Weapon for Endurance

A jogger pauses to check his fitness tracker in a desert setting.

John recalls, “At mile 18, I felt my energy flagging. Thankfully, my regular gel intake kept me going strong.”

The Glycogen Lifeline

Our muscles store energy in the form of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate. During prolonged physical activities like marathons, these glycogen reserves are gradually depleted, leading to fatigue and reduced performance.

This is where energy gels come into the picture. Packed with simple sugars, these gels are designed to provide a rapid source of energy, effectively replenishing dwindling glycogen stores and ensuring that runners maintain their stamina for the long haul.

Timing Recommendations: Starting Off Right

It’s tempting to think that loading up on energy gels at the starting line would give you a head start. However, the strategy is a bit more nuanced. Given that most runners commence their race with glycogen stores maxed out, the initial phase doesn’t require supplemental energy.

Thus, the recommended time to consume the first energy gel is about 45 minutes to an hour into the race. This window ensures that the body has begun depleting its glycogen, making the energy gel’s boost timely and effective.

For a more detailed understanding of optimizing your energy gel strategy throughout the marathon, refer to our comprehensive guide on What’s the Ideal Number of Energy Gels for Marathon Fueling? to make the most of your race day fueling plan.

Consistent Refueling: Keeping the Engine Running

Post the first energy gel, the golden rule is consistency. To prevent significant glycogen dips and the dreaded “hitting the wall,” it’s advised to consume an energy gel every 45 minutes to an hour.

This frequency ensures a steady supply of energy, allowing runners to maintain their pace and vigor. It’s essential, however, to tune into one’s body.

Factors like individual metabolism, external conditions, and race intensity can influence energy needs, making it crucial for runners to adapt gel consumption based on how they feel.

Knowing When to Stop: The Final Stretch

While energy gels are fantastic allies during most of the marathon, there comes a point where their utility diminishes. Specifically, after the 23 or 24-mile mark, consuming an energy gel might not offer significant benefits.

By the time the sugars are processed and reach the muscles, most runners would be crossing the finish line. Consuming gels too close to the end might lead to unnecessary sugar intake without immediate benefits. Therefore, it’s prudent to hold off on gels in the concluding phases of the race.

Combining Gels and Liquids: Do’s and Don’ts

Maximizing Benefits, Minimizing Risks

A visual contrast between "DO" and "Don't" cards held in hands.

Tackling the marathon challenge isn’t just about preparation, resolve, and setting the right pace. It’s equally vital to ensure your body receives the appropriate nourishment at the precise moments.

While we’ve explored the individual roles of energy gels and liquids, understanding how to combine them is equally crucial. Here’s a guide to making the most of your in-race nutrition, ensuring that gels and fluids complement each other effectively.

The Power Pairing: Gels and Water

Energy gels, while efficient in providing rapid energy, can be quite concentrated and sticky in consistency. To ensure optimal absorption and prevent any gastrointestinal discomfort:

  1. Always Pair with Water: Consuming gels with water not only makes them easier to ingest but also facilitates quicker absorption. The water helps dilute the gel, allowing it to pass smoothly through the stomach wall and into the bloodstream, providing a timely energy boost.
  2. Maintain Hydration: Beyond assisting with gel absorption, water intake is essential for maintaining hydration levels, which can significantly impact performance. It’s a win-win: as you fuel up with gels, you’re also ensuring that you’re well-hydrated.

The Sugary Pitfall: Gels and Electrolyte Beverages

It might seem like a good idea to combine the simple sugars of energy gels with the electrolytes and carbohydrates found in drinks like Gatorade. However, this combination can spell trouble:

  1. Overloading on Simple Sugars: Both energy gels and many electrolyte drinks contain high amounts of simple sugars. When combined, this can overload the stomach with more sugars than it can effectively process, leading to potential gastrointestinal issues.
  2. Risk of Cramping: Excessive simple sugars can distress the stomach, leading to cramping – a marathoner’s nightmare. Stomach cramps can significantly hinder performance and make the race experience rather unpleasant.

Practical Tips for Seamless Consumption

  1. Pinch and Sip: When taking an energy gel, consider pinching the gel pack, allowing for controlled consumption. Pair each small squeeze with a sip of water. This method ensures that you’re consuming the gel gradually, making it easier on the stomach.
  2. Plan Your Stops: Map out your race hydration strategy. Know the locations of water stations and plan your gel intake around them. This way, you’ll always have water handy when it’s time for a gel.
  3. Listen to Your Body: While guidelines are helpful, every runner is unique. Always pay attention to how your body responds. If a particular combination or timing feels off, adjust accordingly.

Your Nutrition, Your Marathon

Every sip, every gel counts. As you prepare for your marathon, remember it’s not just the miles you’ve trained for, but also how you fuel them that leads to success.

Share your marathon nutrition tips below and join our community for more insights!

Scroll to Top