Fueling for a Marathon: Keeping It Simple

oatmeal&blueberriesI like to keep life as simple and uncomplicated as possible. I enjoy days where the toughest decision I have to make is whether I want to use blueberries or strawberries in my morning smoothie (I usually end up choosing both), and fueling for the upcoming Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon is no different. The simpler the better–I want to fuel properly without overdoing it.


The majority of people running half and full marathons aren’t elite athletes trying to place in their age category, but regular people with a passion for running who are trying to do their personal best, and I’m right there with them (I will be setting no speed records). So the question I ask is this: in the days before a marathon, is it necessary for non-elite runners to fuel as intensely as those elite runners out there trying to place? A recent study showed that for novice and recreational marathoners, the only meals that improved running times were the day before and morning of carbohydrate intake. This means that the traditional carbohydrate-loading regime of three days of high-carb intake probably isn’t necessary for most amateur full marathon runners, and definitely not necessary for anyone running a half marathon. Of course there’s no reason you couldn’t do all three days of carb-loading for a full marathon, but if you could get away with just doing one, why would you do three? Simpler–I’ll take it.


This study isn’t saying you could eat junk every day before the marathon except the day before and still run well. You should still eat a healthy diet all week but focus on bumping up your carb intake the day before the event. And no matter the fueling plan, all runners should have 3 or 4 days of tapered training before a big race.


So how much is recommended for the day before marathon fueling? The suggested amount is 7 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight per day (with the higher 10-12 grams being the suggested target), or you can consume 70% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Considering that normal guidelines for carb intake during amateur training programs are 3-5 grams carb/kg/day, trying to eat 10-12 grams carb/kg/day for even one day is quite a bit higher and could be difficult for the average runner. However, as the study shows, even a slight increase of carb intake can produce a speed increase.


Based on that, here’s what I will be eating the day before the half marathon (I’m shooting for 7 g carb/kg):

  • Breakfast: smoothie made with 1 banana, 1 cup strawberries, pineapple Greek yogurt, 1 cup skim milk & 1 Tbsp of honey   80 g carb
  • Morning snack: 3 graham crackers and 1 orange   48 g carb
  • PB&Jbagel1Lunch: bagel with 1.5 Tbsp almond butter and 2 Tbsp grape jam, 3/4 cup baby carrots and 1/2 cup grape tomatoes   113 g carb
  • Afternoon snack: blueberry crisp Clif bar   43 g carb
  • Dinner: wrap made with burrito sized tortilla, 3 oz shredded chicken, 1/2 cup corn, 1/2 cup chopped fresh tomatoes, 3 Tbsp sundried tomatoes, and 1 cup baby spinach, plus a sweet potato without skin & 2 tsp brown sugar   96 g carb
  • Evening snack: 1.5 cups Honey nut cheerios   36 g carb

Total carbs: 415 g carbohydrate = 70% of my daily calories.
I will eat roughly 2340 total calories for the day, with my non-carb calories being pretty evenly split between fat and protein.
 Your total calories will vary from mine based on your individual weight.


The choices of carbohydrate-containing foods are numerous, and you should check food labels to figure out carbs/serving. Here are a few good carb options if you need help planning out your meals:

Breakfast: oatmeal, bagels, pancakes, English muffins, fruit-flavored yogurt, ready-to-eat breakfast cereal (low fiber), low fat chocolate milk, vanilla-flavored soymilk

Snacks: fig bars, Clif bars, oranges, grapes, dried fruit, graham crackers, fruit-flavored yogurt, ready-to-eat cereal (low fiber), pretzels, popcorn, flavored latte made with skim milk, cheese crackers, fruit smoothie made with fruit and yogurt

Lunch/Dinner: pasta, rice, tortillas, thin-crust pizza with meat and veggie toppings (skip a ton of cheese), PB & J or meat sandwich on a bagel, bean & rice burrito, potatoes, peas, corn


For ideas on what/how much to eat the morning of a race, or if you just need help converting your weight to kilograms, read this post.

Got a nervous stomach? Read this post if you want to avoid hitting the bathroom too many times during the marathon.




–Burke, Louise. Practical Sports Nutrition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.

–Rosenbloom, Christine A., PhD, RD, CSSD, and Ellen J. Coleman, MA, MPH, RD, CSSD, eds. Sports Nutrition A Practice Manual for Professionals. 5th ed. Diana Faulhaber, 2012.

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