Though international runner’s diets are ordinarily as diverse as the places from which they come, from sushi to ugali, pizza to pancakes, when I surveyed race-weekend diets of elite marathoners from around the world I found they tend to converge. Whether hailing from North or South America, Australia or Europe, individual preferences and cultural flairs are increasingly muted as the competition nears.
Part of that, of course, is due to the food that’s available at race headquarters and in nearby supermarkets. But it’s also suggestive of some widely held principles of marathon nutrition: Eat lots of easily digestible carbohydrates, a bit of protein, limited spicy, fibrous, and fatty foods, a steady stream of fluids and electrolytes, and often a hit of caffeine in the final pre-race hours.
To illustrate just how universal marathon fueling has become, here are the race weekend eating habits of runners from five countries: Australia, Finland, Wales, Venezuela, and the United States. All of them are international caliber and all are running (or have recently run) fall marathons.
Lisa Weightman, a three-time Australian Olympian and mother with a 2:25 best, currently preparing for the Chicago Marathon on October 13
Night before: Not knowing exactly what will be available to her at dinnertime, Lisa eats her main high-carb meal the afternoon before the race. “I tend to stick to plain food by this stage with high carb percentages like rice, as it seems to sit well and not cause my stomach to bloat,” she said. Her go-to, when available, is rice, a little bit of protein such as chicken, and some vegetables.
Race morning: This doesn’t change: an electrolyte drink, coffee, and toast with either jam or honey.
In-race: It depends on the climate. In ideal conditions (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit), Lisa rarely drinks at 5k. After that, she alternates at fluid stations between an electrolyte drink and a water with a gel.
Why it works for her: Lisa’s coach, Dr. Richard Telford, is a renowned sports physiologist. “When someone who is as qualified and experienced as he is, it takes out any guess work! I follow what he prescribes and so far I haven’t hit the wall.”
Lisa also tries to stay open-minded and flexible when approaching a race. “If you are set in your ways and can’t find the food that you so desperately planned for, it can create a world of stress for some athletes.” Best to have options and be ready to roll with the punches.
Aki Nummela, a Finnish marathoner with a 2:17 personal record, slated for both the Berlin and Valencia Marathons in September and December, respectively
Night before: For his pre-marathon dinner, Aki prefers pasta, chicken, and tomato sauce. He keeps the spices mild and avoids salad and steak.
Race morning: Aki shoots for a variety at breakfast: oatmeal, white bread with cheese, bacon, and a PowerBar Energy Bar. With it he drinks coffee, water, a sports drink (Malto + High5 Energy Drink), and a bit of Pudhas + Electrolytes drink. (Pudhas is Finnish for “clean.”)
In-race: Just before the start, and every 5k from 10k through 35k, Aki consumes one PowerGel Smoothie. He also sips on water and a sports drink (Malto + High5 Energy Drink) at 5k, 15k, and 30k at least, and the Pudhas + Electrolytes drink at 20k, 25k, and 35k.
Why it works for him: “When I started adding more energy to my race nutrition plan,” Aki said, “I finished way stronger and haven’t faced the wall at all during my last 8 marathons.” He uses PowerGels mid-race because he likes their texture and finds them easier to take than other gels. That said, he often cramps up in the last 10K, so is still fine-tuning his approach to fueling.
Natasha Cockram, a 2:34 Welsh marathoner who ran for the University of Tulsa, racing the Dublin Marathon on October 27
Night before: Natasha likes her last big meal heavy on the carbs and relatively bland. “Pasta is normally a safe option as most athlete hotels have it on offer,” she said. To avoid upsetting her stomach and to set her up for some rest, she pairs it with “a plain, boring sauce,” eats no later than 6:30 p.m., and tops off her stores with some yogurt just before bed.
Race morning: Four hours before the gun goes off, Natasha eats porridge (cooked in water), peanut butter, banana, and honey on toast. She also has a cup of tea with milk and a small high-carb drink (one scoop of Project E2 Hydro Drinkmixed with 400 ml water).
In-race: During a marathon, Natasha takes a Project E2 Energy Gel at 10 and 15 miles, and a My Protein Gel with caffeine at 20 miles. Though she submits her own fluids beforehand, she sees them as “an emergency backup in case I feel empty” so typically skips them and instead chases her gels with water at the general drink stations. “Providing everything goes to plan and my pre-race fueling is good, I shouldn’t feel the need for them.”
Why it works for her: Natasha believes her nutritional choices surrounding a big race work because they make her feel“adequately fueled but not sluggish.”
Luis Orta, a Venezuelan Olympian and coach with a 2:16 best residing in Boulder, Colorado, fresh off a seventh place finish at the Buenos Aires Marathon
Night before: For dinner before the Buenos Aires Marathon, Luis had pasta with chicken (no sauce) and a little bit of cheese.
Race morning: On race morning, Luis ate a banana and a PowerBar, and drank coffee and 100ml of Maurten. “This is something I usually eat before a workout or a long run,” he said, “so I am used to it and my body knows how to process it and be ready for the race.”
In-race: In Buenos Aires, Luis drank Maurten 320 every 5k (trying to consume 200ml) for the first half of the race. For the second 13.1 miles, he drank Maurten 160 every 5k and took one Maurten Gel at 35k. He also had water and a couple cups of the sports drink provided by the race, which he assumed was Powerade.
Why it works for him: Luis trusts his nutrition plan because it’s backed by an expert. “I work with a really good nutritionist and I trust her with everything. She knows me pretty well and knows what I need, what I like, and what I don’t.” He also sticks with his routine as much as possible in the days prior. “I pretty much think of it as an important long run, so I don’t try anything new and I stick to my usual dinners.”
Taylor Ward, a 2:32 marathoner and two-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier, also getting ready for the Chicago Marathon
Night before: Before Chicago, Taylor plans to eat sweet potatoes, rice, fruit, a few vegetables, and some pasta with marinara sauce. “I try to keep it simple and stay away from anything too spicy or fatty (such as alfredo sauce),” she said. She’ll also sip on UCAN Hydrate, as she’s done all week, and snack on a UCAN Energy Bar (Chocolate Peanut Butter) if she’s hungry before bed.
Race morning: Taylor has a hard time eating a lot in the early morning hours, so on race morning, she keeps it simple and gets the calories in how she can. Her breakfast consists of a drink with two scoops of UCAN Performance Energy (either Orange or Cranberry Raspberry) and a Kashi Chocolate Chip Chia Bar or some bread. She’ll continue to sip on the UCAN—a “game-changer” for her sensitive stomach—until she starts warming up.
In-race: Sticking with what she trusts, Taylor takes UCAN Hydrate every 5k of a marathon. “My coach, Paul Pilkington, has emphasized the importance of having fluids early on, even if I don’t feel like I need it yet.”
Why it works for her: When it comes to sports nutrition, Taylor says, “Everyone’s body is a little different and there is no one-size fits all.” Her fueling strategy, therefore, has been tried and tested multiple times in training until she found what works, and she encourages other marathoners to do the same. “This helps set me up for a great performance without any surprises.”