Pre-Race Meal: What to Eat Before a Marathon

Pre-Race Marathon Meal

Hopefully you have asked yourself what to eat before a marathon as your pre-race meal before the day before the marathon actually arrives!

Let’s talk about though what makes a great pre race meal for runners running a marathon the following day.

What should the meal consist of and ideally when you want to eat it.

What is the goal in a pre-race meal?

Exercise Physiologist, William McArdle says that the pre-competition meal should provide adequate carbohydrate energy and ensure optimal hydration.

It should “maximize muscle and liver glycogen storage and provide glucose for intestinal absorption during exercise”.

You should therefore never even consider doing a period of fasting before a race as it would be physiologically detrimental to your performance.

When to eat your pre-race meal?

Most marathons are scheduled for the morning and some can start extremely early depending on the race. 

Therefore your dinner the night before will become your pre-race meal.

However if you have an afternoon or night marathon then you will schedule your pre-race meal to be at breakfast or even lunch. 

Here are some pre-race breakfast ideas that you can prepare before race day.

No matter when your marathon is scheduled to begin you want to end your pre-race meal at least 3-4 hours before the marathon begins.

This timeframe is because it will take about 3-4 hours to completely digest and store the energy into your muscles and liver from your meal to be available as energy during your marathon.

What should your pre-race meal consist of?

Mainly carbohydrates!

In fact, your pre-race meal should be the end to your carbo-loading plan that you have probably been following leading up to your marathon. 

Here is why + how you can carbo-load before a marathon.

Here’s why you need to focus on carbohydrates: 

  • They are absorbed and digested faster than fats and proteins
  • They provide energy quickly to your body.
  • They do not make you feel overly full such as a high fat or high protein meal does.
  • High protein meals call for more energy to aid in digestion (instead of being used to aid in your running).
  • Protein metabolism can cause you to become dehydrated sooner due to amino acids breaking down and the needing to be excreted causing water to be pulled from your cells.
  • And last, but most importantly, because carbohydrates are your primary fuel source during the marathon!

Here's what to eat before a marathon during your pre-race meal:

Consume about 3-5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. This is a range depending on how much you already weigh.

If you do not know what your body weight in kilograms is then here is the simple conversion from pounds to kilograms.

_____________lbs (your body weight in pounds) / 2.2 lbs/kg (the conversion factor to change pounds into kilograms) = ________________ (your body weight in kilograms)

What about eating an energy bar?

Nutritional energy bars can provide a quick blast of necessary nutrients before your marathon however they usually are higher in protein and fatty acids.

They also usually have not been assessed by the FDA and so the claims and macro nutrient labels have not be validated.

The bottom line is that they may be effective for you but should be combined with other foods.

What to eat before a marathon?  Like right before.

If you simply cannot eat before a marathon or prior to 4 hours before your marathon start time then you will want to obtain your nutrients through a liquid drink, specifically through your energy drink.

Here are my favorite energy drink recommendations!

What to Eat Before a Marathon:
High Carbohydrate Food Recommendations

Remember that you want your focus to be on foods that contain large quantities of carbohydrates so that you can adequately store energy in your liver and leg muscles so that ultimately you avoid the wall. (You will still need to refuel throughout the race but this is will get you started on the right path!)

Here are some of my carbohydrate recommendations to eat before a marathon:

  • Pastas
  • Rice
  • Cereal
  • Oatmeal
  • Baked Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • TortillasBreads

Here are a couple of pre-race dinner ideas for the night before your marathon!

Here is also a 3 day Carbo-Loading Menu Plan that will help you determine what to eat before a marathon as well!

Here is an article by Whitney from The Mother Runners, that has Healthy Meal Ideas for Runners - 18 Recipes for Runners!

What to avoid eating before a marathon:

  • High fiber foods - if you are not used to fiber they can cause you to bloat and distress your digestive system
  • High fat foods - these can make you feel heavy and too full going into your final night of sleep and cause you to wake up not feeling energized. Include some fat but don't consume a high fat meal especially if it is one that is made up mostly of processed fats!
  • Foods that delay stomach emptying or that you know cause your body digestive distress. We want our body to quickly begin processing our food and storing it for energy! 

Do you have a favorite pre-race meal combo that you love?

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Sources used: Katch, Frank I., et al. Sports and Exercise Nutrition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2012.