Running a marathon this year? Running 26.2 miles puts an enormous strain on your body, whether it’s your first or your 21st marathon, so it’s vital to start your marathon recovery nutrition plan as soon as possible so your muscles repair more quickly. Let’s take a look at what to eat after a run and what to avoid.
While you might feel like crumpling in a heap, stuffing lots of fast food inside your stomach, and even glugging down a celebratory beer, what you eat after the finish line will have a big bearing on your body’s recovery. If you don’t mend properly, you’ll feel exhausted and may run the risk of injuring yourself when you return to even light running.
It’s important to remember these key post-marathon nutrition goals: a) replenish muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) stores; b) restore fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat; c) provide nutrients to aid muscle damage.
So, how can you recover swiftly and easily after you race? Here are some handy tips on what you can eat after you pass the finish line, for the rest of the day, and the weeks ahead.
Immediately After the Race
Although it might not be easy to eat at first, it’s best to do so as soon as possible. The sooner you eat, the better. It’s recommended you eat within 30 minutes after your marathon so your body gets all the nutrients it needs to repair itself afterwards and start the marathon recovery process.
Carbohydrates are so important post-marathon. Why? These vital nutrients top off the muscle glycogen, the stuff you burned during the race. When you’re running, your core fuel source is muscle glycogen. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose, made up of long strings of glucose molecules with various branches.
The glucose breaks from the glycogen chain as needed so as to produce ATP, which transfers chemical energy and is important for muscle contractions. So, how do you replenish muscle glycogen stores post-marathon? Eat high-glycemic (fast-digesting) carbs as soon as possible.
Top up your worn-out muscle glycogen by eating carbohydrate-loaded foods such as:
• Granola bars
• Pita bread
• Chicken breast
• A large salad
• A handful of brown rice or quinoa
If you neglect restocking your muscle glycogen stores, you’re cheating your muscles and slowing down recovery. Moreover, postponing carb intake by just two hours has been shown to lessen the rate of glycogen replenishment by 50 percent!
How Much to Eat?
It’s best to eat 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight per hour for the first four hours after completing the marathon. After four hours, you can continue your normal carb intake based on your daily requirements.
Most runners know how important carbs are, but don’t neglect the power of protein. This nutrient is also needed to mend muscle breakdown from long distance running. We’re not talking protein bars or shakes. For the best recovery, your muscles need three to four times more carbs than protein, around 20g of protein is what you’re aiming for here.
Protein-rich snacks include:
• Natural yogurt-based fruit smoothies
• A sandwich with lean meats, eggs or low-fat cheese
• Greek yoghurt, granola and mixed berries
After your epic 26.2-mile run, you’ll be incredibly dehydrated, especially if it’s a warm day. Begin drinking as soon as you finish the marathon and carry on until your urine is clear and your weight is back to pre-marathon weight. (Weigh yourself before and after the marathon.)
The golden rule? For every kilogram of weight lost post-run, drink a litre of liquid. One good way to replenish is by drinking natural, raw, unpasteurised coconut water, as it’s rich in electrolytes (see below too), which are important for rehydration.
While it may be enticing to celebrate your finish with a beer (or three), take care with alcohol, as it’ll dehydrate you even more. If you do indulge in a beer, be sure to drink an equal amount of water with it.
Something else you need to bear in mind is replacing electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, both of which are lost when you sweat. These minerals help sustain fluid balance and control contractions. Sure, sports drinks are good, but don’t completely rely on them afterwards.
In their place, consider sodium-rich whole foods, such as milk, chocolate milk, bread, crackers, tomato juice and salted nuts, all of which will help replenish your post-marathon electrolytes. You also want to get your dose of potassium-rich foods like bananas, dried apricots, raisins, milk, yoghurt, baked potato with skin, leafy greens, tomato juice and orange juice.
These kinds of nutritious foods will provide your body with all the necessary vitamins and antioxidants needed to repair muscle damage, keep free radical damage at bay, and recover your immune system.
Your body fixes itself mostly at night when you’re asleep, so eating a protein-packed snack before bed is key in aiding this repair. Opt for a handful of nuts, a protein shake or some Greek yoghurt.
Remember the Four R’s
When you think recovery, think of 'The Four R's':
• Rest - get a good night's kip; muscle repair occurs when you’re asleep
• Rehydrate - refill fluid losses by drinking regularly throughout the day
• Repair – it’s important to ingest 20g of protein as soon as possible post-marathon to kick start muscle repair
• Refuel - restore energy by plumping for carbohydrates - a minimum of 1g per kilogram bodyweight is a good general guide
What Not to Eat
Steer clear of the below types of foods after putting your body through the paces, and chances are you’ll recover a lot quicker.
On their own, these just aren’t enough to kick start muscle recovery. Of course, broccoli, carrots and peppers are great in addition to a meal, but not as post-marathon recovery food. They just aren‘t substantial enough on their own to help restore energy levels, but by all means add them to a protein-packed dip or lean meat.
Cheeseburgers, pizzas, salty chips and nachos might seem like a good idea afterwards, but all the fat in these foods will likely slow down digestion, which really isn’t what you want happening after your race.
Junk foods are high in salt, thus lower your levels of potassium, which is of far greater importance to your recovery time than salt. Because your body loses electrolytes during a workout, the last thing you need is to deplete more potassium with by gorging on salty chips. The aim is to restock your body’s glycogen and reduce, not increase, the fat your body hoards.
Doughnuts, milk chocolate, pastries and sugary sports drinks aren’t the answer. Artery-clogging foods like these are loaded with fat and sugar, with hardly any nutrients. Wolfing down a chocolate bar may give you a brief burst of energy, but you’ll soon feel the energy dip later. If you do have chocolate, opt for dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), as it’s loaded with healthy antioxidants that fight free radicals and act as anti-inflammatories needed for post-run recovery.
And finally, as tempting as it may be to lace up your trainers and pound the pavements, it’s important to give your body ample time to recuperate, a few days should be sufficient. We hope this helps you understand what to eat after a marathon and, perhaps just as importantly, what to avoid!