What Does an Elite Marathon Runner’s Diet Look Like?
When I was training competitively, one of the most common questions people would ask was “what do you eat?”
At the time, it seemed like an odd question, since I didn’t put a lot of thought into my exact diet. However, as I’ve continued to meet new runners and come to better understand why they were asking the question, I’ve realized that it wasn’t so much they wanted to copy my actual eating habits, but rather they were looking for a good template they could follow while training hard.
In many ways, we’re always looking for that perfect, optimal or best way to do something, and eating for running performance is no different. However, finding an effective diet is an individualized journey because each person’s training and nutritional demands are different, such as variations in mileage, intensity, running experience and goals. Moreover, each runner’s body responds differently to foods. For some, following my “optimal” diet would work great while others may have gastrointestinal problems or feel sick.
There are few steadfast rules, which can make the process difficult and more intimidating, but a glimpse into an elite marathon and 10k runner’s dietary selections may make it more approachable. Again, this isn’t something you should necessarily copy, but hopefully, some of the principles will help fine-tune your nutritional approach:
- Consuming foods you enjoy
- Including enough calories
- Preparing the foods in advance and having them on hand when and where you need them
- After meeting your nutritional needs, allowing a few “bad foods” to reward yourself for the hard work of training
A look at my typical diet
For reference, a training plan included running about 125-135 miles per week, running twice per day — usually 14-16 miles in the morning and 5-8 miles easy in the afternoons. Here’s a sample of my training. As a reference, I am 5’10” tall and at the time weighed between 135-140 pounds, generally burning 3300 to 3500 calories per day. Because I wasn’t trying to lose weight, erring on the side of consuming too many calories made sense to ensure optimal recovery.
Typically, I started my mornings with one serving of oatmeal mixed with 1 scoop of whey protein and a glass of water. For what it’s worth, I find mixing cookies and cream whey protein with oatmeal tastes just like the flavored stuff you can buy, but without the sugar.
I like to add the protein to this meal because it helps halt the catabolic process that occurs when you sleep for eight to nine hours with no fuel. Here is the type of whey protein I used.
If I were in the latter stages of marathon training and had a long run or extra long workout scheduled, for some extra fuel I might also have toast with peanut butter and jelly.
Post-run recovery drink
After harder workouts, I used the recovery drink Endurox because I found that it tasted good and mixed easily, in addition to its ability to support and refuel the muscles and body systems.
On normal, easy run days, I would usually have yogurt with granola if I finished the run at home, or a power bar and Gatorade if I ended my run at the gym and needed something portable. After a harder workout or a long run, I almost always used Endurox R4
My goal was to get in a four to one ratio of carbohydrates to protein in the first 30-45 minutes after the run.
Typically, I would have eggs — three regular eggs and three egg whites — with black beans, spinach, cheese and salsa with a bagel. I really like eggs, and while some media reports dissuade consuming them, they do provide significant protein and exercise-supportive nutrients, including choline, a quasi B-vitamin that delays endurance sport fatigue.
After long runs, I would often eat whole wheat pancakes, either with the above meal or alone. It was a nice Sunday treat, and from a nutritional perspective, the fiber, minerals and fatty acids that whole-grain complex carbohydrates add make you feel fuller longer and support physical exercise.
If I was feeling healthy, I would top them with yogurt and fruit. Lots of times I would just use syrup though.
Since the nutritional needs had been met with foods eaten earlier in the day, one of my favorite things was stopping at the donut shop if the run was at a trail I had to drive to.
I usually just had a sandwich for lunch, because was often in a hurry or at work and just wanted to get some calories in. A more substantial and nutrient-dense lunch may be a better option, like a grilled chicken wrap with spinach, avocado and salsa.
Typically, if I would start to get really hungry and not have anything on hand, I would just eat cereal. Often, I’d eat about half the box, but many cereals are fortified, include fiber, and other healthy nutrients, including a significant load of complex carbohydrates, which is a great glycogen source. Obtaining fruits and vegetables and other key ingredients in other meals allows for a few indulgences.
When I did have time to prepare, I liked making smoothies. I would blend yogurt with orange juice, granola, wheat germ, frozen fruit, and anything I had hanging around the kitchen. It was a calorie packed snack that made up for not typically eating a lot of fruit.
Run number two and post-run snack
A run later in the day usually consisted of 6-8 miles, and typically, I would drink a glass of chocolate milk because I didn’t need too much refueling here, but this may vary for each person.
Dinner was pretty variable, but here are three samples:
- Salmon with brown rice and asparagus
- Chicken with sweet potato and broccoli
- Pasta with homemade sauce
- I usually went pretty heavy on the carbohydrates. For example, I would have two potatoes and a full cup of uncooked rice
Dinner #2 when marathon training
When I was training for the marathon, I’d often bump my mileage up and as a result, I got really hungry. So, I would generally make large quantities of dinner. Usually, the second meal was another full-size portion and then eat the leftovers the following day.
On weekends, this was when I would eat a few “bad foods” — a burger at the bar or pizza with friends. I wasn’t as concerned with eating healthy, just getting in calories since previous meals had focused on nutrients, .
Snack and casein protein before bed
Before bed I would drink one serving of casein protein powder with a glass of half water, half milk.
Personally, I find casein shakes blended with milk to taste pretty good (you do need to blend it well though as it is very clumpy without a blender) and it’s a great substitute for empty-calorie desserts. Casein is a slow-releasing protein and will reduce muscle breakdown while you sleep – giving a huge step up for recovery compared to Oreo cookies.
What can you take away?
Again, I don’t recommend that you necessarily follow this diet yourself. There are things I could improve upon and it’s a ton of calories. This worked for me, but you need to find what works for you. However, I think there are a couple of principles you can take away:
Time the healthiest eating around your runs
One thing you can do is fuel well before your main workout for the day and make sure your feed your body with nutrient-dense calories immediately after and in the hours following hard runs. This helps ensure optimal recovery.
Find what works for you
What I found helpful was not eating foods I didn’t like. A lot of runners think they have to force down foods they don’t like in order to “eat healthy.” This usually works for a week or two, but it can’t be sustained and usually you end up going back to eating unhealthy again. When you find the foods that you enjoy and meet your training and nutritional needs, stick with them.
Along the same lines, I really liked to keep it simple. I had a full-time job and training itself (running, core work, stretching, sleep) took up a huge amount of my day. Keeping things simple and easy helped me take in the calories I needed. Just like in training, there are no “secrets” to eating right. There aren’t “superfooods” that will make-up for not eating well-rounded and there aren’t shortcuts. I know plenty of runners that have experimented with all sorts of crazy foods and diet ideas, and that’s fine. But for me, simple, easy and quick allowed me to stay focused on training while eating well.
Prepare your snacks and meals
I found that spending an hour each week planning meals for the next week worked best. This involved planning everything I needed for the week and leaving healthy snacks in places and times I knew I would get hungry. The slow cooker and cooking in bulk helps with this. An investment of just an hour a week planning your meals can be really helpful.
I hope you enjoyed this inside marathon diet glimpse. If you really liked the article, leave a comment, and I could invite other elite athletes to share their diets. I can also invite athletes who have “special” diets like vegans, paleo, gluten-free, and anything you can ask for. Just let me know!