Marathon diet plan – training phase

I have always felt that a balanced diet covers all our needs, and  extras such as  vitamin pills, protein supplements or energy drinks are unnecessary.

However, the nature of the marathon means that extra attention is needed to ensure that you don’t run out of energy on the day.  But in this post I will be highlighting the basic principles needed to develop an effective and realistic marathon diet plan for the whole training period rather than race day itself, which will be dealt with in another post.

When considering the diet for an endurance activity, there is naturally an emphasis on carbohydrates as the prime food source, since you need a good supply of glycogen to power your muscles for a prolonged period. But you also need plenty of protein to enable muscle tissues to repair effectively after each workout, some fat as an alternative energy source and to allow the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins, fibre to maintain healthy intestines, and also foods that contain antioxidants, which help mop up the extra free radicals that can be produced when we respire more rapidly. The good news is that a relatively normal well-balanced diet, perhaps chosen with a little extra thought, will cover all these bases. So let’s have a brief look at all the key components of a well-balanced diet that, along with a sensible training and recovery schedule, should give you a good chance of achieving your race goals.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be classified as simple or complex.  Simple carbohydrates are basically sugars such as sucrose (ordinary sugar), glucose or fructose.  As these require little or no digestion, they give a quick release of energy when required, and therefore can be very useful during the marathon as part of an energy drink or gel, or in sweets such as jelly babies. Most of the time, however, it is much healthier to consume complex carbohydrates, as they need to be broken down by digestion and so allow a slow and steady release of energy without rotting your teeth of giving rise to a sugar rush.

Potatoes, pasta, rice, bread and cereals are perhaps the most common go to guys for complex carbohydrate, and they all do the job effectively.  However, most dieticians would recommend focussing on less processed carbohydrate sources, such as potatoes, brown rice, quinoa and beans rather than white pasta and bread, which are the result of wheat processing.  Quinoa and beans are also good sources of protein. Wholegrain bread, rice and pasta are healthier than those made from white flour, as they contain fibre and a whole lot (like the pun?) of other important nutrients.  Oats are another good source of carbohydrate and also contain a significant amount of protein, plus a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.  And don’t forget bananas, which have the advantage of needing no preparation, as well as being a great source of  fibre and potassium.

Protein

Protein is needed to build and repair muscle tissue, so perhaps the easiest way to get this protein is to eat the muscles of another animal, ie. meat or fish.  I personally try to avoid red meat as I believe that beef production in particular is very bad for the environment and the health drawbacks (eg. the production of bad cholesterol) outweigh any advantages.  Fish (especially oily fish such as salmon, trout or mackerel), chicken and eggs are excellent non-vegan options, whilst lentils and the previously mentioned beans and quinoa are among the choices that are acceptable to everyone. Most of these foods will go at least some of the way to replacing not just the protein, but the essential vitamins and minerals (eg. iron and the B vitamins) that come with red meat.

Fats

We need some fat, as an energy source but also to supply us with fat soluble vitamins such as A and E, but the majority of people have too much fat in their diet, hence the obesity crisis.  And it’s not just that people eat too much fat, but that they are eating the wrong type of fat – the ‘bad fat’.

The ‘bad fats’ are saturated fats, found in animal fat and therefore lard and butter (and other dairy products such as cheese) and more surprisingly in coconut oil and palm oil (so palm oil production isn’t just a disaster for the rainforests, but it’s not great for human health too).  The ‘good fats’ are unsaturated fats, and these are found in almost all plant based oils (eg olive oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil and various nut oils) as well as avocados and most nuts. Peanut butter is obviously a good source, but often it contains added palm oil, so watch out for this and be prepared to pay a little more to get the palm oil free option. Oily fish, such as salmon, trout and mackerel, are also excellent sources of unsaturated fats, and also boast long chain omega 3 molecules, which have a range of key roles, including the maintenance of low blood pressure.

Fibre

Pre-race nerves are very effective at promoting bowel clearance, but a longer term solution requires a diet containing plenty of fibre.  The simple answer is to eat lots of fruit and vegetables and wholegrains (in eg. cereals and bread).  These foods tend to have a variety of other health benefits, including antioxidant effects (see below), so it really is worthwhile having your five (or more) a day.

 

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are molecules that do exactly what it says on the tin – counteract oxidation in the body, a process that is more likely to occur when we exercise aerobically. They do this by mopping up harmful free radicals, the particles that are believed to cause mutations of DNA and potentially increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.  Foods that are high in antioxidants include green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach (Popeye was onto something), fruits, carrots, whole grains, oily fish, seafood and lean meats, as they contain important minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium and copper, and vitamins such as C and E.

Affordability and convenience

It’s very easy to give advice on what you should and shouldn’t eat. However, financial and time constraints can make it difficult to follow all the suggestions.  Healthy options are not always the cheapest options, and fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish and nuts, for example, can be relatively expensive.  But you may find that beans of various types can be more affordable and can cover much of your protein needs.  Bananas, potatoes, rice and pasta are also usually relatively inexpensive, and remember that you don’t need much meat or fish in your diet to cover your protein needs, especially if you eat lots of beans, lentils, etc.  A breakfast including porridge oats is another cheap and effective choice. The thing is do what you can.  Any positive changes, however small, are potentially beneficial. For example, if your lunchtime cheese sandwich made with white bread is replaced by peanut butter on wholemeal bread, and you follow it with an apple or other fruit instead of a chocolate bar or biscuit, then that’s progress.

26 week marathon training plan

The objective: Complete a marathon race in your personal target time.

Start point:  Basic running fitness base evidenced by consistently running at least two hours per week over 3 or 4 training sessions.

Phase 1 (1- 9 weeks) :

Do a long run, a medium length run and two shorter runs, one of which should be done at a good tempo (perhaps your target marathon race pace) and the other would be a gentler recovery run. The “rest” days might include other activities such as walking, swimming or cycling.  You should plan to gradually increase the length of each run as you progress through this phase. It would also be a good idea, during the latter weeks, to do some competitive races, perhaps 5k or 10k road races, or cross-country events. Any race would replace the tempo run in the schedule, as that is effectively what it is.

Middlesborough Parkrun

 

Possible schedule progression during Phase 1

This, and those for the later phases, are example schedules and you should adapt these to your own needs. Consider, however, that the principle of training for periods of time rather than distance is applied, so stronger athletes will get more mileage from the same program. See my article Train for minutes not miles for the rationale behind this.

Week 1

45 mins steady run (long)

35 mins steady run (medium)

25 mins tempo run

30 mins recovery run

Week 9

90 mins steady run (long)

60 mins steady run (medium)

40 mins tempo run

45 mins recovery run

Phase 2 (10-14 weeks): 

Maintain the duration of runs from week 9, but introduce hill training in lieu of, alternately, the medium length run and the tempo run. Hill training is like interval training, but the intense efforts are uphill, which develops leg strength but at a moderate pace, thus reducing the chance of injury, especially muscle strains. Read my article on Hill training for more information. Aim to do a couple of races, up to no more than 10 miles, during this phase.

Hill training

Two week example schedule for phase 2:

Week 10

90 min steady run

50 min hill session

40 min tempo run

45 min recovery run

Week 11

90 min steady run

60 min steady run

50 min hill session

45 min recovery run

Phase 3 : (15 to 18 weeks):

  1. Increase the length of the long run, but only on alternate weeks. On the other weeks maintain the duration of week 9.
  2. Alternate the hill sessions with interval training. Be cautious when beginning intervals, ensuring that you gradually become accustomed to running at a faster pace, and do the sessions on a soft surface such as grass, sand or dirt-track.Interval training heart rate graph

(Diagram shows how the heart rate might alter during an interval session.)

Half marathon paceband

  1.   Add an extra recovery run every two weeks, perhaps between the tempo run and the interval session.
  2.    Target a half-marathon race at the end of this period.

 

Two week example schedule for phase 3:

Week 17

110 min steady run

45 min tempo run

40 min recovery run

8 x 5 mins intervals  with 2 mins jog recovery

45 min recovery run

Week 18

90 min steady run

60 min steady run

60 min hill session

45 min recovery run

Phase 4: (19-23 weeks)

Continue to build the long run every two weeks, and replace the hill session with pure intervals on the flat (unless you are doing a particularly hilly marathon!). A 10k, 10 mile or even a half-marathon race at some stage would be recommended.

Two week example schedule for phase 4:

Week 22

90 min steady run

10 x 5 mins intervals at just under race pace with 2 min jog recovery

60 min steady run

45 min recovery run

Week 23

150 min steady run

40 min recovery run

45 min tempo run

40 min recovery run

4 sets of (6 min 4min 2 min) with one min jog recovery within sets and two min between sets.

45 min recovery run

Phase 5: (24-26 weeks)Take it easy

The final straight. Here you should be focusing on winding down and ensuring that your muscles are fully recovered, allowing you to show the full benefit of all the training you have been doing. If you want a prep-race, do it at least two weeks before the main event.

Cut the mileage down to about 75% of the week 23 maximum on week 24, then drop this to 50 % and then 30% in the final two weeks. The key is to reduce the volume, but not the pace, as this should ensure you maintain a good stride length and tempo without building up fatigue, and ensuring that you arrive at the start line fresh as a daisy and raring to go!

Week 24

80 min steady run

8 x 5 mins intervals at just under race pace with 2 mins jog recovery

50 min steady run

40 min recovery run

Week 25

50 min steady run

30 min tempo run

2 sets of (6 min – 4min – 2 min) with one min jog recovery within sets and two min between sets.

30 min recovery run

Week 26

40 min steady run

20 min tempo run or 4 x 5mins intervals with 2 min jog recovery

30 min recovery run

26.2 mile race (Don’t forget this!)

marathon-finish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what’s stopping you?

I hope you have found the above suggestions of interest, and are keen to target a marathon and carry out an appropriate training plan.  Whatever the details of your final training schedule, please listen to your body and be prepared to ease off when it is telling you to to slow down or stop.

Good luck!

Can you avoid hitting the wall?

Teaching your body to burn fat more effectively can go a long way to helping you to avoid hitting the dreaded wall during a marathon, or at least reduce its impact.

So what precisely is the marathon wall,  what processes give rise to it and most importantly what can we do about it?

Glycogen vs Fat

When we exercise, we use two main energy stores; glycogen (carbohydrate) and fat.  At any stage during exercise, we need to use a combination of these sources.

Glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver, and is rapidly and readily converted into glucose to fuel respiration, the chemical reaction that releases energy for life and which is summarised below.

The respiration equation

However, the liver and muscles can only store a limited amount of glycogen, so in an event like the marathon, it is likely to run out unless replenished.  This typically occurs around the 18 to 20 mile mark and leads to the effects that we marathon-collapse.jpgassociate with hitting the wall (ie. weakness, disorientation, blurred vision and generally feeling pretty dreadful).  The photo on the right shows the famous but distressing sight of the British athlete Jim Peters, then the world marathon record holder, trying in vain to reach the finish line in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.  He was 17 minutes ahead of the field and ten minutes ahead of his own world record schedule with less than 400 metres to go, but his exhaustion was so great that he just could not make it to the finish unaided.  Peters retired from racing that day and recognised that he could have died, a point that we should all consider if we hit the wall this badly (or become in any way seriously distressed during the race).  Remember there are always other races on other days.

Fat is stored in a variety of locations and provides a longer lasting supply of energy, though it is released more slowly. However, the metabolic pathways involved mean that fat cannot be efficiently burnt without some glycogen, so when the glycogen runs out you can’t effectively access the fat stores.  This then leads the body, in its desperation, to utilise a third, emergency energy source – protein.

This is bad news for the athlete because the skeletal muscle cells that you are hoping to power you to the line are being sacrificed as an (inefficient) energy source. So it’s no surprise that things start to go awry at this stage.  A key part of the solution to this problem is to find a way of teaching your body to burn a higher proportion of fat during the earlier phases of the race, and therefore better preserve the limited glycogen supplies.

 

So how do you train your body to burn more fat? 

The ratio of fat to carbohydrate (from glycogen) burning is related to the speed or intensity of the exercise and it is no surprise to find that the slower burning, longer lasting energy store (ie. fat) is utilised more during long slow runs. Therefore, one of the key training benefits of completing long runs at a comfortable pace is linked to the development of fat burning efficiency.  Slow and steady really does win the race!

 

The graph below illustrates  how the proportion of fat burnt increases (and carbohydrate use reduces) as the intensity of exercise reduces.

 

What else can you do to delay the onset of the wall?

Nutrition, throughout your training programme, in the last couple of weeks before the race and during the race itself are clearly key factors in helping the athlete to reduce the impact or even avoid the wall altogether.

Questions to ask might include:

Do I need to do anything special other than maintain a normal balanced diet, as perhaps typified by the “Eatwell plate” on the right?

Is there an ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein in my diet during the main training period?

Should I alter my diet in the days leading up to the race (eg. carb loading)?

Should I use energy gels or other fast absorbing food sources, such as ripe bananas, during the race?

These and other questions will be discussed in the articles  Marathon diet plan – training phase and Carb loading before the marathon.