YOUR Marathon: Run, Refuel, Recover
Do you ever think about WHAT and WHEN to eat AFTER a marathon?
Many runners will consider what to eat BEFORE and possibly DURING but often food for recovery is neglected. BUT efficient and optimal recovery is important for enhanced performance, so here we consider:
- WHY a recovery strategy is important after a marathon event
- WHAT nutrition factors to consider for recovery following a marathon
- WHEN and HOW MUCH to eat for optimal recovery from a marathon
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WHY is a recovery strategy is important after a marathon event?
In a nutshell, the reason that a recovery strategy is so important is so that enhanced performance can be achieved during any subsequent running training or running events.
When speaking about recovery, this includes nutritional AND lifestyle approaches to support an efficient and speedy return to optimal running after a marathon.
If recovery is appropriate then it is known to support:
- Glycogen repletion
- Prevent or delay the onset of fatigue during subsequent training
- Muscle and body protein remodelling
- Metabolic and muscular adaptation stimulated by the exercise e.g. increased mitochondria production and increased production of contractile proteins (the proteins that support the muscle contraction and relaxation process)
“Carbohydrate (CHO) is a limiting factor in running performance” So, how does CHO fit into a recovery plan?
The key purpose of carbohydrate intake in a recovery plan is to replenish both liver and muscle glycogen stores as quickly and as efficiently as possible to try and prevent, eliminate, or at least limit the risk of:
- Muscle injury
- Poor muscular and metabolic adaptations
To name but a few.
It is well known that high intensity endurance exercise is fueled primarily by carbohydrate in the form of glucose. But DID YOU KNOW that when there is an increased demand for glucose by the working muscles, blood glucose levelsare maintained largely from the breakdown of glycogen stores in the liver, therefore an optimal recovery plan must ensure that sufficient carbohydrate is consumed to replenish the liver stores as well as the muscle stores of glycogen.
Where does Protein fit into a Marathon recovery plan?
Protein intake following a marathon is crucial for muscle building, muscle remodelling, muscle repair, and of course overall muscle recovery.
BUT during a marathon, if carbohydrate intake is inadequate, protein (primarily from muscle) will be broken down to be utilised as an energy source, which will compromise the muscle repair, rebuilding, remodelling and recovery POST exercise.
DID YOU KNOW that absolutely if carbohydrate intake is suboptimal (below 1g/KgBW/h) DURING exercise it is thought that adding protein to a carbohydrate snack or meal or beverage AFTER a marathon is known to increase the rate of the glycogen resynthesis. This is thought to be due to the protein effects on insulin, leucine and phenylalanine i.e. support these in driving the glucose into the muscle cells.
So, what does muscle remodelling actually mean?
Muscle remodelling is a word that is often used but seldom explained but what it means (in simple terms) is the breaking down of old and or damaged muscle proteins, and the rebuilding of new ones and endurance exercise is known to trigger this process. This breakdown and rebuilding of muscle proteins leads to a remodelling of different components of muscle e.g. increased mitochondria production
So, if protein intake is insufficient, this process could be compromised. This could lead to exercise induced muscle damage thus poor recovery overall.
Lifestyle factors to consider to support optimal recovery from a marathon:
- Sleep – at least 7hrs/n
- Sports massage – once a month ideally
- Foam rolling and stretching – regularly either at home or in the gym
- Magnesium salt bath – to soothe muscles and just to relax!
- Compression garments – to help prevent injury and support blood circulation
- Alcohol - known to impair muscle’s ability to replenish glycogen after endurance exercise. Also known to impair protein synthesis in muscle
But remember, this list is not exhaustive!
- REMEMBER females are more susceptible to lower limb injury than men, which could be linked to more hormonal fluctuations than men but also, there is an increased prevalence of disordered eating and eating disorders in women besides men
- So, optimal nutrition in females, esp protein and carbohydrate, is key to help prevent injury occurring, which could compromise their efficient recovery and a speedy return to their training
- Women may need to think about their menstrual cycle when planning a marathon as the hormonal fluctuations during menstruation may compromise recovery
When and how much should you eat for optimal recovery after a marathon?
Following a marathon, or any endurance event, the timing of food intake is almost as important as the amount and the types of foods eaten.
Within the first 30 minutes following exercise is the optimal window of opportunity to replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores efficiently. It is thought that eating immediately after a marathon could enhance the rate of glycogen repletion by up to 45% besides waiting two hours following exercise to eat…. That is significant!! It is thought the maximal rate of glycogen resynthesis during that acute phase of recovery (that immediate 30min recovery period) could occur with a carbohydrate intake of between 1 to 1.2 g/Kg of body weight per hour.
This is a large amount of carbohydrate so would need to be adjusted to an individual’s preferences and running goals. But it does emphasise the importance of eating SOMETHING immediately after a marathon, it may not be as much BUT something is better than nothing!!!
Many people don’t eat immediately afterwards for various reasons including: feelings of nausea (or other digestive symptoms), tiredness, and fatigue.
So, it is important to practice, practice, practice during training to help train the gut to receive food.
WHAT to eat immediately after a marathon:
Quick release carbohydrate food sources to ensure efficient digestion, absorption and utilisation of glucose. Some ideas include:
- White bread and jam (or honey) sandwich
- Medjool dates
- Dried apricots
- Tropical fruit (mango, pineapple, papaya) - fresh or dried
- Dried fruit is going to contain more concentrated sugars, however for some people, it might be easier to consume fresh fruit….it is about personal preference!
- Ella’s Kitchen pouches
- Honey on a spoon - if practical
Approximately an hour following a marathon it would be important to begin introducing protein into the diet. This is in an effort to begin the process of muscle repair, remodelling and recovery whilst also assisting continued glycogen repletion.
The important point to remember is that carbohydrate intake needs to be the greatest at this time because glycogen repletion is still ongoing. The recommended ratio of CHO to Protein is 4:1 and the aim is to eat in this way approximately every two hours for up to six hours. Only at this point would a return to an everyday optimal diet be recommended.
WHAT to eat
- Baked potato (sweet or white) filled with tuna or cottage cheese or even baked beans (try and source natural variety e.g Biona is a recommended brand.
- Smoked salmon or egg on wholemeal toast
- Wholemeal sandwich containing chicken
Remember: with these suggestions, always remember to add veggies and fruit too.
- Smoothie e.g. chocolate milkshake, fruit smoothie made with yogurt
- Nut based flapjacks
- Cheese sandwich
1) The key purpose of a recovery strategy is so that enhanced performance can be achieved during subsequent running training and events
2) Appropriate and optimal recovery is known to support glycogen repletion and muscle and body protein remodelling and repair, which are vital for enhanced performance
3) Overtime, adequate recovery is thought to help support the metabolic and muscular adaptations stimulated by exercise resulting in enhanced performance
4) CHO and PRO are the key nutrients to be considered for optimal recovery, however hydration and micronutrient status also need to be addressed…after all, CHO and hydration are the two known limiting factors in exercise performance
5) During intense/prolonged exercise; Liver glycogen is used to maintain blood glucose levels whereas muscle glycogen is broken down to be used as energy for the mitochondria and the muscle contraction process.
6) Nutrition is not the only factor supporting recovery from a marathon. There are many lifestyle factors that could be considered too including:
- Sports Massage
- Foam rolling and stretching
- Magnesium baths
- Compression garments
- No Alcohol
- Low stress
7) IF CHO intake DURING exercise has been suboptimal (ie below 1g/Kg/h) adding protein to a CHO snack/meal/beverage AFTERWARDS, is known to increase the rate of glycogen resynthesis
8) The timing of food intake post-training is also an important aspect of marathon recovery. They key timings are:
- Within 30mins following the run – quick release CHO
- 1-2H after CHO:PRO combination in a ratio of 4:1 – eat in this way every 2hrs up to approx. 6hrs after the marathon
- After 6hrs return to normal healthy eating
9) Finally, remember these are recommendations, everyone is different therefore, timing, amounts and types of food/nutrition need to be adapted and personalized to the individual runner’s requirements and preferences.
The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and
advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact
your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.
Aileen Smith and Karen Campbell met at as nutrition students (Institute for Optimum Nutrition, London) and became lifelong friends and nutritional buddies! Both have a love of running and a passion for nutrition, delicious food and healthy living.
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