Traditionally, participation in a marathon or half marathon means you are an elite athlete looking to compete and win. Over the years, more emphasis has been put on recreational activity, which has surged a generous number of people into the sport for reasons aside from first place. As a former competitive runner turned recreational fitness enthusiast, I am a huge fan of the running trend that has swept our nation. I find cardiovascular training to be a great outlet for emotions and mood, as well as a great way to enjoy the outdoors, strengthen your cardiovascular system, and meet people with similar interests.
My concern for those participating in endurance contests are as a Dietitian and promoter of Health and Wellness. Many don’t realize that the distances covered in these events can be very dangerous if you are not properly trained. My goal in this article is to help you prioritize proper nutrition with training. In a physically demanding event such as the marathon and half-marathon, proper nutrition is critical. With training occurring usually 5 days per week, your muscles are in a constant state of rebuilding. While these transformations are positive, we need to make sure you are eating and training to rebuild.
The most at-risk population are those planning to run with the primary goal of weight loss. While many will naturally lose body fat during the course of training, muscle should replace much of this weight. Ideally we do not look for a change on the scale, but a change in body composition. A decrease in fat mass and increase in fat-free mass is the ideal transformation for those participating in endurance activities. The reasoning lies within what weight loss actually is.
When we look at why people lose weight, it is a result of a calorie deficit. Said another way, weight loss comes from burning more energy than you are getting from your dietary sources of calories: carbohydrate, fat and protein. When you are not eating enough, your body cannot function at 100% and will inevitably begin deprioritizing certain processes. Some of the more important functions that go first are the ability to build and recover muscle, and certain maintain certain hormone balances. Just from these losses alone your body is already at a disadvantage. This will carry over into training and performance, and can even lead to increased risk for injury throughout training.
The most important thing to remember about a marathon is that it is not something our body naturally does. It is an extreme sport. With that, it needs to be taken seriously. In a society with an intense calorie phobia, this can become a tremendous obstacle. The proper way to think about food during a marathon is not calorie restriction, but what fuels your body to perform. The first step of proper nutrition in distance training is to change the way you think about food. Once you recognize you are eating to perform, recover, and encourage your body to change, you can begin to prioritize food in a way that will prevent injury and promote a positive relationship with food.
Too often runners trying to lose weight restrict their intake in addition to maintaining an intense running schedule, only to find themselves fatigued, depressed, injured, and unable to complete the activity they set out to do. When I work with clients to lose weight, I traditionally say diet is 80% of weight loss and exercise and lifestyle is the other 20%. This generalized comparison does not apply to those burning thousands of calories a week in preparation for the Marathon. Instead of restriction, this population focuses on fueling for sport, which encourages increases in muscle mass and changes body composition while maintaining bodily processes. The difference between these two methods can be visibly witnessed at the finish line and in the weeks following the event. Those who do not eat properly will take weeks longer to recover compared to an individual attentive to fueling the body for the stress it overcame.
Regardless of your reason for participating in the marathon, eating to feed your body for maximum performance is the only template that will drive long term success this spring. If you are interested in losing weight and running the event, consider consulting with a Registered Dietitian to help prioritize your goals and create a plan for your goals.