If you’re anything like I was during my first marathon, you probably hear “taper nutrition” and think that’s just another way of saying “carb loading.” Kind of, but not quite. Carb loading is a thing that happens during taper week, sure, but it’s more than that. Here’s what you need to know.
First, the science behind carb loading
During the marathon, runners commonly describe a feeling known as “hitting the wall,” or “bonking.” This feeling of extreme fatigue and “why are my legs moving through quicksand” comes from glycogen depletion; glycogen is a form of glucose stored in your muscles and tissues, and it gives you energy. You build up your glycogen by eating carbs, and the goal of carb-loading is to get to the starting line with a full tank of glycogen that will fuel you throughout the race.
Carb-loading, then, means eating more carbs while reducing your workload (in this case, running) so that your tank is always near full.
You’re not running as much
So, unfortunately, that means you no longer have carte blanche to go to brunch and order a breakfast sandwich and a side stack of Nutella pancakes. Your brain might be confused and wonder why you’re not eating constantly, but now’s the time to really tune into your body and ask yourself whether you’re really hungry, or you just feel like you want something to eat. Make sure you’re avoiding the empty calories that were previously no big deal. Doughnut lovers, I’m looking at you.
Eat more fiber early in the week
When you’re running less, fiber can help you stay full without loading up on calories. Even better? You’ll get in nutrients that you won’t get from straight carbs. But make sure to ease up within a few days of the race so that your stomach doesn’t have any adverse effects.
While gaining a couple pounds is natural during race week and taper (if irritating), eating fiber will help keep that weight gain in check. Again, weight gain during a taper is a normal thing that all runners experience; you’re running less while eating and drinking more. However, eating fiber will offset that weight gain a little bit, which can be crucial if you have a “race weight” you’re hoping to hit.
Don’t forget protein
Protein plays a big part in helping your muscles recover and repair themselves, so make sure to include protein in your daily diet. Lean proteins like turkey, chicken and fish work, as do vegetarian-friendly proteins like eggs, beans, lentilsm and tofu.
It sounds excessive, but you should be hydrating well the entire week before the race. Carry a liter water bottle with you and make sure you’re drinking enough so that you’re going to the bathroom every few hours.
Ramp up the carbs two-three days before race day
Start slightly increasing your carbs the week of the race, while lessening protein and fats. Then, two days before the race, focus on getting carbs into every meal. The easiest way to do this is to eat what you normally would, but swap out one part of your meal for something more carb-rich. If you usually eat a wrap for lunch, go for whole-wheat bread. Add a baked potato as a side to your dinner instead of a side of veggies. This post has some great nutrition ideas for race week.
Fueling well doesn’t start during the race- it starts the week of the race. By focusing on your nutrition during the week leading up to your race, you can ensure that your body is ready to perform (plus, it doesn’t hurt that you’re giving yourself something to obsess over besides the weather conditions and the race itself).