Well done! You’ve finished the marathon and now you think that it’s all over. Well, no–now it’s time for recovery. But are there foods that are better than others? Do marathon runners really know exactly what to eat after a marathon?
To properly recover after a marathon, it is essential to eat high-glycemic carbs, protein-rich foods, as well as hydrating and electrolyte-filled foods. Running a marathon is intensely rigorous on your body and will burn through its carbohydrates reserves.
While it’s important to celebrate your achievement; put the beer on hold for a minute. What you consume will significantly impact your recovery time. A few nutritious tips will go a long way in helping you recover after running a marathon. Some foods pack a much bigger punch, whereas others are best to leave alone for the first while.
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What Should You Eat After Running a Marathon?
The essential recovery meal immediately post-marathon should include carbohydrates, water and electrolytes, and protein.
In this study, they found that what you eat immediately after the marathon can determine your muscle soreness and recovery 72 hours after the race.
Whether you are running your first ever marathon or it’s your 20th marathon; running a marathon puts enormous strain on your body. It is vital to start your nutrition recovery process as soon as possible.
To summarize: it’s important to remember these 3 key post-marathon components to attain your nutritional goals.
- Replenish your carbohydrate stores
- Restore your fluids and electrolytes (source)
- Provide nutrients to aid muscle damage
Your first goal after running a marathon should be to replenish your depleted glycogen or carbohydrate stores. Carbohydrates are very important post-marathon. These vital nutrients help you to restore your glycogen or carbohydrate reserves. Carbohydrates are foods containing a high-glycaemic (fast-digesting) index.
Examples of Carbohydrate-rich foods:
- Pasta is a well-known carbohydrate-dense food that contains approximately 35 grams of carbs per cup.
- Whole grains such as rice and quinoa are among the highest sources of carbohydrates. It provides long-lasting fuel and facilitating muscle recovery. There are approximately 40-50 grams of carbs per cup of rice, and 22 grams per cup of cabs in quinoa.
- Sweet potato is a dense carbohydrate that is also loaded with vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene. Sweet potatoes help to build a healthy immune system to fight the stress placed on your body when running.
- Bananas are a fast-acting post-race food. They have a moderate to high glycemic index and are very easy to digest. Bananas are also loaded with potassium and quickly replace lost electrolytes.
- Dried fruits such as mangos, apples, raisins, and dates are great on-the-run fuel. They are quickly absorbed and replenish your glycogen stores after a long run.
- Other foods like cereals and tortillas are also packed with carbs that will help to restore your glycogen.
When and How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
If you neglect to replenish your muscle glycogen stores, you are cheating your muscles and slowing down recovery. Postponing your carb intake by two hours has been shown to lessen your glycogen replenishment rate by 50 percent!
Studies have shown that eating your carbs all at once or spreading your carb consumption makes no difference in storing glycogen, as long as you eat within 15-30 minutes upon finishing the marathon. Whether you eat them all at once or spread them, it will take your body 24 hours to nutritionally recover. There are 3 ways that you can replenish your glycogen stores after a marathon:
Option 1: Eat roughly 60-100 grams of moderate or high glycemic index (>70) carbs within 15-30 minutes after completing the marathon. Continue to eat 60-100 grams of carbs every hour until you have consumed 500-700 grams of carbs. Don’t sweat too much about the exact amount, but this number comes from 1.2g per kg (2.2lbs of body weight) of body weight per hour. (source)
Option 2: Eat 2.4 grams of high glycemic carbs per 2.2 pounds of body weight every 2 hours for 8 hours after the marathon, starting immediately afterward.
Option 3: Consume your total of necessary carbs within one big meal.
There isn’t clear data to show exact nutrition timing, so the choice is yours on how to space out your food.
Most runners know how important carbs are, but they neglect or aren’t aware of the power of protein. Even though protein has almost no part in fueling our runs, it does help to facilitate the recovery of our muscles during and after running. This study in particular analyzes a protein+carb diet post-marathon recovery.
When we combine protein with carbs, we can replenish more glycogen and with less discomfort too. Our body has a higher level of amino acids after a long run, making our bodies more receptive to its benefits.
Consuming around 20 grams of protein is what you should be aiming for.
- Chicken is one of the best sources of protein. 100 grams of chicken breasts contain 31 grams of protein.
- Ground beef contains up to 26 grams of protein per 100 grams.
- Salmon and Tuna fish contain 19 grams of protein and they have loads of fatty oils that help fight inflammation.
- Dairy produce (cottage cheese, real Greek yogurt, and milk) is amazing for muscle recovery. They are full of healthy protein and amino acids that speed up muscle recovery. Make sure you eat Greek Yogurt and not regular yogurt. With Fage Greek Yogurt, there are 15 grams of protein per 3/4 cup (170 gram) serving. This is comparable to cottage cheese.
- Whole eggs are an excellent source of protein. A single large egg contains 6 grams of protein.
- Quinoa is an excellent carb and protein source, containing 8 grams of protein per cup.
- Nuts are an excellent on-the-go protein-rich snack to carry with you to nibble on after the race. One cup of nuts contains up to 20 grams of protein!
Running breaks down muscle tissue in the body, and inflammation is a part of the repair and recovery process. However, high levels of inflammation are harmful and are a prevalent issue after a long run. Long-term inflammation can lead to increased risks of injuries and it can even break down muscle tissue. Fighting against inflammation is a secondary, but very important goal.
Top 10 anti-inflammatory foods:
- Berries (blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries)
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies)
- Green Tea
- Bell Peppers
- Dark chocolate (try only eating chocolate with a minimum of 70% cacao)
A golden rule to apply to know how much fluid your body needs after running a marathon is to weigh yourself before and after.
The trick is to try and maintain your weight within reason. You will lose several pounds of water weight during a marathon, and you’re rehydrating well if you can stay within 2 or so lbs of your normal body weight. One thing to note is that you will actually be losing body fat in the hours it takes to run a marathon although if you are eating properly during the marathon your bodyweight shouldn’t fluctuate too much)
For example, this means for every 2.2 pounds of weight lost post-marathon, drink 4 glasses of fluid (8 oz).
As tempting as a six-pack beer sounds after a marathon, it would be best to avoid alcohol as it dehydrates you even more. If you choose to say yes to a beer, make sure you drink an equal amount of water.
Electrolytes are also very important–finding drinks with enough sodium to hydrate you and to encourage you to drink enough is crucial to making sure you replenish well enough. Drinking plain water after extreme exercise such as a marathon will make you feel unthirsty even if your body still needs more liquid, according to this study.
Top 10 hydrating foods:
- Greens (Spinach, rocket, kale, and lettuce)
- Fresh drinks such as coconut water, aloe juice, chia water, and lemon water are all very hydrating and full of electrolytes.
As mentioned earlier, you sweat a hell of a lot while running a marathon. Important minerals like sodium and potassium are lost when sweating, depleting your body’s. It’s important to replace these electrolytes to sustain fluid balance. Replenish your body with colorful fruits and fruit juices like vitamin-rich berries and potassium-loaded bananas.
- Chocolate milk
- Tomato juice
- Salted nuts
- Beet greens
- Dried fruit
- White button mushrooms
- Leafy greens
Foods to Avoid After Running a Marathon
Certain foods have a slow absorption rate making them less than ideal for runners to consume after running a marathon.
Only eating vegetables is not enough to kickstart your muscle recovery. Vegetables aren’t sustainable enough to restore your energy levels after running a marathon. But you can eat them as an addition to your meal.
Junk foods like pizzas, burgers, and salty chips are high in fat, slowing down your digestion. Junk foods are also high in salt, lowering your potassium levels even further (source); which is the last thing you need at this stage. Even though you need salt (sodium) to recover, restoring your potassium levels is much more important.
Sugary foods are also definitely not the answer. They might briefly boost your energy, but you’ll feel your body crashing shortly after. They are full of unhealthy fats and sugars and have hardly any nutrients.
Remember The Four R’s
- Refuel: refuel your energy with carbs, carbs, CARBS!
- Repair: remember to consume protein as soon as possible after your run to kickstart muscle repair.
- Rehydrate: Drink a lot of fluids to rehydrate.
- Rest: This might not be part of the diet, but muscle repair occurs faster when you are asleep.
Meal Preparation Tips
Most runners are too tired to care about eating the right type of food after running so far. They tend to grab quick fixes like energy drinks and takeaways that give them a sugar spike and short-term relief, instead of nutrient-filled carbs and proteins.
- ½ cup of oats
- 1 tablespoon of cinnamon
- ¼ cup of raisins
- A tablespoon of coconut shavings
- Keep everything in an airtight container and just add boiling water when you’ve finished your race.
Fruit, yogurt, and nuts
- Stock up on a couple of single-serving Greek yogurt cups.
- Pre-wash all the fruits you will be adding to your yogurt.
- Add your delicious berries, peaches, mangos, etc. to your yogurt bowl and let it thaw overnight.
- Add nuts to your yogurt bowl when you get home
Grilled chicken and veggies
- Grill (or boil) two chicken breasts
- Roast veggies in the oven (onions, broccoli, mushrooms, and sweet potato). OR prep a salad (lettuce, tomato, feta cheese, cucumber, etc.). You may want to pre-cut your salad ingredients and only add them together when you get home after the marathon.
- You could also make a tortilla wrap by adding the salad ingredients and cutting the chicken breast into strips.
Ground Beef and Pasta/Rice
- Pre-cook your ground beef to taste.
- Boil and season your rice/pasta.
- You can keep your foods separate or mix them, and store them in an air-tight container.
- Warm the dish up as soon as you get home and dive right in!
Having energy gels, nuts, dried fruit, and healthy snack bars in your backpack for a quick snack during or after the marathon is always a great idea.
What Food Should I Eat Before A Marathon
This really demands its own discussion, but I did find this study that determined that runners who ate vegetables, olive oil, and fish had lower markers of muscle damage and heart stress.
Non-fish meat, fatty foods, and butter, although delicious, should be avoided for a week preceding the marathon, according to this study.
What Happens to My Body After the Marathon?
Your body basically freaks out after a marathon, let’s go into some of the areas of interest that are changed most radically from running a marathon.
The amount of heat produced by the body increases during a marathon. Your body temperature rises throughout the marathon. According to this study, the average body temperature after the race was around 102F (fever temperatures) for the runners. Some runners experience an even bigger jump in temperature which can be very dangerous.
You will take about 40,000 steps during a marathon! You can lose three to six liters of sweat when running a marathon, depending on the conditions you are running in. If you do not replace the fluid lost from sweating, dehydration will occur.
In the absence of proper hydration, heat loss is obstructed. This causes your blood volume to decrease and your blood to become thicker. Your heart rate will increase without you changing your effort or breathing.
As you start the marathon, your calorie demand may be as high as 600-800 calories per hour. Runners burn approximately 100 – 125 calories of glucose for every mile of a marathon. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of glucose. This means that after the first 20 miles you will have exhausted your glucose supply. Remember that horrible feeling of “hitting the wall”? Well, this is it! Your body will almost exclusively rely on burning fat for energy to continue running.
Even though your body can store a mind-blowing 700,000 calories as fat, fat provides less energy per unit of time than glucose, meaning that you usually have to slow down from here on.
Your heart will have to pump 3-4 times the amount of blood during a marathon than while you are resting. The blood that is pumped from your heart will be redistributed around your body, with more going to your muscles and less going to your stomach and abdominal organs such as the liver, kidneys, and spleen.
A study found that two-thirds of tested athletes had dilated right-sided chambers of the heart after running a marathon. They also found elevated cardiac biomarkers (substances released into the blood when the heart is damaged or stressed) after the marathon. (source) These levels do return to normal in about two days or so.
Your kidneys take a beating while running a marathon. Due to the heart pumping more blood the muscles, the blood flow to your kidneys decreases during the marathon. Because of your raised core body temperature, you sweat a lot more than normal, losing all of this bodily fluid makes you very dehydrated.
When you sweat, your body loses both salt and water, which may trigger a hormonal and an inflammatory response that in result could injure your kidneys. Strenuous activities such as marathons place your kidneys under a lot of pressure; it can even cause short-term kidney damage.
Yale researchers have shown that immediately after the marathon, approximately 80% of participants showed some form of mild-to-moderate insult to kidney function (also known as Stage 1 Acute Kidney Disease).
Muscles & Joints
Each time your foot strikes the ground, a large impact force is created that places your muscles and joints under stress. Do this approximately 40,000 times during a marathon; sore muscles and joints are almost a guarantee, even for professional marathon runners. It can take up to 3 weeks for the muscle damage from running a marathon to be completely repaired.
Marathon runners are also particularly susceptible to inflammation. Signs of inflammation are swelling, pain, joint tenderness, and stiff muscles. Marathons also cause a degree of cartilage destruction. It can take up to 3 months for your body’s cartilage to repair itself.
Your brain releases neurotransmitters that can produce feelings of euphoria, that can distract or numb you from feeling some of the pain when running.
In fact, one study found that post-run, marathon runners Magnesium levels dropped, significantly, which plays a role in healthy nerves and healthy blood pressure, however, these level drops were only temporary.
The Digestive System
Blood flows to the muscles and away from the digestive system during a marathon. The runner’s digestive system as a result slows down all of its functions. This is why runners often have a diminished appetite after running, or they suffer from abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, and diarrhea.
In fact, 27% of marathon runners in Liverpool and Dublin marathons reported some sort of gastrointestinal issue (source), with the most common issue being gas, while 8% reported nausea during the race.
The Immune System
After completing the marathon, your immune system may be compromised for several months. The body focuses all its resources to keep your body moving during the marathon, which tends to compromises the immunity of the runner. It’s common for marathon runners to get sick with a fever or cold after the race.
One interesting study investigated beta glucan and found that a supplement could help marathon runners after the race. The study also confirms that it’s a common issue for athletes to get sick after an intense workout.
Despite feeling totally exhausted after running a marathon, many people have trouble falling asleep. One of the reasons for this is that you are putting your body through very challenging circumstances that result in elevated levels of a stress hormone called cortisol that is being released through your body.
All of this will wear off over time, but your body may take some time to wear off
Regardless of it being your first marathon or not, running that far pushes every physiological system to the max. Marathons leave the fittest runners sore from head to toe. Eating the right types of foods after running a marathon will ensure optimal recovery.
Remember to load up on carbs within 15 minutes of completing the race! Eating proteins and anti-inflammatory foods will lessen your pain and speed up your muscle recovery process. Last, but not least hydrate! Drink plenty of fluids full of electrolytes to replenish the fluid and minerals lost while running the marathon.
The key to ensuring a successful recovery is to plan and prepare a thought-out recovery plan before you go off to the marathon.
Food ideas from: