The breakfast of not-quite marathon champions

It was requested I write about my pre-marathon fueling choices, so I am happily obliging. With that in mind, if you have any specific questions you would like answered or subjects you would like addressed, feel free to make a request in the comments section.
Specifically, I was asked what I choose to eat the morning of the marathon and I will get to that, but I think it’s pertinent to address food choices a few days out first as those tend to be more important regarding race day energy and energy sustainability.

There is no ground-breaking secret here. Your body runs, literally, on carbohydrates converted into glycogen, so it follows that you should make sure your glycogen stores are fully stocked leading into race day. For vegans, this comes easier than most. As pasta is incredibly high in carbohydrates and the rest of our foods (fruits, vegetables, grains) are significant sources as well, we are more often than not loaded with proper stores of energy to keep us going strong on a consistent basis. It’s those who skimp on the good stuff in favor of protein heavy meals that suffer in the “long run” (well done, self) and they are probably the ones who coined the term “carbo-loading” since it’s such a periodic way of eating for them. We, as vegans, however, are loaded with carbs consistently, so to gorge ourselves isn’t as necessary as one might think, but I’ll admit, 2 to 3 days leading to the marathon I usually subsist on pasta as the foundation to my meals, supplemented with veggies, of course.

The mistake a lot of carb-starved people make is thinking that one meal of carbs the night before the race is sufficient to load the tanks. It’s not. Depending on the types of carbs you eat (simple, processed vs. whole) your body breaks them down by different methods and stores and utilizes them differently as well. So if you eat ONE meal of highly-processed carbs, you not only cheat your storage tanks of ENOUGH carbs, but you also enable them to be processed so quickly that your fuel needle falls under maximum capacity by the time you hit the start line. This is NOT what you want.

This is why I choose to eat high-carb meals 2 – 3 days out, to make sure I’m not only stocked to the rim, but also to make sure I keep replenishing any depleting stores that are lost to my final preparations and daily activities. This way, I’m not compelled to completely overstuff myself with foods that my body may or may not agree with in such portions. I rely on pasta and breads leading up to the race, but only as a continuation of my diet as it already is. Eating this way makes me certain I’m ready for all the training I do leading up to the race, as well as the race itself.

Then there is the dreaded pre-race breakfast meal that has us all wringing our hands in concern and worry, afraid of over-eating, under-eating, upsetting our stomachs, sending us to the bathroom as soon as the gun goes off, etc. etc. It’s understandable, for when you put so much effort into one moment, you’d hate to think that something as ridiculous as one meal could ruin all your hard work.

Personally, I have stuck with a routine I’ve been following since I first started racing again. I wake up early, type A early (probably TOO early), and fix myself either a bagel with margarine or peanut butter (sometimes both) or the equivalent, coupled with a cup of coffee or two. I eat this meal about 2 hours before the race to make sure it will have digested as completely as possible and my body will be able to utilize the final bit of energy I have supplied it with. Lately, I’ve left behind the hard, sometimes chewy, outside of a bagel and replaced it with an english muffin, which seems to digest a little easier. However, after doing a little more label reading, I realized one bagel gives me 20 grams of carbs, while one piece of toast gives me the same 20 carbs, allowing me to eat approximately the same amount in two pieces, but get that many more final carbs. I’ll put peanut butter, margarine or jelly on it, wash it down with the coffee, and then I’m good to go. I still feel light, never bloated, and have supplied myself with the final energy I’ll need once the gun goes off. I’ve never had a problem with bonking, related to food anyways, and I’ve never had any pre-race bathroom problems or need to go to the bathroom on the course…..thankfully!

The simple theory on marathon morning eating is to supply your body with the carbs that will digest quickly to be utilized by the body as soon as possible and there are a handful of foods that do this. I’ve chosen breads, which most runners do. My coach gave me a little more insight this last race and suggested I eat at least 200 calories and avoid eating 400 or more. This year I consumed just under 300 with a few pieces of toast and had no problems.

To give a few different options though, I’ve paid attention to a number of runners and what they choose to eat. When I’m at races where we have to stay in a hotel, most choose the standard bagel, but I’ve also seen bowls of cereal consumed. I recently read a blog post of a top elite woman runner who chose to have a bowl of cereal without milk, which I understand, but felt the dry cereal might have been a little insufficient. Beyond that, I’ve heard of runners eating rice pudding, for the easily consumed/digested carbs in the cooked rice. I also just read the great race recap of Jeffrey Eggleston – see blogroll – who missed the US Marathon Championship title by 7 seconds (and is also vegan) who ate a “generous” bowl of granola with soymilk. I tend to avoid granola as it doesn’t sit well and digests…umm…unpleasantly let’s say, but it obviously worked for him! Then finally, I saw a video with marathon world record holder Haille Gebreselassie, eating his breakfast of 2 pieces of toast with jelly, maybe a muffin, a multivitamin and a cup of tea before making his latest attempt to run 2:02. Obviously, the common thread among all these meals is the easily digested carbs, in portions that don’t tax the system or sit heavily long after consuming. All the meals are always eaten at least an hour, usually more, out from the starting gun as well.

There really isn’t anything special about pre-race fueling. Stock up on carbs 2 – 3 days out, top off your tanks the morning off and do it early enough for proper digestion, then have at it! Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to take a gu (or whatever) 15 minutes before the race actually starts and then the proper ingestion from there on out.

I wish I could tell you about a super energy food or something like that….but despite the hype surrounding Born To Run and the Taramahura diet, I really don’t think there are dietary stones left uncovered, and a simple meal of carbs will do the trick for all distances and runners of all levels, from back of the packers to world record holders.

I hope this helps!

7 responses to “The breakfast of not-quite marathon champions

  1. Thanks so much Scott! This is great wealth of information, and a lot of things for me to research. I’ve read the triathlete’s bible, nutrition for endurance athletes, and the such– but hearing it come from a vegan’s point of view is what I needed. Both Lauren and I are vegan and this is a wealth of information.

    I finished the Indianapolis Marathon today in 3:41 — ten minutes faster than the USAF marathon last month, but nearly 23 minutes slower than my PR. I missed most of my training this summer due to spending all free time on a now aborted house build. I’m just happy to run and was pleased enough with the 8:26 pace. With each marathon I feel my legs getting harder and stronger, not necessarily faster unless I train them so, but able to deal with the distance better.

    Thanks again for posting this!


    • Hey Greg, I have absolutely NO evidence of it, but I’m starting to think that runners who switch over to being vegan during their training experience quicker recovery rates due to having more continuously stocked glycogen stores, so their bodies don’t start to cannibalize themselves when they run out. I don’t know…just a theory.

      Anyways, great job on that marathon, despite the lack of solid training. Keep at it and you’ll be back to fitness in no time!

  2. Scott,

    I have another question, no hurry but perhaps this might make a good blog post when you’re searching for something. I’ve always wondered why elite runners drop out of, or don’t show up to races instead of simply finishing them on a slower pace. The obvious reason that comes to mind is they want to save themselves for another day and a better performance and/or save face. That said, dropping out seems common place for elites but not as much for general fitness runners. Are there any secrets as to why?

    Is this something that is seen as okay in the elite world? I’m not sure if I can think of a world class runner that hasn’t dropped out of a major race before, however amongst my friends there’s only a handful of DNFs. Is this something you think general runners should consider more seriously and listen to their bodies more? Or is this more about the professional standing and not wanting to be listed with a embarrassing average pace that may stick with them forever?

    It seems like you push through and don’t drop out though; some recent examples are the Tecumseh and also this year’s Chicago.


    • Hey greg,
      Yeah, this is an interesting perspective to me as well, but one I’m beginning to understand a little more as I consider it deeper and start to come in contact with more runners who do it. I’ll certainly put something up about this. Thanks for the prompt.

  3. Thanks for this info! It’s about what I do prior to my races (half marathons…at this point). I would share (from bad experience) to not try anything new in the days leading up to or on race day. Race day is not the day to find out that some new food does not sit well or does not fuel well or creates yucky burps the whole way to the finish line!

    • Aj, very true….despite whatever “magical, energy boost!” food that is the trend, it’s always best to stick with what has worked leading up to the race. Experimentation is fine during training, but not right before a race.

  4. Stones left uncovered – check out TheFruitarian.Com guy just eats fruits and vegetables – all raw.

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