Tapering for the marathon

It’s taper time! With many miles of training behind you, there is no doubt you are mentally and physically prepared for your upcoming marathon. However, this “tapering period” often conjures up questions on how to adapt your diet in the days leading up to race day. How you eat can sabotage or support your months of preparation. The following nutrition strategies will support all your hard work.

General Diet Strategies for the Taper

After many weeks of long-distance running, you have likely grown accustomed to eating more! In addition, you may have enjoyed more “splurges” and sports nutrition supplements. Sports nutrition supplements tend to be sweet (sports beans, chocolate gels, etc.) and can dial up your desire for sweet foods! While there is little concern with weight gain during a short-term taper, here are a few nutrition considerations:

  • Build a Runner’s Plate: The runner’s plate should include produce on every plate, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats
  • Frequency: Eat every 3-4 hours to help reign in appetite and avoid overeating at one sitting
  • Reduce portions by ~20%: Research shows that we can eat 20% less without even noticing. This equates to serving yourself a few less tablespoons of food at every meal.  Be cautious that cutting back TOO much can compromise training adaptations.
  • Produce prominence: Aim to fill ½ you plate with fruits and vegetables and limit the sweet foods that don’t carry nutritional value – that means no need for sports supplements, energy bars, or post long run splurges.

Carb- Loading: Two Days Before Race Day

Studies show that eating a high carbohydrate diet in the two days leading up to race day can improve performance time, decrease time to fatigue, and boost mental and physical energy.  The prescribed carb needs depend on your body weight. Research shows a benefit at 7-12 g of carb/kg.

The best way to know how many carbs you are eating is to keep an online food journal like  “My Fitness Pal” and “Lose It.” Assess your average carb intake, and then aim to increase that amount two days prior to race day.

Here is an example:

Runner Dan: 180 pounds, currently eats 400 grams of carb on average

180 pounds divided by 2.2 = 82 kg

82 kg x 7 = 575 grams of carb

82 kg x 12 = 984 grams of carb

Runner Dan decides to aim for 600 grams of carb on Friday and Saturday leading up to his Sunday race.

If you already eat a proper “athlete’s diet” with plenty of carb, an extra of 1-2 servings of carb at each meal is typically all you will need.  Here are some simple ways to accomplish this:

  • Add a glass of orange juice to breakfast, and slightly larger portion of cereal.
  • Swap your sandwich thins for a whole grain bun at lunch & add a piece of fruit
  • Eat two extra scoops of rice at dinner.
  • Add a sports drink to snacks.

Other Carb Considerations

  • Carbo-load, don’t fat-load! To avoid taking in too many calories, decrease your daily fat intake to make room for carbs
  • Weight gain is normal. If you have carb-loaded correctly, expect to see a drift upwards in your weight of about 1-3 pounds. This is normal and desired – Your body stores ~3 oz. of water w/ every 1 oz. of carb. Don’t worry, you will run this off!
  • Choose SOME fiber, but not too much In the days leading up to the race, a boost in too many refined carbs may leave you constipated (especially without the foot strike!). You can still eat whole grains and fruits, but beware of high fiber foods like bran, beans, and broccoli!

 Pre-Race Day Considerations:

  • Plan meal times carefully: NYC marathon queen Grete Waitz said she never ate a big meal the night before a marathon, but preferred to eat a bigger breakfast and lunch the day before. I encourage upfronting your carbs to avoid feeling TOO full or uncomfortable at the start line.
  • Remember the fluids: Drink enough to produce volume to void every 2-4 hours, but don’t over-do it. Your body is a sponge, it can only absorb so much fluid, and you will dilute your electrolytes!
  • Befriend the familiar foods: Don’t eat unfamiliar foods before race day. This is not the time to check out a new Indian restaurant or sample every gel or sports bar at the expo.

Race Day Morning Meal

The purpose of the race day morning meal is to top off glycogen stores, start with a settled, yet comfortably full stomach, and steady blood glucose levels. One study showed that runners who ate 500-1000 calories a few hours before a marathon performed better than those that skimped. Breakfast should be eaten 3-4 hours before your race (this might mean you set an alarm, and go back to bed), and then a small carbohydrate containing snack 30 min to one hour before the race. The foundation of these meals should be easily digestible carbs with minimal protein and fat. Here is an example race-day breakfast:

Example 1:

3-4 hours before: Large bagel with thin spread of nut butter & jelly, banana, sports drink

1 hour before: Banana

Example 2:

3-4 hours before: 2 cups of rice w/ little salt and butter, 1 hard boiled egg, one banana, and sports drink

30 min to 1 hour before: 1 gu pack with water

Give homage to your race day plan, and reap the nutritional race day benefits! 

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.