I recently ran my first ever marathon. When I decided I wanted to run it seven months ago, I didn’t really do any research into what it takes to actually run a marathon, despite having only done a 10k up to that point. I just went for it, occasionally asking for advice along the way (shout out to the My Fitness Pal users who gave me food suggestions when my lack of knowledge about nutrition was evident).
Naturally, now that I’ve run the damn thing it’s my duty to pass on some of the things I learned. This is the list of everything (well, almost everything) I ate in the month leading up to the marathon, as I was preparing myself for frequent runs and trying to get more healthy carbs in my diet. Perhaps you’ll find it useful for your own long distance runs – I hope some of my mistakes will at least help you learn what not to do.
I kept a pretty consistent breakfast throughout winter and spring even though I was only running once a week. Every evening, I’d prepare a variation of the 5-Minute Oatmeal Power Bowl and cook it up in a pan the next morning, then top it with things like frozen fruit, shredded coconut, cottage cheese, peanut butter, ground flaxseed, or jam. As the marathon approached and I had to start reducing my fat intake, I mostly stuck to fresh fruit on top.
Of course, I would cheat a
little lot on Fridays, when we would have a communal breakfast at work that almost always consisted of way more bread items than people to consume them. I almost always ate too much, but I think the overdose of carbs helped to fuel my Saturday runs. Still, that’s not a strategy I would recommend.
Lunch and Dinner
I’ve grown accustomed over the last few years to have a low-carb dinner. This was usually possible due to the sheer size of my lunch, especially when I had a free buffet every day at my previous job. But where I worked during my latest stint in Copenhagen, the canteen didn’t have a microwave and my food would always get cold carrying it from the upstairs kitchen down two floors, so I stuck to salads for lunch as well. Two light meals a day wasn’t going to help me run 42 km, so I had to start getting a little more creative with my cooking in the last month.
The first week started off poorly. I made a one-pot pasta with tomato sauce for lunches and a cauliflower salad for dinners. They both turned out awful, with the pasta overcooked and mushy, and the salad way too cauliflower-heavy with no other flavours. The huge bowls of pasta were making me feel sluggish at my desk, so I knew I had to try something else.
The next week, I focused on balancing carbs with protein. I made a Lazy Pesto Chicken Salad that was easy to bring to work and kept me going throughout the day. And after a friend of mine introduced me to Copenhagen’s excuse for tacos the weekend before and I was personally insulted by them, I decided to whip up my own (proper) tacos as well.
After a much more successful week, I was feeling more confident about my food choices. I followed up with a recipe from one of my friends: pasta with curry and shrimp. To avoid another pasta-induced carb coma, I balanced out the dry whole wheat pasta I’d used before with some single-portion noodles made partly from carrots.
I was so proud of the balance of carbs, proteins, and vegetables I’d managed to strike. I followed up that beautiful dish with what was arguably my favourite home-cooked meal of the month: Thai green chicken curry. It was a heavenly combination of rice, potatoes, chicken, and green beans, and the sauce was exquisite. I was enjoying it way too much to remember to ever take a picture of it, so here’s a photo of the salad I made using the leftover potatoes.
As I got closer to race day, I kept getting hungrier. My plastic container was no longer big enough to hold a meal that could sustain me through the work day and an evening run. So I filled my plate at the office canteen, usually with bread, quiche, potatoes, and salad. Then I went home and did the same thing for dinner, topping Danish rugbrød with cottage cheese, avocado, and salmon.
Finally, on the last weekend, I loaded up on anything I could. My mom and aunt were visiting and we spent the Saturday before doing touristy things. I had a nice traditional Danish lunch at the Louisiana Museum: rugbrød with huge chunks of salmon. It tided me over until the evening, when we went to an Italian restaurant I’d long wanted to try out called Mother, and I had a nice big bowl of pasta with bacon (and a whole bunch of the sourdough crust from my mom’s pizza).
For the last month before the marathon, I really wanted to cut out artificial sugar. My chocolate addiction had been rearing its ugly head again and the pastries at work every Friday didn’t help either. I started by snacking on fruit bars but went through all the flavours fairly quickly. I always had an apple or banana on me when I went out, but it just wasn’t enough to keep eating fruit. Eventually I caved and bought a pack of digestives. I just needed something with a little texture and sugar, y’know? I don’t know if they helped or hurt my training. In any case, I didn’t feel as guilty when I thought about the Calories I was burning from running.
I was without my blender for most of my marathon journey, so I didn’t get to make any wonderful recovery smoothies. I don’t drink pop unless I’m getting drunk or I’m hungover, so resisting it in the last few weeks was no problem. I did cheat and drink more sugar than I should have whenever I felt myself falling asleep at my desk and had to run to the coffee machine for a hot chocolate with an espresso shot. After runs, I would treat myself to an innocent kids smoothie. And naturally, what with all that exercise, I was drinking endless bottles of water.
What I think had the biggest effect on my endurance levels, and I believe was a huge contributor in my being able to run the whole race at all, was giving up all alcohol for the last four weeks before the marathon. It was damn difficult to resist drinking on the sunny weekend afternoons we were graced with, and I felt a right twat being completely sober at any bar I went to. I have learned to be grateful for non-alcoholic beer because at least it’s better than nothing.
I wanted to stay completely away from alcohol mostly because I have a problem with many things in life where I always need to go for seconds. I was worried that if I even had one beer, it would lead to two and then maybe three and I would no longer be in peak form for my runs. As hard as it was to give up alcohol for that long (probably the longest stretch in my life since I started drinking), I’m immensely glad I did it. The lack of interfering booze allowed me to listen to my body better and learn to hydrate properly. By the time I’d gotten into a rhythm during the marathon, I knew my body was telling me to stop for every water break possible. I even managed to avoid the cramps in my side that have historically always tended to slow me down while running.
I hope this list was somewhat useful if you’re thinking about taking up long distance running. The most important thing is to find out what works for you and stick to it, so I recommend starting early to avoid any surprises or missteps before the race.
(PS: If you liked the recipes in this post, I’m always sharing all kinds of food on my Pinterest boards!)