By Pam Nisevich Bede, RD, registered dietitian and 20-time marathoner
Abbott's EAS Sports Nutrition
As marathon season gets underway in Boston, many marathon runners across the country – novice and experienced alike – will be questioning how to best go about carb-loading for their big race. While it might be tempting to splurge on a plate of creamy pasta or your favorite jumbo burrito, the quality of the foods you choose leading up to race day can have a significant impact on your performance.
Whether you’re running Boston or another big race, you can strategically use these healthy, performance-boosting foods within your race week meals. This takes little planning to properly carb load and optimize your performance. In the three days leading up to the race, you should taper your training while slowly increasing your carb intake. This practice of tapering plus adding fuel to those muscles basically helps you load the body’s fuel tank (muscle glycogen capacity).
1. Whole Grains
A natural choice when carb-loading, whole grains are recommended for at least half of your daily allotment of grains. This can include foods made from whole wheat, whole grain corn, brown rice, steel cut oats, quinoa, and Kamut. Antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense, and fiber-full whole grains have been shown to decrease low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol —often known as “bad cholesterol”— decrease blood pressure, and improve glucose and insulin responses. Additionally, whole grains have been proven to reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Whole grains can also help counter inflammation, which is key for race day success.
2. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are widely available and easily prepared in a variety of ways — roasted, baked, smashed or pureed. Loaded with vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, manganese, and other nutrients that are essential for runners, sweet potatoes are a great pre-run snack; and for runners looking for a natural alternative to gels, they can be enjoyed as a mid-run pick-me-up.
3. Tart Cherries and Tart Cherry Juice
For years, runners and athletes in the know have been adding tart cherry juice to their post-run protein smoothies when training. That’s because this functional food not only tastes great and provides a healthy source of carbohydrates, it has been proven to reduce pain and inflammation (and really, what runner isn’t looking for both at one point or another?). Research has found that intake of this emerging super fruit can lead to reduced inflammation, reduced pain from gout and arthritis, and an extensive list of heart health benefits. Recent studies even suggest tart cherries can help reduce post-exercise muscle and joint pain. In order to enjoy both the flavor and health benefits, be sure to choose a high-quality brand packed with real cherries and not just cherry flavoring.
You might turn your nose up at beets but there’s a reason your mom (and now your coach) are recommending you eat more root vegetables. Beetroot is a rich source of inorganic nitrate, which your body converts to nitric oxide and then uses as a vasodilator to assist in blood flow, muscle contraction, neurotransmission, and much more. Because of this nitric oxide, research has found that beet just might help you earn your next personal record. That’s because supplementation with beetroot has been proven to help athletes run one to two percent faster in races ranging from 5Ks to marathons. And it appears that the effect might be even more pronounced on less-trained athletes.
So whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or rather new to the game, you’ll want to seriously consider adding beets to your pre-race plate. Because while a 1-2 percent improvement might not sound like much, over the course of 26.2 miles it’s significant. And on race day, who doesn’t want that?
5. Tea with Honey
Not only is tea a great option when it comes to rehydration, it offers health and performance benefits not every runner is aware of. Tea contains hundreds, if not thousands, of bioactive compounds —including potent health protectors like flavonoids, and performance-boosting caffeine — and is naturally calorie-free which might seem ironic given that you’ll be increasing your intake of carbs and even calories in the days leading up to the race. But the great thing about the most widely consumed beverage on the planet is that it’s totally customizable. By adding a hint of honey and milk, runners can easily reap the health benefits that tea provides while also restocking their glycogen stores for the big day.
Hopefully, these superfoods are already in your regular diet, but if not it would be a good idea to start testing how your body responds to each well before you set foot on the race route – the “nothing new on race day” mantra still applies.
The Finish Line
Wondering how to recover after you cross the finish line as well? Try a protein shake such as Myoplex Original with some healthy carbs to help restock your glycogen stores and help your muscles begin their repair and recovery process as you head out for a much-deserved victory meal.