Maybe this is your first marathon season, or maybe you are a veteran. Either way the feeling of “now what” is an inevitable and natural progression to your running. And, chances are that, in particular, you are wondering this as it relates to eating. Now that I am not running as much, how should I be eating? Am I right?

Many runners who I work with are tempted to really put on the brakes when it comes to fueling once they have completed their training cycle. While this might be tempting, not so fast. This is a mistake, especially in the days immediately following your race. While you might be running less than you were during your training, your muscles are busy replacing used up glycogen stores and repairing themselves. Your body needs a full 7-10 days to recover from a marathon distance, slightly less for shorter efforts.

So why is post-race nutrition so important?

  1. Prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness and injury prevention.  Key here is some protein, specifically branch chain amino acids found in dairy and meat.  Research has also demonstrated the effectiveness of a chemical in tart cherry juice (a COx 2 inhibitor) at reducing pain and inflammation associated with exercise.  Pretty cool!
  2. Post marathon blues. Yes, they happen. Post-race let down as your body is adjusting to changes in hormone levels associated with exercise is normal. Research points us in the direction of choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks and meat, and to a smaller extent green leafy vegetables and cauliflower.
  3. There is also an immunosuppressant component to endurance athleticism.  Meaning that if you skimp on your post-marathon nutritional needs, you are much more likely to get sick in the weeks following your race. Keep your calorie and protein intake adequate and your vitamin C consumption sufficient. Think Greek yogurt with granola and fresh strawberries.
  4. Combating oxidative stress or the reactive oxidative species associated with exercise, in other words cellular damage. Yikes! Focus on colorful fruits and vegetables that are antioxidant rich.

So here is the plan:

The days following the race. Eat smaller portions, but eat frequently. Continue to focus on good quality carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 ratio. For every 3 grams of carbohydrates you eat, include 1 gram of protein. Be sure to include vitamin C-rich foods and those colorful fruits and vegetables. A great meal might be a spinach or kale salad with red bell peppers, a hard-boiled egg, pumpkin seeds, some type of protein (salmon, chicken or tempeh) and a side of quinoa or brown rice.

In the weeks following the race. Good sports nutrition is periodized just like a good training plans. The point is, have a plan that includes nutritional goals and targets year round that match your personal needs and your running goals. Once you are past the rest phase — that 7-10 day post race recovery period — think about your running in terms of planned weekly mileage.  If you are planning on running 20 miles per week or less, return to your pre-marathon eating plan. Typically, you would meet your calorie needs for resting metabolic needs, daily activity, and add an additional ~300 calories for any exercise. Targets would be about 50 percent of calories from good quality carbohydrates, 25 percent from protein, and 25 percent from healthy fats. Logging 20-40 miles per week? You will likely need to keep eating the way you did during your training. Slightly higher calories, particularly coming from good quality carbs and timing your fuel carefully in relationship to exercise. Pushing yourself to your next running goal? Take the time to really be vigilant with your nutritional targets in your daily eating, and your pre-run, fuel during, and re-fueling efforts. Now might be the time to think about really tweaking your training plan. Some ideas:

  1. Have your RMR and VO2 Max tested to better target your calorie and macronutrient needs as well as your heart rate specific training goals.
  2. Log your eating on a program that looks specifically at your fueling in relationship to your exercise. NutriTiming and DATA are two such programs.
  3. Make an individual nutrition plan that is specific to your needs and lifestyle.

Kimberly Evans, RD, is a clinical nutritionist at the UVM Medical Center. Read her additional blog posts about preparing for a marathon by eating right, including “What to Eat the Week Before a Marathon,” “Quick Ways to Fuel Up Your Run,” “What to Eat for Lunch When You’re Training for a Marathon,” and What to Eat the Night Before a Marathon.”

Kim Evans, RD, is a clinical dietitian for UVM Medical Center's Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention Program.

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