Fuelling a Sub Two Hour Marathon

Endurance sports have exploded in popularity in recent years, and with the New Year once again upon us, we can look forward to further growth as a new contingent of enthusiasts aim to bypass the fads and make firm resolutions; to pound the pavements.

Endurance sports have exploded in popularity in recent years, and with the New Year once again upon us, we can look forward to further growth as a new contingent of enthusiasts aim to bypass the fads and make firm resolutions; to pound the pavements. For marathons alone; this year there will be circa 3,000 events. And regardless of the lung-searing intensity, whether you're looking to hit a commendable four hour 30 mark or among the elite targeting sub three hours, if we want to do ourselves justice no amount of training will compensate for an inadequate nutrition regime.

It was only when marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie switched from water to carbohydrate drinks that he set his 2008 2:03:59 marathon world record. Even still his nutritional approach could be described as lacking, and one can only speculate on whether if tweaked to current best sports nutrition research, could he have knocked on the door of the sub two hour marathon - an athletic feat to be only rivaled by Roger Bannister's four minute mile break. Whether Haile would have achieved the unachievable is unknown, but what we can be a lot more certain of is that whoever manages it in the years to come, will do so by getting their nutritional approach spot on, adhering to a protocol on the day of the event as laid out below.

Breakfast > 4 hours pre-race

What we want to create here is a modified carbohydrate release, ensuring our liver and muscle glycogen are replete, while preventing hyperglycemia and hyperinsulemia which create an undesirable, rapid decline in blood glucose levels. An oat/wholegrain based breakfast with fruit, alongside some dark chocolate, lean protein of fish or chicken in a tomato sauce - not red meat - as well as some yogurt if desired, creates the ideal sustained energy release vehicle, on top of providing valuable minerals and antioxidants which you will need later. A supplement of magnesium (aiding in muscle contractions) 2-300mg, in the citrate form, should also be taken here.

Four to two hours pre-race

It is at this stage that we need to direct our attention to fluids and ensure we start in a hydrated state. This is a achieved by drinking slowly from hour four to two pre-race whatever quantity of fluid needed (usually about 5-10 mL/kg body weight of water), to produce two urinations that are of a very pale yellow colour (1). This indicates your body weight is within 1% of the desirable well-hydrated baseline body weight.

1 hour pre-race

We now commence our caffeine supplementation. There's no question of the ergogenic benefit of caffeine, and taking between 30-90 minutes to peak in our blood and with a half-life of five hours the best approach is to supplement 3mg/kg bodyweight one hour before the race -c hoosing supplements over coffee - followed by top up doses of 1mg/kg bodyweight every two hours after wards (2). (While coffee is a good source of caffeine, derivatives of chlorogenic acids, which can interfere with caffeine's stimulatory actions, are produced from the roasting process of coffee beans.)

With the knowledge that the exhaustive event you are about to endure creates a great stress on the body, dampening our immune system, leaving us highly susceptible to upper respiratory infection afterwards, we now initiate action to prevent this. Athletes should supplement five grams of glutamine as well as taking a vitamin B & C supplement such as Berocca Performance (3-5).

15 minutes pre-race

We now commence ingesting our premade 'race fuel'. This comprises of 65 gram glucose, 35 gram fructose, 5 gram glutamine and an electrolyte mix providing circa 0.5gram sodium per litre. It is absolutely essential for delaying the onset of fatigue and enhancing endurance performance (6). The carbohydrate content provides a fuel substrate, sparing muscle and liver glycogen and preventing hypoglycaemia. Studies unequivocally show that the more carbohydrate drink we consume throughout the event the greater the performance we shall elicit. This is, however, limited by the performance dampening effects of gastric distress of taking too much, and everyone should experiment to find their individual sweet spot.

It, of course, also depends on the event type being undertaken. Elite marathon runners are more comfortable consuming about 5-600ml/hr, whereas for cyclists this can increase to as much as one litre/hour.

As well as this we can 'train' our stomachs to adapt to higher carbohydrate loads and absorb them easier, thus increasing performance. Starting one month before the event we should be introducing carbohydrate drinks (glucose and fructose 2:1 ratio) of 100grams/litre with the result being enhanced carbohydrate absorption, and a corresponding significant increase in our carbohydrate utilisation ability, by the time of the race (7). Introducing an increased carbohydrate load, and maximising glycogen stores early on also means we get used to carrying the increased weight of larger glycogen stores.

Another recommended approach for building our glycogen stores prerace, is to supplement creatine. A five day loading phase (4 x 5 gram/day) increases glycogen levels on average by about 18% (8).


Finish off with 10 grams of glutamine, another 200mg magnesium citrate, and then go out and celebrate. Enjoy yourself; you've just achieved a feat that 95% of the population could not even contemplate completing.

1. Goulet, E. D. (2012) Dehydration and endurance performance in competitive athletes, Nutr Rev 70 Suppl 2, S132-136.

2. Goldstein, E. R., Ziegenfuss, T., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., Willoughby, D., Stout, J., Graves, B. S., Wildman, R., Ivy, J. L., Spano, M., Smith, A. E., and Antonio, J. (2010) International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance, J Int Soc Sports Nutr 7, 5.

3. Hargreaves, M. H., and Snow, R. (2001) Amino acids and endurance exercise, Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 11, 133-145.

4. Castell, L. M., and Newsholme, E. A. (1997) The effects of oral glutamine supplementation on athletes after prolonged, exhaustive exercise, Nutrition 13, 738-742.

5. Robson, P. J., Blannin, A. K., Walsh, N. P., Castell, L. M., and Gleeson, M. (1999) Effects of exercise intensity, duration and recovery on in vitro neutrophil function in male athletes, Int J Sports Med 20, 128-135.

6. Hottenrott, K., Hass, E., Kraus, M., Neumann, G., Steiner, M., and Knechtle, B. (2012) A scientific nutrition strategy improves time trial performance by approximately 6% when compared with a self-chosen nutrition strategy in trained cyclists: a randomized cross-over study, Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 37, 637-645.

7. Cox, G. R., Clark, S. A., Cox, A. J., Halson, S. L., Hargreaves, M., Hawley, J. A., Jeacocke, N., Snow, R. J., Yeo, W. K., and Burke, L. M. (2010) Daily training with high carbohydrate availability increases exogenous carbohydrate oxidation during endurance cycling, J Appl Physiol 109, 126-134.

8. van Loon, L. J., Murphy, R., Oosterlaar, A. M., Cameron-Smith, D., Hargreaves, M., Wagenmakers, A. J., and Snow, R. (2004) Creatine supplementation increases glycogen storage but not GLUT-4 expression in human skeletal muscle, Clin Sci (Lond) 106, 99-106.


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