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Home / News / Running a marathon? Here's what you need to know about supplementation
20 February 2015


Written by Professor Enrico Arcelli, Equipe Enervit Scientific Committee
Supplements play a very important role in a marathon runner's performance before, during and after a race. Energy expenditure and loss of minerals through sweating during a marathon is particularly high. If you do not plan your nutritional strategy with the correct choice of supplements, your performance and recovery will be negatively impacted. Marathon runners need to increase their use of endurance sports supplements that are carbohydrate-based in either a powder, solid or liquid form. These are used to supply the body with energy:
  • Before the race, they increase the glycogen reserves in the body.
  • During the race, they prevent the depletion of glycogen in the muscles and liver, so that energy levels remain constant
  • After the race, they replace glycogen stores in the muscles.

 With all the different formats of supplements on the market, it is difficult to know whether to use an energy bar, gel or a liquid? Carbohydrates in the form of a gel or liquid before a race is best, as the effects of your running motion on your digestive system won't allow the assimilation of solid food, which has the potential to give you tummy problems. During the race, tablets with magnesium, potassium sodium, fructose and minerals that dissolve quickly in the mouth are best. Gels or liquid cheerpacks are also great during a run - choose a product that has a mixture of fast-absorbing carbohydrates to avoid "hitting the wall" at the 30km mark. Don't forget to take in fluids to avoid dehydration (which not only disturbs your performance, but also jeopardises your health). You must restore the water-salt balance in your body by drinking water and minerals. At the end of the marathon, to recover materials lost during exercise and to repair muscle damage caused by the duration and intensity of the race, you must consume a recovery drink within 30 minutes of the end of the marathon. 

Many runners are not aware of how to eat correctly before a marathon. Which foods should you eat? How much should you eat? Which foods should you avoid? One of the most common mistakes that marathon runners make is to take in large amounts of carbohydrates (such as pasta, bread, rice, biscuits and fruit juice) a few hours before the race, thinking that they are 'carbo-loading' when in actual fact they are doing more harm than good. If you have followed the correct strategy in the weeks leading up to the race and you have reduced your training in the week before the marathon, your body's energy tanks will already be adequately filled. Eating a large amount of food takes a long time to digest, which means that runners are at risk of arriving at the race while their bodies are still digesting their food, which ironically leaves them with a lack of energy!  So what is best to eat before you tie your shoes? Instead of the classic breakfast, 2-3 hours before departure, I recommend that you have a quick snack which is fat free and contains low GI carbohydrates and proteins; the latter, if they are accompanied with carbohydrates, allow you to keep the glucose level in the blood even. This is where fat free, low GI carbohydrate supplements that are specifically designed for before sports are key - they allow you to recharge your batteries without weighing your body down.   

Since 1980, scientific research has focused on optimising the recruitment strategies of carbohydrates during exercise. Recent data confirms that there is great advantage in consuming them during physical effort: in other words, using supplements during a marathon will improve performance. What is even more important to note is that supplements should be taken before the energy reserves deplete, so as to constantly maintain the energy level. 

I am often asked by runners how they should carry their supplements in a practical way during a marathon. Choose a product with useful packaging such as a liquid in a pouch with a screw top lid or a gel sachet that can be torn open easily. Select supplements in single serving sizes so that the product isn't heavy. Running apparel often has small pockets with zips where you can keep your supplements during the race. One of my best tips is to attach the sachet or package to your clothing or bib with a safety pin.

At the end of a long run (over an hour and a quarter), water and minerals have been lost due to sweating and energy stocks have been eroded, if not totally exhausted, to cope with the energy demands of the task. Because of the intensity of effort, the muscle fibres are damaged. If you plan to run within 24 to 48 hours after a marathon, you must pay specific attention to the recovery period, restoring what the body has lost. Recent research has shown that 30 minutes after the end of a race the body expresses the maximum capacity to rebuild the stocks of energy in the form of glycogen. This process, however, may be best only if you consume high GI carbs such as glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin, as they are absorbed more quickly. Damaged muscle fibres need branched chain amino acids. 

As I am sure you have heard,  never try a new supplement on race day. The last thing you want is to have any adverse reactions or gastrointestinal issues when you are racing. Following a specific nutritional strategy and testing the timing of the strategy during training will verify its effectiveness. Enervit has developed a specific marathon runner strategy that can be referred to for guidance. It is available for download on the Enervit website: http://www.enervitsport.com/za/enervit-strategy.   


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