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Marathon food: Runners need right ‘fuel’ to go the distance

Emily Hellyer, 11, goes for a run with her mom, Rachel Hellyer, after school recently. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Rachel Hellyer preps a sockeye salmon for the grill with a teriyaki marinade and a cedar plank. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Emily Hellyer likes to eat fresh raspberries for an after school snack. Her mom, Rachel Hellyer is a marathon runner and eats frozen berries for the sugar. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Marathon runners need energy from foods that can be easily and quickly metabolized, and they need hydration to prevent overheating, said Jennifer Haugen, registered dietitian at Altru Health System.

“Training for an event should not only focus on running but also on fueling your body,” she said.

Carbohydrates and fats are the main fuel source for runners, but carbs should be the primary source, she said. They “are more energy-efficient.”  

Be picky about the source of your carbs, said the board certified specialist in sport dietetics. “Choose good quality carbs versus refined sugars such as sodas and candy bars,” she said.

Quality carbs come from whole grain cereal, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, fruits and vegetables such as corn, peas, dried beans and potatoes.

Jim Lindlauf of Grand Forks, who turned to running a few years ago to control his weight, follows this advice, he said. “I eat lots of fruits and vegetables and greens.”

He prefers carrots, romaine lettuce and asparagus, and adds “a lot of broccoli into dishes, like casseroles, I’m preparing.”

“I try to get complex carbohydrates such as bread and wheat products.”

When they’re in season, he eats strawberries, peaches, blackberries and raspberries, and he eats apples during winter, he said.

Lindlauf has competed in races in the Twin Cities, Fargo and Bismarck. He’s preparing to run in his first Grandma’s Marathon on June 21 in Duluth, in hopes of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, he said.

Heart-healthy fats

Haugen recommends consuming fats from “heart-healthy” sources like canola oil and cold-water fish such as salmon and halibut.      

“Choose foods with unsaturated versus saturated fats, which are basically artery clogging,” she said, but eat fats in moderation.

Lindlauf really notices the difference in how fat-laden food affects his body, especially during his longer runs on Saturdays, he said.

“On Friday, if I have a pizza, I’m sluggish and slow, and I don’t feel I have the energy.”

Before a run, he tries to eat lean meats, such as beef and chicken, he said.

Protein is a minor energy source for runners, Haugen said. It “helps the body heal but provides little energy during your runs.”

Most Americans consume adequate protein without having to add protein supplements or drinks, she said.

“If you’re choosing good quality foods, you’re likely to get the vitamins and nutrients you need.”

Running puts the body under stress, she said. A few weeks before the run, get prepared by “tapering your exercise — decreasing the length of your runs, for example, from 10 miles to 9 miles, to 8,” etc.

In so doing, “you’re storing more carbs in your muscles and you’ll have more of the carbs to use in the race.”  

Lindlauf said, “Carbs give you fast energy; fat provides a lower and even type of energy.

“Most people can store enough carbs for a 20-mile run, then you hit the wall,” he said. “Then, you’re burning fat or breaking down muscle.”

As the event approaches, runners should eliminate high-fat foods from their diets, Haugen said. “You still need a little bit of protein and vegetables but have balanced meals.

“The closer you get to the event, the lower fat and fiber foods you should eat,” she said. “The body may not tolerate those foods as well.”

The day before and on the day of the race, “always choose foods you are comfortable with and have tried before,” Haugen said.

“Always practice your meals” to best understand how your body responds to certain foods.

A runner since 2001, Rachel Hellyer of Grand Forks said she avoids fatty-type foods before a marathon, preferring pastas and salads instead.

“I don’t eat anything that’s high in fiber,” as it may upset her stomach.

After a race, her appetite surges, she said. “I have to resist the urge to eat just constantly.”

She usually eats granola cereal and milk, along with frozen berries for the sugar.

Hellyer, who has twice run in the Boston Marathon, is helping to organize the third Wild Hog Half Marathon on Sept. 27 in Grand Forks.   

Energy bars

Energy bars are consumed “usually for the convenience” and are a matter of personal preference, Haugen said. They “are fortified with protein and vitamins, which affect their taste.”

They may contain trans fats and partially hydrogenated oil — “bad” fats that “may be hard to avoid,” she said.

Food companies include trans fats in their products not to enhance taste, but “to make them shelf stable,” she said.

“There’s no nutritional need for trans fats in the diet.”

She recommends runners focus on “real food” to get needed vitamins and nutrients, she said. “Or, people could also make their own energy bars. That way, you can control the ingredients.”


Getting the fluids your body needs is also critical, Haugen said. “Without enough fluid, your body is going to overheat.”

Don’t rely on thirst alone, she said. “By the time you’re thirsty, you’re probably already a bit dehydrated.”

Develop a hydration plan to help avoid dehydration and stick with it.

“Oftentimes, hydration is what affects the runner the most during a race,” she said. “Even a few percentage points (drop) in hydration can affect your run.”

Insufficient hydration “will prevent people from finishing a race (more often) than running out of carbs,” she said.

During a race, runners lose sodium and potassium, or electrolytes, through sweat.

Haugen recommends sport drinks, which have the correct balance of electrolytes and carbohydrates, she said.

She suggests drinking a couple of cups of fluid two hours before the race.

“If it’s a really long run, carry a bottle in a fanny pack,” she said.

Dietary tips for runners

Nutrition is “vitally important” to runners, said Jennifer Haugen, board-certified sports dietitian with Altru Health System.

She offers the following advice for runners, whether you’re training for your first 5-kilometer race or for a marathon:

  •  Eat a balanced diet that includes foods from every food group (visit
  •  Choose foods with healthy carbohydrates: potatoes, whole grain pasta and cereal, brown rice, fruits and vegetables; avoid candy bars and sodas.  
  •  Get needed protein from lean meats (fish, beef, chicken, turkey), cheese, eggs, nuts, soy, low-fat yogurt and nonfat milk.
  •  Select foods with unsaturated fats; stay away from saturated fats.
  •  Consume fats in moderation and from healthier sources such as canola oil, olive oil and nuts.
  •  Hydrate your body throughout the run; drink two to three cups of fluid for every pound of weight lost during exercise.
  •  Before the big run, eat only those foods you’re used to eating; something new may cause an upset stomach or nausea.
  •  After the run, drink a sport drink to replenish fluid and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) lost in sweat; eat a snack or meal within 15 to 60 minutes with foods containing carbohydrates.