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What to Eat the Night Before a Marathon

How to build a healthy pre-marathon dinner, foods to avoid the night before the race and when to eat so you have you best race ever

You’ve been training for a few months, but before you wake up and run 26.2 miles, you have one more hurdle to face: the pre-race dinner. Maybe you are feeling nervous and have little appetite or are worried about the pre-race dinner causing GI issues so close to race time. So what should you eat the night before a marathon?

Meal composition

While your pre-marathon breakfast is important, what you eat the night before the race is also critical. Your body’s main source of energy, carbohydrates, are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. 

During marathons, the body burns through its glycogen stores rather quickly and turns to any other carbs that you recently ate for fuel. In other words, you want to eat plenty of carbs the night before to top off glycogen stores for the big race. 

While you do want to bump your intake of carbohydrates, a full plate of only pasta may not be the best idea either. Instead, fill half your plate with grains and starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, or potatoes, one quarter with protein such as tofu or tempeh, and one quarter with non-starchy vegetables such as cucumbers, green beans, or carrots. 

Rather than adding more carbohydrates on top of your usual amount of food, shift the percentage of calories you eat to be more carbohydrate heavy while still incorporating other important nutrients. This will help ensure you are meeting your needs without making you feel uncomfortably full.

If you decide to carb-load, you will begin the process 3-5 days before the race. Read more about how to carb load properly here. 

A note about fiber

The night before a marathon, you do want to include some fiber, as this will help keep you full and regular. You want to eat enough fiber so you will go to the bathroom before the starting gun goes off, but not so much that you spend 26.2 miles searching for the nearest porta potty. 

You may find that some high fiber foods don’t work for you the night before a marathon. Common culprits include cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, and or plant-based proteins, like beans, lentils, or chickpeas. 

Instead, opt for vegetables that tend to cause less GI distress, like green beans, carrots, zucchini, bell peppers, and spinach. Most importantly, choose vegetables that you know sit well with you and will not cause you GI distress. Some runners can eat beans every day, while others find a handful of chickpeas leads to uncomfortable bloating. 

The only way to know what foods work best for you is to try them out on long training runs. Mimic race day by cooking a pre-race dinner the night before a double digit run. See how you feel during the run and adjust accordingly. 

Foods and drinks to avoid

In addition to pre-race nerves, certain foods can negatively impact your sleep. While you may know to avoid coffee late in the day, be aware of other foods that have caffeine, like black and green teas, sodas, and chocolate. In addition to caffeine, tea and chocolate also contain a compound called theobromine, which can act as a diuretic and increase heart rate, making sleep difficult.

It’s also important to limit the amount of fat you consume. Fat takes the body longer to digest, and can make it difficult to fall asleep if you consume too much close to bedtime. The same goes for fried foods and spicy foods, which can cause indigestion and make it difficult to fall asleep.

You also want to keep hydration in mind. While you should hydrate in the days leading up to your marathon, reduce your intake as you get close to bedtime. Too much water can keep you up at night, since you’ll likely be running to the bathroom. 

Lastly, don’t drink any alcohol the night before the race. Alcohol can prevent you from entering into deep sleep, lessening the likelihood you will wake up feeling rested.

As always, stick with foods and drinks that are familiar and that you’ve had before. Do not try out any new foods or restaurants the week before a marathon.

When should you eat the night before?

Perhaps equally as important as what you eat the night before a marathon is the sleep you get before a marathon. Marathons often involve very early wake up times, with the morning rush to eat breakfast, get dressed, and get to the pick up site or starting line. 

Work backwards, thinking about what time you need to go to bed to get around 7-8 hours of sleep. Eat dinner at least 3 hours before that time to prevent reflux and indigestion. 

Again, it is best to experiment with the timing of meals and the types of foods that sit well with you prior to marathon week.

Pre-race dinner suggestions

When planning your pre marathon dinner, keep in mind the macronutrient breakdown that will best serve you with an emphasis on carbohydrates along with some protein and vegetables. Here are some suggestions:

  • Bean or whole wheat pasta with olive oil and veggies
  • Stir fry with tofu and vegetables over white rice
  • Sweet potato stuffed with vegetables and a side of eggs 
  • Grain bowl with rice or farro, roasted sweet potatoes, avocado and dressing of your choice
  • Scrambled tofu with a baked potato and side salad

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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