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Marathon Nutritional Advice from Boston Celtics' Nick Arcuri

7 Feb 2020

Last month we heard from Running Physio Tom Goom on how to prepare yourself for marathon training, with tips focussing on planning your runs and how to increase miles, along with the importance of sleep and recovery days. This month we're welcoming Nick Arcuri - Director of Team Nutrition (team chef and registered dietitian) for NBA side the Boston Celtics who talks through fuelling yourself with the right foods and hydration ahead of race day.

Long distance running is a high-calorie-burning endurance sport. It relies heavily on a balance of proper training, customised meal planning and nutrient timing. All these aspects of performance are refined through science and experience. Training and meal planning regimes are designed to improve fitness, provide fuel and aid recovery of the athlete. Getting this balance right aids to create a more efficient athlete in terms of their ability to store energy and use it efficiently. Careful consideration must be made with nutrient timing and quality in order to fuel activity, endure long runs and training sessions, and ensure your recovery is optimal. Recommendations based on current scientific guidelines are presented here in order to assist with understanding of how to personalise nutrients to maximise performance. These suggestions need to be individualised to cater for the level of athlete, current dietary intakes and workloads. The best way to incorporate some of these strategies is to trial different ranges of carbohydrates in training sessions, where you should start on the lower end and build slowly to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort.

Carbohydrates are the preferred and most efficient "currency" to fund distance running, both in terms of liquid cash to spend as ready to use energy, as well as savings in the form of glycogen to spare until we need it most. Therefore, a distance runner's diet must be composed largely of this macro nutrient and careful considerations be made to ensure adequate intake. As depicted in our infographic, in order to adequately fuel a high training day lasting 1-3 hours, the recommended carbohydrate intake is 6-10 grams per kilogram of body weight. This is approximately 450-750 grams of carbohydrates per day for a 75 kg athlete. To put things in perspective 450 grams of carbohydrates can equate to 10 cups of rice or 15 medium sized baked potatoes. The quality and quantity of the carbohydrate matters, so scale this to your body weight.

Surround yourself with whole grains, cereals and pasta with decent portions of starchy vegetables and fruit (both fresh and dried varieties). In addition, protein and fat will form a good part of your plate. Protein to facilitate one part of recovery while fat acts as an additional energy source. Lean proteins and high-quality unsaturated fat sources such as white meat poultry, fish and seafood, avocado, olive oil and nut butters should be very familiar to you and compliment most meals throughout the day.

As you’ll notice in the recommendations depicted in the infographic below, the closer you get to the start of competition, the more you will need to limit your overall intake. Specifically, the volume and type of carbohydrate. If you use a work “backwards” approach from the time of the event, it will be easier to set up and structure your nutrition plan. Four hours prior to competition you will benefit from a well-rounded meal consisting of 200-300g carbohydrate, and up to 30 g of protein. This meal should be low in fat.

Within 1-2 hours prior to the start of the event, your intake should be cut in half but still resemble a well-rounded bite such as a bagel with peanut butter and banana. Carbohydrates are the foundation to this intake, but we do want to ensure satiety and overall comfort. It helps to keep a training log outlining food with details of your intake and how you feel. This is crucial to understand your ideal target range for this intake on race day. Use your training time wisely and look for trends on what worked and what didn’t as part of a post training/event analysis. This will enable you to learn about yourself and how you can refine your macronutrient intake.

Less than 1 hour prior to and during competition the goal is to consume food that will provide instant energy and require the least amount of effort for your body to convert into something useful. This means liquids, gels, and bars are your friends. These types of snacks and beverages are your “go-to” energy bombs during competition. Look for a carbohydrate concentration between 4-8% on the nutrition panel of your chosen product. This particular concentration has been shown to be the optimal amount of glucose (and fructose) that will absorb efficiently during activity. This is seen in products such as Gatorade and similar sport drinks. Compliment this with other high carbohydrate sources such as energy chews, snacks such as miniature waffles and carbohydrate gels. The grams per hour of carbohydrate suggested for runners during activity is ~30-60g. This, again, is a very personal thing that must be determined by the runner well before the day of competition. Caffeine is another useful tool that can aid performance. "Academic studies have repeatedly demonstrated a performance enhancing effect of caffeine ingestion. Yet, simultaneously, this ergogenic response shows considerable inter-individual variation”. The amount of caffeine needed to gain some benefits is small, ~2-3 milligrams per kilogram of a person’s body weight, consumed before, during or in the later stages of a run. Too much caffeine may have adverse effects such as an increased heart rate and/or anxiety. There are plenty of caffeine containing gels, chews, and bars on the market to experiment with. Caffeine intake should be practiced in training and it's always recommended that you consult your local doctor prior to using it.

While it does not provide energy, adequate water intake is very important. Hydration is crucial for our bodies to function, from maintaining peak performance during a training session to speeding up recovery post activity. Hydration keeps our bodies alert by mitigating physical fatigue, reducing stress on the body, and maintaining mental focus. Further, hydration plays a big part in the athlete’s recovery. See infographic below for hydration replenishment protocols based on weight lost during activity. In terms of caloric recovery after a marathon or any endurance workout, the best form of replenishment is a combination of carbohydrates (1.2g/kg) and protein (0.4g/kg). This will help the athletes begin refuelling their bodies as soon as they can. The carbohydrates will help to restore the lost glycogen and the protein will begin to stimulate muscle repair.

In summary, these guidelines should help you plan your fluid and food intakes around your training. Carbohydrates are your main source of fuel, whilst protein and fat aid with recovery, satiety and can provide additional fuel. You really need to go through trial and error with type and quantity of foods that best suit your needs. This is very individualised and can change over time. So be prepared to adjust accordingly.

Marathon Training Picktochart

To find out more about Nick and his work within sports nutrition follow him on Instagram or visit his website customfitchef.com

Additional reading:

Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2015). Chapter 14: Nutrition for recovery after training and competition. In Clinical Sports Nutrition (5th ed., pp. 420–458).

Lennon, D. (Producer). (2017, June 27). Trent Stellingwerff, PhD- Nutrition Strategies for Endurance Sports. Retrieved from Sigma Nutrition

Impey, S.G., Hearris, M. A., Hammond, K. M., Bartlett, J. D., Louis, J., Close, G. L., & Morton, J.P. (2018). Fuel for the Work Required: A Theoretical Framework for Carbohydrate Periodization and the Glycogen Threshold Hypothesis. Sports Med. 48:1031-1048. Fuel for the Work Required

Pfeiffer, B., et.al. (2012). Nutritional Intake and Gastrointestinal Problems during Competitive Endurance Events. Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 344-351.doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31822dc809

Vanhauwaert, Erika & Matthys, Christophe & Verdonck, Lies & De Preter, Vicky. (2015). Low-Residue and Low-Fiber Diets in Gastrointestinal Disease Management. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal.820-827. 10.3945/an. 115.009688.

Ivy, J., Goforth Jr., H., Damon, B., McCauley, T., Parsons, E., & Price, T. (2002). Early Postexercise Muscle Glycogen Recovery is Enhanced with a Carbohydrate-Protein Supplement. Journal of Applied Physiology,93(4), 1337-1344. Retrieved November 9, 2014, from American Physiological Society

Pickering, C., & Kiely, J. (2017). Are the Current Guidelines on Caffeine Use in Sport Optimal for Everyone? Inter-individual variation in caffeine Ergogenicity, and Move Towards Personalised Sports Nutrition. Sports Med. DOI 10.1007/ s40279-017-0776-1.

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