Even for regular runners, training for a marathon is a steep learning curve. While running a few times a week and tearing it up at your local parkrun every Saturday doesn’t involve too much thought beyond what gear to wear, covering the long distances required to prep for a 42.2km race means considering how to avoid injury, how to fit in and vary all the running you need to do and, lastly but by no means least-ly, how you fuel your body for all that exercise.
Most, if not all, of your fuelling should be done through your diet, but there are times when eating real food just isn’t possible or desirable – one of those times being the race itself – and that’s where supplements can help.
The main supplements to consider are ones that top up your carb reserves and electrolytes during long runs, and ones that help you restock and help the body recover during an arduous training schedule. There are also supplements like beetroot juice and caffeine that can help to boost your performance. In short, there are loads of different supplements you can use to help you body cope with the demands of marathon training. Here are the top types you’ll come across.
Probably the most common marathon training supplement, these are scoffed by runners during long runs (anything over 90 minutes) to replenish their carb stocks. In the marathon itself, you’ll probably go through four of five gels – make sure you’ve already tried the ones you use in the race, because they can be hard on the digestive system.
These are a combo of carbs and electrolytes, and are good for fuelling before or during your longer runs. You won’t want to carry these with you for the event itself, which is why most people opt for more portable gels and electrolyte tabs, but they’re good during training or if you can grab them en route during the race.
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Pop these in water and they dissolve quickly to create an electrolyte-rich cocktail, containing minerals like sodium, potassium and magnesium, which help your body to hydrate itself. Carb gels generally don’t have electrolytes, which you need to replenish when you exercise for a long period and sweat a lot. Having the tab with you means you can just grab water on the course of the race and create your own electrolyte drink.
Research into the nitrates found in foods like beetroot, spinach and rocket suggests they can have a positive effect on performance in endurance activities – apparently Leicester City used beet juice to great effect in their Premier League title-winning season. Beet It shots contain 400mg of dietary nitrate – try drinking them daily in the week before your event as well as having a couple in the 12 hours beforehand.
While this category is a new form of supplement that’s yet to really take off with amateur runners, Unit Nutrition plans to bring carb rinses to the mass market soon, so you might come across them in your training. You swill the carb rinse your mouth and then spit it out or swallow it. Early studies have found this boosts performance, which might be down to you tricking your brain into thinking it’s getting fuel. Carb rinses are obviously very easy to take and guarantee no gastric distress if you’re spitting them out, so they may be worth a go if you detest gels and can’t eat anything while running.
When weightlifters finish a workout they reach for a protein shake – but while runners need protein too, it’s more important to replenish carbs and electrolytes. If you’re undertaking a loaded training schedule and don’t have time or the inclination to do this through meals, a recovery drink like SiS REGO, which contains carbs, protein and electrolytes, is useful to have on hand.
We don’t mean chugging down a coffee before running, mainly because that’s a gastrointestinal risk only the foolhardy would take, but getting versions of the above supplements that contain caffeine can provide a timely boost. Save a running gel or electrolyte drink with added caffeine for kilometre 30 of your marathon – it might be just what your body and brain need to spur you on to the finish line.