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Marathon Race Day Eating

BY Hal Higdon

For a marathon, the night before meal won’t get you much past the 20-mile mark. You definitely need a pre-race meal the morning of the run. 


“I am training for my first marathon. The marathon is next week, and I feel ready except for one area. I never eat before running, because I feel very full when I do, even if it’s only a quick snack. I do use gels during long workouts, however. Everything I read says you should eat before long runs. Okay, except I also read that you shouldn’t change anything for race day. So which way do I go: eat or not eat?”


The golden rule is: Don’t do anything different immediately before a marathon. So that answers one of your questions. Let’s discuss the rest.

Yes, it usually is a good idea to eat something before long runs and particularly before marathon races, but you really need to decide what to eat and when. The answer to that is somewhat complicated and depends on individual preferences.

For short races such as a 5K or 10K and maybe up to the half marathon, you probably do not need to eat before you run. Assuming you wisely choose a meal rich in carbohydrates the night before, you will have stored ample glycogen in your muscles to go the distance. For a marathon, however, the night before meal won’t get you much past the 20-mile mark. You definitely need a pre-race meal the morning of the run.

The problem with that strategy for this, your first marathon, is that you have run out of time. No time to experiment with different fueling strategies, but let me tell you what works for me. Before a major marathon, carbs the night before is a given. So too is a light carb snack before going to bed. An energy bar and a sports drink should be enough.

Then, I like to wake up three to four hours before the race start and have a final snack, which might feature a bagel or sweet roll washed down with a glass of orange juice and/or a cup of coffee. I need those three to four hours to digest even that little amount of food. That might mean getting up as early as 2 a.m. for a race like those held at Disneyland or in Honolulu with their pre-dawn starts, but then I go back to bed for an hour or two. Nobody sleeps much before a marathon anyway.

As for liquids, I stop drinking one to two hours before a race but I drink again a few minutes before beginning to run. I discuss this strategy in greater detail in my book, Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide.

All this nutrition advice might be too late to help for your first marathon, but if you plan a second marathon, use the long runs to practice race-day fueling and refueling. We are all different, and we need to find the pre-race and pre-run plan that works for us.

The Complete Marathon Training Guide

Complete Marathon Training Guide

Training Guide

This guide is designed to be used as you train for a marathon, with in-depth information on every part of the process. Each chapter is packed with tips, workouts, and insights from expert running coaches, to give you all the tools you need to succeed.

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About Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for ‘Runner’s World‘ and author of 34 books, including the best-selling ‘Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide’. He ran eight times in the Olympic Trials and won four world masters championships. Higdon estimates that over a quarter of a million runners have finished marathons using his training programs, and he also offers additional interactive programs at all distances through TrainingPeaks. Hal uses TrainingPeaks to power his interactive marathon and half marathon training plans — check out more of Hal Higdon’s training plans on his website.