We asked four pros how they fuel for race day. We learned not to fear the beer and that sweet potato popsicles are the bomb.
Marathon week can be stressful. After spending months racking up the miles, you’re in full taper mode—dramatically scaling back your running and hoping you don’t come down with a last-minute illness or nagging injury. While it feels good to give your legs time to recuperate from all the hard training—that’s the point of tapering, after all—taking your foot off the gas during the final countdown is inevitably unnerving.
Race week nutrition can foster a similar sense of anxiety. To help put your mind at ease, we asked four elite-level marathoners, all of whom will be running in this year’s Boston Marathon on April 17, for a few of their go-to race week meals. Each runner thinks meticulously about timing and crafting dinners that will feed their muscles, prepare their bodies, and give them the extra boost they need to be race-day ready. Read on for their strategies.
Marathon PR: 2:29:10
Career Highlights: Member of multiple U.S. national teams. Russell finished 27th during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She also clocked several top-ten finishes in major marathons, including winner of the 2003 Twin Cities Marathon and USATF national champion in 2015.
The Big Picture: It’s crucial to listen to your body rather than let your mental doubts about taper mode take over, says Russell. “Despite my reduced mileage, I’m still usually starving. Maybe it’s just my body trying to absorb as much as it can because it knows what’s coming,” she says. Russell hates being hungry, so despite her lower training load, she’s constantly snacking on something. “But I’m definitely not carbo-loading. I don’t want to feel like I’m bloated all of a sudden,” she cautions.
Five Days Out: Fried calamari from a favorite local Mexican restaurant with a side of refried rice and beans. Russell eats a healthy diet overall, so a minor splurge on fried calamari won’t set her system back. Plus, it gives a balanced ratio of fat, carbs, and protein.
Three Days Out: Filet mignon, cooked medium-rare, broiled in the oven with a little garlic salt, served with a twice-baked potato, a side salad, and vegetables. Russell’s tip: don’t risk the steak the day before the marathon. “I’ve had steak the night before other shorter races, but in a marathon, you have a long way to go if that doesn’t sit right.”
One Day Out: A salmon filet with dill-mayo sauce; a side of risotto with carrots, broccoli, peas, and Parmesan; and bread. Russell goes gourmet by sautéing the salmon on the stove to give it a little crunch.
Hydration: “During all of my training, I finish every run by immediately making myself a glass of chocolate milk. I’m not really hungry, but I want to get something in my body within 30 minutes,” says Russell. “In addition, I drink eight to 12 ounces of water as soon as I get up. The first couple times, it just goes right through you, but after that your body gets used to it.”
Marathon PR: 2:22:38
Career Highlights: Two-time Olympian who finished seventh in the women’s marathon at the 2016 Games in Rio. She has finished as first American in all three U.S. Marathon Majors, including a second-place overall finish at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
The Big Picture: “The big thing for competitive runners is that you need to learn to compete anywhere in the world. Your whole nutrition strategy can’t just blow up if you’re racing somewhere that doesn’t have your favorite products or foods,” says Linden. One of her favorite mantras comes from Clint Verran: you should be flexible enough that you could have dinner from a vending machine if it came down to it.
Five Days Out: Sirloin steak, cooked medium, with a spinach salad and sweet potatoes.
Three Days Out: Spaghetti Bolognese, or any red sauce that isn’t cream based. “I’m not opposed to a beer around this time, either,” says Linden. “My brew of choice leading up to this year’s Boston race is Samuel Adams Rebel IPA.”
One Day Out: A plate of plain white rice. It’s simple, but “white rice is the easiest thing for me to digest, and it’s a great carb source, so it has become a staple,” says Linden.
Hydration: Hydrate nonstop before race day. “All day long, I’ll have an electrolyte drink to sip on,” says Linden. If you aren’t already hydrated when you wake up on the day of the race, you won’t be able to make up for lost time.
Marathon PR: 2:11:30
Career Highlights: Sixth-place finish in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. USATF national champion in the marathon in 2015.
The Big Picture: Time your carbo-load properly. “About a week out, I’ll start shifting a little bit away from carbohydrates by taking out around 50 percent carbohydrate-derived calories from my normal diet,” says Ward. “Once I’m halfway through the week, I’ll put the carbs back and take out about half the fats and proteins for the last three days.”
Five Days Out: Lean meat (either sirloin steak, a piece of chicken, or fish) and lots of vegetables—broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, or sweet potatoes. Ward also mixes in some quick-digesting carbs with white potatoes or bread on the side.
Three Days Out: “I’m really into the sweet potato popsicle,” Ward says. “Just throw one in the microwave, and peel back the skin to eat.” When he’s digging into more of a meal, Ward tries to eat two sweet potatoes with cinnamon alongside a lean piece of meat, a piece of bread, and a side of broccoli.
One Day Out: Don’t overdo it. “My biggest focus the night before a race when it comes to nutrition is to keep it light,” Ward says. “By the night before the race, I should be fully carb-loaded, so that meal is really just to give me some satiation and a little bit of energy.” His perfectly portioned choice is a light serving of spaghetti with marinara sauce.
Marathon PR: 2:08:37
Career Highlights: Four-time Olympian with a silver medal in the men’s marathon at the 2004 Games in Athens. Winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon.
The Big Picture: People focus disproportionately on loading up with carbohydrates, but it’s also important to watch your protein intake. “I’ll try to do a protein push until Wednesday for a Sunday race,” says Meb. “After Wednesday, I’ll start shifting toward starches a little more, usually pasta, or brown rice.”
Five Days Out: Chicken or beef (medium-well) with brown rice and salad. Meb steers clear of fish.
Three Days Out: To really get the most out of your fueling, you’ll likely have to focus on function over taste. That means eating could get boring. Three days before race-day, Meb returns to chicken (legs or wings) with a side of pasta or brown rice.
One Day Out: Spaghetti with red sauce, meatballs, and Parmesan. “Before I came to the U.S., I lived in Italy, so I love my cheese,” Meb says. This is the last day of his strict game plan for nutrition. After the race, Meb often gains ten to 12 pounds within one week.
Hydration: During most of the taper, Meb takes in 20 ounces of electrolytes daily, but the rest is water. “I used to drink a lot of juice at every meal, but I don’t do that anymore,” says Meb. “I’ll usually just have a glass of orange juice with dinner.”