The Marathoner’s Diet

What is the best pre-race meal to sustain a full marathon and aid recovery?


Q: I’m just starting to take part in full marathons and I’m not sure what is the best pre-race meal to sustain me through the full 42.195km and to help me recover after. What is your go-to pre and post-race meal?

Soh Rui Yong: My go-to concoction pre-race consists of a peanut butter jelly sandwich, a banana, and an espresso (if I can get one), and H-TWO-O! I once ate leftover pizza for breakfast before a long morning run and it didn't end well, so don't try anything like that! After a race, especially if it’s one of the build-up races, I’ll make sure to eat something high in protein and carbs to enhance recovery - pasta & cai fan are my go tos, tzechar if I have a big group eating with me!

Expert’s Advice:

Dr Nicholas Foo, General Practitioner, Silver Cross Family Clinic (A member of the Healthway Medical Group)

For an average person, about 3000 calories are expended in running a marathon. Our bodies can store 2000 calories of glycogen (carbohydrate) in the muscles and liver, of which some will be utilised while we are sleeping. Therefore, it is important to have a pre-race meal to top up the glycogen stores on race day.

The pre-race meal should be consumed 2.5 to 3 hours before the start time. Approximately 400 calories should be consumed, along with a glass of water. Some options include an avocado and banana shake or plain crackers with tinned tuna or toast with peanut butter. Be sure to clear your bladder and bowels before starting the race.

This leaves us with the problem of replacing the 1000 calories deficit during the marathon itself. For the runner who is able to complete the marathon under 3 hours, about 75% of his/her energy requirements will come from his/her carbohydrate stores and 25% from his/her fat stores.

A 4 to 5-hour marathoner runs at a lower intensity of his/her VO2 Max or maximal aerobic running capacity, hence the caloric expenditure (the amount of energy your cells use up in a given period of time) from carbohydrates will be lower. Up to 40% of his/her caloric requirements can come from his/her fat stores provided he/she has trained properly. Teaching the body to burn fat as fuel can be accomplished by completing about 5 to 6 training runs from the 24 to 32 km range before the marathon.

During the marathon, replacement of carbohydrates can be in the form of energy gels or isotonic drinks. Energy gels contain 20-30 g (80-120 calories) of carbohydrate per sachet. Isotonic drinks contain approximately 6 g of carbohydrates/100 ml (24 calories/100 ml). Isotonic drinks which contain electrolytes can also be used to replace lost electrolytes during the marathon. Alternatively, you can utilise electrolyte tablets. Solid food is also an option. I know of a runner who prefers to consume dried figs instead of energy gels during a marathon

You may wish to experiment with fueling during long training runs as some runners experience gastrointestinal distress when trying to consume carbohydrates while running.

Within 30 minutes of completing the marathon, one can consume bananas, yoghurt, isotonic drinks, orange juice or chocolate milk. A proper meal consisting of both carbohydrates and protein (e.g. Noodles or rice with chicken or fish) can be taken 2.5-3 hours after the race while continuing to replace fluid losses.

About the Expert

Dr Nicholas Foo is a family physician at Silver Cross Family Clinic, a member of Healthway Medical Group. He graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1999. Outside of work, Dr Nicholas is an avid runner and self-professed athletics historian.

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Soh Rui Yong is a two-time SEA Games marathon gold medallist and has now set his sights on qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games. Follow him on Instagram: @runsohfast.



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