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Food Supplements When Training For a Marathon

Let’s face it: Training for a marathon can be incredibly challenging, even for seasoned runners. And if you’ve never tried to run more than 10 km in one go, you’re in for a treat.

Going for a leisurely jog on the local track or in the park is one thing and doesn’t require much thought or equipment – wear comfortable clothes and bring some water. 

Training for a marathon however is a whole other ball game. There are many other considerations to make, one of which is how to fuel your body. 

Of course, whole foods are your best bet here, but sometimes, that’s not an option (such as while training), and this is where some supplements not only come to play but can even become mandatory.

Let’s see what they are.

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Running Gels

Running gels, also known as energy gels, are some of the most common endurance supplements out there. Thanks to their form and composition, running gels are one of the most convenient ways to fuel yourself while exercising. 

Most of these gels are nearly 100 percent moderate to quick-digesting carbs, which means that you feel the surge of energy almost immediately. Some of these gels also have electrolytes and essential amino acids, which further help with performance and energy.

One thing worth noting is that you should try several kinds during training, so you know how each makes you feel and if any of them cause stomach distress – this is valuable information for the marathon itself.

Electrolyte Drinks

Electrolytes are ions that carry a positive or negative electric charge and play important roles in processes such as: 

  • muscle contraction;
  • nerve signaling;
  • hydration; 
  • regulation of the body’s pH (the balance between acidity and alkalinity);

Several essential minerals (sodium, magnesium, potassium, phosphate, chloride, and calcium) are considered electrolytes. When dissolved in a liquid, each of these releases a positive or negative ion. 

These electrolytes become even more important during prolonged exercise as we tend to lose them at an accelerated rate – for example, through sweat. Running low on them would decrease your performance and may cause you to give up early.

So, having an electrolyte drink around is vital for long training sessions. Alternatively, you can get electrolyte tabs which dissolve in water fairly quickly.

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Carb Drinks

Carb drinks are a great way to kill two birds with one stone – hydrate yourself and provide your body with fast-digesting carbs. Some sports drinks also have electrolytes, but they are often in very small doses and don’t make much of a difference.

Perhaps the biggest downside of carb drinks is that they aren’t convenient to carry with you during a race, which is why most folks prefer to go with running gels and electrolyte tabs instead.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Physical exercise is inherently catabolic for us. It burns calories, it causes micro-tears to muscle tissue, and it leads to temporary changes in our hormones. We then have to eat balanced meals and get plenty of sleep and relaxation to give our bodies the time and means to recover fully and adapt positively.

But, if your training session is particularly long (say, over an hour) and/or too demanding, you risk losing muscle (and overall weight). As an athlete, the thing you don’t want is to lose muscle because it’s vital for your performance.

Now, carb drinks and gels provide us with calories and somewhat help us keep catabolism at bay. But to truly prevent muscle loss, you need a steady stream of amino acids. One important factor is to get enough protein in your diet – things like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. But, during a race or long training session, a BCAA drink is a great way to get three of the essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine).

Another alternative to this is an old-fashioned protein shake. But I’ve found that it can cause stomach distress during workouts and it’s best left as a post-exercise drink.

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Energy Bars With Protein

Energy bars with at least some protein (ideally, over 10 grams per serving) are a great way to mix the benefits of BCAAs and running gels into one supplement.

The problem is, solid foods aren’t as easy to consume on the go and could lead to stomach issues. Liquids are fine, and running gels work so great because the body breaks them down almost immediately.

Now, energy bars are great as a pre-workout snack, and you can also have one if your workout is over 1.5 hours – you can take a 5 to 10-minute break in the middle and have one. 

Plus, bars offer the advantage of being far tastier.


Caffeine is one of the best-known stimulants on the planet. A large percentage of adults all over the world consume caffeine in one form or another, and you’d be hard-pressed to find athletes who don’t use it for its performance-enhancing benefits.

The fact is, when it comes to pre-workout supplementation, very few substances out there work. But caffeine has been shown to improve power output, strength, mental resilience, energy levels, focus, endurance, and more.

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With that said, there are three things you need to consider:

1) Caffeine has a half-life of about 5 to 6 hours. Meaning, if you consume 400 mg at 2 pm, you would still have about 200 mg in your system at 7 or 8 pm. Avoid large doses of caffeine in the latter half of the day as it can mess with your sleep.

2) Caffeine is a stimulant, and your body will build up a tolerance to it, especially if you consume it daily. Over time, you would have to increase the dose to reap the benefit. Two great ways to avoid that are to either:

  • Cycle caffeine. For example, four weeks on, one week off.
  • Only take a dose of caffeine before training or racing. That way, your body will build a tolerance more slowly, and the need for cycling wouldn’t be as significant.

3) Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone equally. Research has shown that between 1 and 13 mg per kilo of body weight is needed to deliver the performance-enhancing benefits. So, if you weigh 70 kilos, the dose for you would range from 70 mg to as much as 901 mg. Of course, I recommend starting at the low end and only increase the dose slowly if you don’t feel anything.

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