How to Carb-Load for Marathon Week

Thousands of runners are focussed on one thing: tackling a marathon. Whether you are in training for a late autumn marathon or gearing up for one this week, the subject of fuelling has probably come across your mind. At this point, you’ve likely ironed out your pre-race and mid-race fuelling, but you might still be wondering exactly how to carb-load in the days leading up to the big event. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind to get to the starting line properly fuelled and confident.



Things to keep in mind when thinking about carb-loading:

First off, it was once thought that in order to carb-load properly, you had to severely restrict your carb intake and up your protein-fat intake in the weekdays leading up to race day, then switch to carbs two days before the race while ignoring protein and fat. Luckily, this is no longer the case, and there’s no need to restrict carb intake. Instead, begin reducing your training load while slowly increasing your carb intake. This practice of tapering plus adding fuel to those muscles basically helps you load the body’s fuel tank (muscle glycogen capacity) so that when the starting gun goes off, your muscles are fully loaded and your stomach doesn’t need to be stuffed.

To carb-load properly for the race, you will be tapering in the days and weeks beforehand. If you want to experiment in advance, you can carb-load the day before a long run, but it won’t quite be the same since you’ll only be fuelling 24 hours out, and you won’t have the benefit of rest and taper. But a practice run is not necessarily a bad idea if your schedule allows. By practicing, you’ll essentially prepare your gut for the future heavy carb load and get a preview of what the feeling of increased muscle glycogen stores may be like; carbohydrates attract water, and many athletes report that carb-loading makes them feel a bit stiffer, which is another reason why a shake-out run the day before is helpful.


Give yourself a week before race day to focus on carb-loading.

You can begin carb-loading as early as five days prior by slightly increasing your carb intake and then, in the two days before the race, really start to pound those carbs. In order to not totally overwhelm yourself with kilojoules, it’s not unusual for protein and fat to fall by the wayside during these two days. To get into the specifics, aim for a carb intake close to 3.6 to 5.5 grams per 450g of body weight in those one to two days immediately before the race. When you do the maths, this tends to be a whole lotta carb, and the reason why protein and fat often get put on the back burner in the hours before the race.

The easiest way to achieve a simple, successful carb-load is to include carbohydrate-rich foods at every meal and snack. This means bread, pasta, rice, cereal, potatoes and fruit should be mainstays. Simple sugars and refined grains, while usually not a large component of your diet (right?), get the green light in the days leading up to the race. These foods are quick to digest and don’t often contain the fibre, which has been known to cause GI distress as the mileage piles up.

Of course, there are plenty of healthy foods that are rich in carbs and therefore no need to overdo it on “junk” carbs, especially if you have a delicate system that isn’t accustomed to that type of fuel. At the end of the day, it’s always important to live by the mantra “nothing new on race day.”


Still not sure what you should be eating in the days before the race? Check out this three-day sample meal plan, complete with nutrient analysis. Note: Food brands often determine the exact nutrient composition of meals.



2 whole-wheat pancakes topped with ½ cup canned fruit (drained)

355mL English tea mixed with ½ cup skim milk and 1 tsp honey


Snack 1:

1 sandwich: 2 slices of whole-wheat bread, 1 Tbsp light mayo, 60g roasted turkey, 60g chicken breast, 2 romaine lettuce leaves

60g pretzels (approx 40 small braided) dipped in 180g light, low-fat yoghurt



1 chicken taco: 90g grilled chicken, 1 soft whole-wheat tortillas, ½ cup shredded lettuce, and ½ cup reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese

30g baked tortilla chips dipped in ¼ cup salsa

235mL lemonade

½ cup dried, mixed fruit


Snack 2:

1 cup of fat-free pudding topped with ½ cup each of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries



180g grilled salmon

1 cup wild rice topped with 1 tsp light vegetable-oil-based spread

1 cup steamed cauliflower and broccoli medley

1 cup of berry cobbler


Approximate Daily Nutrient Analysis:

11,673 total kilojoules

147.5g protein (21% of total kilojoules)

51g fat (15% of total kilojoules)

450g carb (64% of total kilojoules)

34g fibre



1 cup oats, made with ½ cup skim milk

1 medium banana, sliced

475mL coffee with ¼ cup skim milk

1 whole grain medium bagel (9cm in diameter) toasted and topped with 1 Tbsp apple butter


Snack 1:

1 medium piece of fresh fruit

235mL sports drink

180mL fat-free Greek fruit yoghurt



Salad: 3 cups fresh spinach, 90g grilled chicken breast, 2 Tbsp dried cranberries, 2 Tbsp low-fat French dressing

1 cup couscous sprinkled with 1 Tbsp shredded Parmesan cheese

1 cup hearty minestrone soup with 5 crackers

475mL water with lemon to drink


Snack 2:

1 cup raw vegetables and 30g whole-wheat pretzels dipped in 2 Tbsp peanut butter and 2 Tbsp hommus

1 cup skim milk blended with 2 Tbsp fat-free chocolate syrup, 1 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 medium banana, and 1 cup of crushed ice.



Sandwich: 2 slices whole grain bread, 90g rotisserie chicken, 2 tsp brown mustard, 2 slices romaine lettuce, ½ cup sliced roasted red capsicum

1 cup cooked green beans topped with 2 Tbsp vegetable-oil-based spread

1 medium baked potato topped with 2 Tbsp light sour cream and ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese

355mL skim milk to drink


Daily Nutrient Analysis:

14,055 total kilojoules

156.6g protein (18% total kilojoules)

61g fat (16% total kilojoules)

554g carb (66% total kilojoules)

41.5g fibre



2/3 cup steel-cut oats mixed with 1 cup skim milk. Cook according to package directions, and add water to reach desired consistency. Top with 1/4 cup raisins or dried fruit and 2 Tbsp brown sugar.


Snack 1:

1 cup of apple-cinnamon flavoured cereal topped with 1 cup skim milk and 1 medium banana


Lunch: (Aim for your largest and most carb-rich meal at lunch the day before a race)

2 cups spaghetti topped with 1 cup marinara sauce and ½ cup steamed broccoli

2 slices whole wheat bread topped with 1 Tbsp vegetable oil spread (optional)

235mL lemonade


Snack 2:

15 animal crackers dipped in 1 Tbsp peanut butter

1 medium piece of fresh fruit


Dinner: (Aim for a light, mild dinner the night before a race)

1 whole-wheat pita stuffed with 60g lean luncheon meat (such as lean roast beef, turkey or chicken), ½ cup shredded lettuce, 2 slices tomato, 2 Tbsp fat-free honey mustard and served with 30g baked potato chips

1 soft chocolate-chip granola bar

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

475mL sports drink


Daily Nutrient Analysis:

12,627 total kilojoules

88g protein (12% total kilojoules)

56.5g fat (17% total kilojoules)

539g carb (71% total kilojoules)

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