With Vancouver I was fortunate that the coastal city had a wealth of sushi options. Sushi rolls were an almost perfect combination of carbohydrates (from the rice) and protein (from the fish, seaweed and soy sauce). Sure, they also had markets with lots of produce, which also helped.
But produce is easy to get in most locales. Rich healthy whole food carb and protein sources… not as much.
Running the Chicago Marathon in October makes this easy since it’s only a few miles down the street. I can cook and eat as typically desired right up to and after the race. To a lesser but still reasonable extent, the nearby Fox Valley Marathon and Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon are close enough that if I ran either of them I could eat normally up to race day.
So, what if I ran a marathon in a more remote locale, where there’s not a lot of stores and restaurants? Or even if it was a major market, what if pretty much every restaurant available served processed and otherwise unhealthy food that wasn’t going to help me stay ready to run?
Vancouver is known for healthy fare. A place like Memphis or Houston… maybe not as much (though the barbecue and fried food I’m sure are awesome).
In Vancouver I could walk everywhere I needed to go for food. Other more suburban style locales require driving or fare rides, which come at a cost. I’d probably prefer to stay in. Options close to my lodging would be limited. Few lodging options would provide a kitchen, or anything more than a mini-fridge and the bathroom sink.
One clear example is Boston. I’m in no hurry to run the Boston Marathon (and they’re in no hurry to let me), but most runners aren’t able to stay in an affordable central locale with plenty of food options. Many have to take what they can get given the competition and pricing for vacancies.
A lesser example is the San Juan Island Marathon in Friday Harbor, Washington… accessible only by ferry. And Lakedale, while a beautiful location, doesn’t have a lot of dining or shopping options.
Portable packaged food not only isn’t going to cut it satiety-wise, but processed garbage won’t have a lot of the day to day nutrients your body will need on race day. Whole food remains valuable and essential.
And nothing against the restaurants in any of these areas, but even if they’re not too expensive, your options are rather limited. It’s easy to decide to eat pasta or rice or lean protein, but restaurants often don’t have what you’re looking for. The ones who do often are sketchy, or too expensive, or add on a bunch of other garbage you don’t want. And, honestly, it’s probably processed garbage prepared out of a container.
The destination races I’ve done before Vancouver were all shorter distances, and racing those on a compromised diet isn’t a big deal. You can easily survive.
The marathon, however, demands more preventative action, especially with your diet. You can’t get to the starting line undernourished and expect to be fine for a 26+ mile race.
So, let’s say you’re doing a race on your home continent, far enough from home that you need to stay in different lodging, and that just flying in the day before and flying out the afternoon after the race isn’t practical (I don’t recommend that practice anyway). You have to stay for a few days.
You don’t have Vancouver’s wide range of fresh, healthy dining options. Let’s say the nearest affordable options are, say, a bar and grill and four fast food restaurants. There’s a supermarket a mile away, sure. But you’re not eating from their low-end hot bar for 5-7 days, nor should you carb load on cold cuts, energy bars and raw produce. (Having made that latter mistake a few times in my life, heed my advice that even without a marathon that does not end well)
Let’s say you’re not a vegan raw foodist and my scenario isn’t a ridiculous premise (that lucky demographic can just buy a bunch of fruit and vegetables when they get there, and pig out as usual).
What do you do then? You don’t just, say, go run Indy and decide to starve, or live off Wendy’s fast food, or spend $30 a day at (what I’m sure are good) Indy restaurants… and expect to be completely fine for the marathon.
You want healthy cooked food for the trip. You don’t want to spend $10-40 a plate for it. There must be a better way.
I have one.
Make sure to book a hotel that provides a mini-fridge
A hotel, not a motel. Motels give you a bed, a desk and a bathroom and that’s it. For most road trips that’s fine. For a marathon, you need to spend extra for a hotel and make sure you have a fridge of some sort.
Most decent hotels provide a mini-fridge. You’re not buying any large food items so that’s totally fine. If you’re really lucky you can find one with an actual kitchen, but that’s not necessary. All that’s really needed is a fridge for any purchased perishable food.
If you do Airbnb, find a dedicated space that gives you free use of your own kitchen. In my experience, a cheap room in a lived-in home gets awkward if you try to use the resident’s kitchen while they’re home.
If you can find and afford to rent a full house or home, awesome, and (as long as it’s above board) let me know if you can find me work in whatever pays you that much.
Bring a rice cooker, and a Foreman-style mini grill
If you’re road-tripping, this is simple. If you’re flying in, ship it to the hotel or a nearby shipping post like a UPS Store in advance if you must. Then ship it back home after the race, a day or two before you leave (when eating local processed garbage isn’t as big a deal to your now-damaged body).
If shipping’s going to cost a pretty penny and the race is in a decent sized town, maybe instead find a Target, Walmart, or home accessory store like Bed Bath and Beyond, and buy a simple rice cooker and Foreman grill for the trip.
Cooking brown or white rice is super easy with a rice cooker. Rice is a simple, easily digestible starchy carbohydrate that’s great for carb loading.
The Foreman grill allows you to quickly, painlessly grill cuts of meat, or if you’re vegetarian/vegan you can grill things that aren’t meat.
Cheap steaks and rice are a totally adequate combination for meals, if you’re at a loss for other food options. This also puts you in total control of what goes into your body during the day or two before the race, reducing the likelihood of food poisoning or other bad digestive reactions derailing your race day.
Bring or buy some seasoning, though. I like garlic salt and that’s usually enough.
Also, while a few days of the grill’s oily runoff can probably go down the bathroom sink drain with little problem… if you’re averse to doing that, or the drain does pose a problem, get a can or some other stable, empty container and dump it in there. Bag the container up (even if it seals) and toss it in a trash can before you check out.
The best snacks: Baby Carrots and Bananas
Carrots are the richest supply of beta carotene, which helps fight inflammation. Eliminating inflammation is valuable ahead of running a marathon, since you’re about to beat the hell out of your body and starting it with as little existing inflammation as possible helps buffer the upcoming damage.
Bananas are not only a quality starch and carb source among fruits and vegetables, but they’re the richest, most affordable source of potassium you’ll find among fruit.
Both should be your go-to snack foods in the days before and after your marathon.
If you can handle gluten, croissants are a perfect race-morning food
Some people avoid gluten for good reasons, and those people should stick to bananas and rice for carb loading.
For those who handle gluten fine, croissants are an excellent combination of fat and digestible carbohydrate. Eat one in the morning a few hours before your race, and it’ll digest at pretty much the right time, topping off your glycogen stores and leaving the remainder ready to use in your bloodstream at the starting gun.
Why not just eat bananas and rice instead? The bananas are a little more fibrous, which can create a crappy dilemma right before the race. The sugar hits your bloodstream a bit too quickly. That’s fine in mile 20 (which is why many marathons give you bananas at that stage of the race), but not a couple hours before your race. The rice has a similar effect, but its bigger problem is that it’s heavy and tends to bring your energy level down at a time where you need it to go up.
If you can handle them, croissants are perfect for race morning.
If traveling for a half marathon or shorter, I mostly couldn’t care less about nutrition ahead of the race. Sure, I’ll eat as healthy as I can, but I’ll enjoy whatever’s available and make the best of it.
Marathons and ultras on the road require more preparation to ensure effective fueling and ensure that you’ll be ready to race. A little proactive planning combined with the right food combination can go a long way.