Marathon Training Fuel: What to eat and the impact of nutrition

Vivianne Pow

Having taken on previous marathons including Paris and Rome, Vivianne Pow, 53 year old receptionist at BMI Woodlands Hospital and running enthusiast, will be taking on the 26.2 miles at this year’s London Marathon to help raise awareness of Beating Bowel Cancer

After having battled bowel cancer twice during the past 5 years, Viv is on a mission to help make more people bowel cancer aware. In this article, Viv discusses her diet and nutrition during marathon training, pre and post run, and what she plans to eat and drink on race day.

Having had my colon removed due to bowel cancer, I have an ileostomy (where the small intestine is diverted through an opening in the tummy called a stoma). I wear a special pouch over the stoma for the collection of waste products. As a result, it is important that I drink more fluids and ensure I have enough salt in my diet, especially during periods of high activity. 

Initially after ileostomy surgery, I was only able to eat bland foods, but over time the small intestine adapted and I now manage a normal diet. It is essential, however, that I chew foods well, especially nuts and high fibre food as this assists digestion and prevents blockages. I tend to avoid the hard to digest foods such as sweetcorn, tomato skins and bamboo shoots. Certain foods can cause diarrhoea and I have learnt to avoid grapefruit for that reason! 

I like to think I follow a reasonably healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit, salad and vegetables and a mix of protein and carbohydrates. When I’m not training for long runs, I prefer to eat carbs only at breakfast and lunch; during training I include carbs, such as jacket potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, wholemeal pasta or wholemeal bread with every meal. I prefer to eat evening meals no later than 6pm as this gives my body time to digest the food before I go to bed. 

Although I’m not vegetarian, I have plenty of meat free days. I limit the amount of red meat that I eat to once or twice a week and often use Quorn in my favourite recipes and pasta dishes. I drink around two litres of fluid throughout a normal day beginning with a Berocca tablet in water (Berocca contains various vitamins & minerals) and then varying amounts of green tea, water, coconut water, unsweetened almond milk and electrolyte tablets in water. Quantities depend on how much exercise I’m doing and the weather. More intense exercise and hotter weather increases my fluid intake.  

As I’m not a huge lover of fish, I take a daily cod liver oil capsule for my Omega 3 intake. My breakfast each morning whether I am running or not is granola, fat free natural yoghurt and fruit or porridge with fruit. I usually include fresh blueberries and other fresh fruit such, as strawberries or banana. If I don’t have any fresh fruits at home, I like tinned peaches on the granola or dried prunes/apricots on the porridge.  

There’s always something in the cupboard to help me reach my five a day fruit and veg target! I generally try to eat breakfast a couple of hours before l run and then a banana just before I start. On my long runs, I wear a trail vest in which I can easily carry all the drink, gels and food that I may need.

Typical nutrition for a long run

Food for marathon
  • Pre run– 24 hours before, I hydrate well and eat small meals. My last meal is usually pasta and I have my usual breakfast 2 hours before. I then have a banana 10-30 minutes before I run 
  • During – Drink - High 5 zero tabs in water (contain electrolytes & magnesium). I also consume gels, including High 5 Energy gels and High 5 Isogel food, such as a Clif bar, flapjack and jelly bean sweets
  • After – Immediately after I have almond milk, nuts (brazil or salted cashews), crisps and/or chocolate. I also drink water and/or electrolyte drinks. Later on, I eat whatever meal I fancy at the time or is available, but usually consisting of protein, veg and carbs

Race day

Having practised my drinking and eating strategy on long training runs as outlined above, I follow this plan on race day. This strategy was successful for the last marathon that I ran in March 2015 (post ileostomy surgery). As I needed to eat on the run, I wasn’t sure how I would manage any output into my stoma pouch during the marathon (typically toilets on marathon routes are not the most hygienic!). Fortunately, there was no necessity for it to be emptied. I completed the course in a personal of 4 hours 9 minutes 40 seconds. 

Although I like to eat well, I do have my weaknesses - crisps, salted cashews, peanut butter, chocolate and the occasional gin. When I’m training for a marathon I rarely drink alcohol, limiting myself to one glass of wine if I’m out for a meal or a very occasional glass of gin. As far as the crisps and other weaknesses are concerned, well, I frequently allow myself to indulge a little! I’ve recently discovered that peanut butter on celery is really tasty and that tends to be my current supper-time snack. 

We are all different, so it is important to find the nutritional mix that works for you when training. It can be hard work but fun finding out - enjoy the journey!

You can download our free guide to running today! To ensure you are bowel cancer aware, download our free awareness guide or listen to our bowel cancer podcast where our panel discuss the bowel cancer journey from signs, symptoms and screening to diagnostics, treatment and life after bowel cancer. You can support Viv’s London Marathon fundraising efforts by sponsoring her via JustGiving.

For more information including, running tips and injuries, download our free guide to running or take a look at our running injuries infographic.

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