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The question

I am running my first marathon on May 17. What should I eat afterwards to recover quickly? I want to get back to running as soon as possible.

The answer

Recovering after a marathon is a key component of your training program. Yet, it's one that many runners neglect. Running 26.2 miles puts an enormous amount of stress on your body – whether it's your first or your 10th marathon – so it is important to start your recovery nutrition plan as soon as possible to help your muscles mend more quickly. If you don't recover properly, you'll feel fatigued and may run the risk of injuring yourself when you return to running.

Your postmarathon nutrition goals are threefold: 1) refuel muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) stores; 2) restore fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat; 3) provide nutrients to help repair muscle damage. (Glycogen is the predominant fuel source muscles use to sustain prolonged and strenuous exercise.)

Immediately after running the marathon, replace depleted muscle glycogen by consuming carbohydrate-packed foods such as bananas, raisins, granola bars, energy bars, bagels and pita bread. Many sports drinks supply carbohydrate, too. Snacks will be available after you cross the finish line, but I also recommend packing some to keep at the bag check. That way you will be able to continue your recovery process en route to the hotel or home.

Your muscles are primed to convert carbohydrate (glucose) to glycogen the fastest within 30 to 60 minutes postrace, called the "window of opportunity." But that doesn't mean muscle cells don't refuel afterwards. Given a steady stream of carbohydrate-based meals and snacks, muscles continue to refuel within 24 hours, but at a slower rate.

It's recommended that marathoners consume 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight (0.54 grams per pound) per hour for the first four hours after finishing a marathon. For a 77-kilogram (170 pound) runner, that translates to 92 grams of carbohydrates per hour. You would need to consume one large banana, one cup of yogurt and two cups of Gatorade for a total of 96 grams carbohydrate. After four hours, resume your usual carbohydrate intake based on your daily requirements.

Many runners have a reduced appetite after running a marathon, which can make eating plenty of carbohydrates challenging. Research has found that if you consume protein (10 to 20 grams) at each snack or meal, you can consume a smaller amount of carbohydrate and get the same glycogen replacement results.

Protein is also needed to repair muscle breakdown from long distance running. Think beyond protein bars or protein shakes. For optimal recovery, your muscles want three to four times more carbohydrate than protein. Good recovery snacks and meals include a smoothie (Greek yogurt, banana, blueberries); turkey sandwich, banana and one cup of Gatorade; and 1/4 cup almonds, one pita bread, 1/4 cup hummus and one large orange. If you're a fan of protein shakes blend in banana, berries and/or juice.

No matter how effective your fluid-replacement plan is during the race, you will very likely be dehydrated to some degree at the end of 26.2 miles, especially if the weather is warm. Start drinking as soon as you finish the event and continue until your urine is clear and your weight is back to premarathon weight. (Weigh yourself before and after the marathon.) For every pound you lose during the course of the race, you need to drink two to three cups of water to replace it.

It may be tempting to celebrate your finish with a beer (or two), but go easy as alcohol will dehydrate you further. If you do drink a beer, drink an equal amount of water with it.

You must also replace electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) lost through sweat, minerals that help maintain fluid balance and control muscle contractions. While sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade do a good job of delivering electrolytes (and fluid) during the marathon, don't rely on them solely afterwards.

Instead, get most of your postmarathon electrolytes from whole foods. Milk, chocolate milk, bagels, bread, pretzels, crackers, tomato juice and salted nuts all supply sodium. Potassium-rich foods include milk, yogurt, cantaloupe, bananas, dried apricots, raisins, baked potato with skin, leafy greens, tomato juice and orange juice.

A steady intake of nutritious foods will also supply a wide range of vitamins and antioxidants to repair muscle damage, fend off free radical damage from stressful activity and recover your immune system.

Since your body does most of its muscle repair while you sleep, eat a protein-rich snack before you go to bed. Greek yogurt, a handful of nuts, a protein shake or a couple of ounces of chicken will do the trick.

Finally, don't be too quick to lace up your running shoes after your marathon. Give yourself three to seven days to completely rest and recover. Then, ease back into light or low-intensity activity.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.

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