When you started running – and maybe participated in your first 5K – nutrition wasn't even on the radar. You'd take a little cup of water or two during the race, and that is all you had to worry about. The same goes for a 10K, but as the miles get longer, you found you needed something to eat. Maybe you realized it when you ran your first eight or 10 miler. Maybe it was your first half marathon.
Whatever the case, you went to the running store and bought gels, gummies and powders. You bought waffle-looking things and power bars and all manners of strange, supposedly edible substances made just for long distance running. Maybe you even read some articles to figure out what to do with all of this stuff. Take one gel 15 minutes before you run and one every 30-45 minutes after; eat three to four gummy blocks every 15 minutes or one pack per hour. Soon enough, you were thinking about what and when to take all these things more than enjoying the run.
While running your scheduled training plan is the primary focus of race preparation, nutrition is another piece to the race-day puzzle. I am going to talk about what has worked for me when it comes to fueling for different events, and I encourage you to try new things to see what and what doesn’t work for you. Even if you have been fueling the same way for years, it can be good to try something new occasionally.
Because I am sponsored by them for 2018, I fuel primarily with Hammer Nutrition
's products. I prefer them because they provides steadier energy without the crash. Hammer formulates their gels and other products without simple sugars and instead rely on complex carbohydrates in the form of maltodextrin. Simple sugars produce a peak and crash effect, whereas complex carbs absorb at a rate of about three times that of the simple carbs. This method of fueling has resulted in faster recovery, stronger training and better end results in race day.
5K to 10K
A carbohydrate source alone is enough for races of this duration. You can surely run these distances without anything aside from water. For me, if I choose to fuel, I simply take one gel about 15 minutes before the race with some water.
10 Miler to Half Marathon
Unless it’s a trail race, I plan to run under two hours for races of this duration. I typically carry a 20-24 ounce bottle of water with Heed
mixed in. It supplies calories from complex carbs and also offers a small amount of electrolytes. I also take a gel 15 minutes beforehand and roughly every 45 minutes thereafter – and supplement fluids from the water stations.
In It for the Long Runs (Marathon or Longer)
Once I get into a training run or even, around two to three hours in duration or longer, other considerations must be taken into account.
The first being enough calories to sustain multi-hour efforts. Most athletes respond well to 120-180 calories per hour at harder effort, while there are some who advocate for intake equal to expenditure (i.e. burn 300 calories an hour and intake 300 calories per hour). This may work hiking or at very low intensity efforts, but for hard efforts, this very well could end your PR run in a Port-O-John.
The harder you are working, the harder it is for the stomach to digest food. So when you are running that PR marathon, you’ll want something very easy to digest like gels or a drink like Heed; this is not the time for a slice of pizza at mile 10. On the other hand, if you are moving at low intensity for hiking or in an ultra where you trade speed for endurance, then that slice of pizza might be great for you.
The second thing I want to do is to supplement my caloric intake with a small amount of protein – roughly 10-15 percent of my total calories per hour. After your finite supply of muscle glycogen is depleted, which takes around two to three hours, the body will cannibalize its own muscle tissue as a fuel. While this cannot be entirely prevented, you can help to buffer this effect by taking in small amounts of easily digestible protein such as soy protein. A minor amount of fat intake is also a good thing while out there for the long haul. When in doubt for a marathon, however, skip the protein and fats entirely.
And finally, I look to have a steady electrolyte source. This is especially critical during hot weather when you are sweating heavily. One of the biggest risks in endurance running is experiencing hyponatremia, a condition where sodium levels are depleted to dangerous levels. Symptoms include confusion, seizures and even death. I am particularly at risk as my anti-seizure medication causes low blood sodium levels, so I typically take one to two electrolyte capsules per hour. Keeping your electrolytes in check will stave off cramps and let you perform stronger for longer.
If running a marathon seems like a great warm-up, then you might be an ultra-runner. An ultra is anything beyond the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Here are a few extra tips if you are setting out into the ultra-running world.
Start eating real food at aid stations early. If you don't eat regularly, your stomach may shutdown and make it hard to take any food in later in the event. This is a recipe for disaster! You may not be hungry at mile 10, but make it a habit to eat at least a handful of food at every aid station On the other hand, you could also carry a bag of food in your pocket between aid stations. It’s always better to eat and drink when you feel you want to than to have to wait an hour to get to the next aid station.
Fuel right, feel great and have fun! I can’t wait to see you all on May 6, 2018 in the City of Champions and out on the trails as well!
Tony is one of our 2018 #10YearsRunning Official Bloggers. You can follow along as he trains for the DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on his blog The Runderful Life.