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Proper Hydration and Nutrition

by Karl Gruber
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As a long-time marathon runner and now a running coach, I have found one of the biggest learning curves for runners is how to properly hydrate and ingest proper nutrition when training for and racing a half or full marathon. Left on their own, both newbies and experienced runners act as if they are camels when it comes to hydration. As for nutrition, many runners act as though their fuel gauge indicator reads “full” all of the time — that is until their engine starts to sputter and comes to a stop. 
 
Many physically active and healthy people, including runners, feel as if they are invulnerable and can just “tough it out.” I agree that running many miles per week can create a wonderful sense of well-being, but any joy of getting to that finish line of a 13.1 or 26.2 mile race can quickly be lost without proper hydration and nutrition.
 
If you have found yourself bonking during a long training run, you can attribute it to either a lack of proper hydration and/or nutrition. The good news is that copious amounts of research and information are available to help you get on track and better understand how to drink and eat enough in order to run well consistently. Here are some basics to get you started:
 
  • You burn approximately 100 calories per mile while running. That can fluctuate up or down according to your size, weight, gender and even the weather conditions.
  • You lose water from your body via sweat. Lose as little as two percent of your bodyweight in sweat, and your running performance starts to deteriorate.
  • Treat your body like you would your car. Keep it going with enough liquid and enough fuel.
Here’s an excellent description of how your body’s muscles are fueled during running, by Edmund Burke, Ph.D., from his book, Optimal Muscle Recovery: “Muscle cells require extraordinary amounts of energy to contract – especially during exercise. To produce the energy your body needs, nature has designed an extremely sophisticated metabolic system. Energy is released when your muscle cells break down carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Your body uses these nutrients in specific proportions during exercise, depending on the length and intensity of your activity.”
 
While you’re running, think of your body as a machine that requires a sufficient amount of fuel to run well and long. Keeping in mind that you burn around 100 calories per mile while running, you will burn 1310 calories if you run 13.1 miles or 2620 calories if you run 26.2 miles. When you look at those numbers, you realize that is a lot of fuel your body needs to go the distance! 
 
This may be why you have heard other runners say that they “carbo-loaded” the night before their race. It’s as if you drove to the gas station and filled your car’s tank so you can successfully get to work the next day. No fuel, no go. Without enough fuel, you will not make it to your destination without sputtering to a stop on the way.
 
This may seem like a “no-brainer” to you, but I can recall hundreds of stories from runners about how they improperly ate before and/or during their marathon, only to end up either dropping out or hitting the dreaded “wall” that forced them to walk/stagger to the finish line.
 
And yes, you read that correctly. I said eat during their run. Think of consuming a sports energy gel during your race as topping off your fuel tank. Most energy gels contain around 100 to 150 calories of complex carbohydrates — the fuel required by your muscles to keep running. If you are burning 1310 or 2620 calories during your race, this is barely enough to keep you going for a little over a mile! 
 
Are you now starting to understand why eating a sufficient amount of calories before your long run is crucial? In the book Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, author Nancy Clark, R.D. states, “Every day, eat high-carbohydrate meals to fuel and refuel your muscles so they’ll be ready for action.” 
 
But it’s not just about nutrition; you also need to remember to properly hydrate. So now we return to Edmund Burke’s book with this eye-opening statement on the importance liquids to your running: “Because water is an essential nutrient for body temperature regulation and cardiovascular function, increased dehydration means increased risk of overheating and circulatory collapse. And, along with the water lost through sweating, your body also loses electrolytes, which are important for muscle contraction and relaxation.”
 
Whenever I train and race, I usually drink one-third of my liquid in water and the other two-thirds in a sports drink loaded with electrolytes. This is what works for me, but you must determine what works best for you when it comes to both hydration and nutrition. Use your training as your laboratory to find the right balance of nutrition and hydration that will keep you running well all the way to the finish line on race day. 

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