Every year it seems like more and more men and women are signing up for longer races. The 5K used to be the standard, but now folks are training for the Baltimore 10-miler, the Charles Street 12, half marathons all over the country (that’s 13.1 miles), full marathons (26.2 miles), and even ultra-marathons of even longer distances!
In races that take longer than two hours to complete, it becomes important not just to eat good sources of carbohydrate the day before and to have a proper breakfast on race day, but also to supplement with additional carbohydrate during the actual run. Why is that? Our body draws on stored fat and carbohydrate to create energy for running. Carbohydrate stored in our muscles, known as glycogen, is a fantastic and ready-to-use fuel source, but our bodies can’t hold very much of it. At a hard effort, it only takes one to two hours to burn through all of your stores. When you run low on glycogen, your body and mind feel like they’re going to shut down, which many runners refer to as hitting the wall or the dreaded BONK. It’s extraordinarily painful—take my word for it and don’t experience it yourself.
Eating carbohydrates on the run keeps you from hitting that wall, and there are umpteen zillion different varieties of carefully formulated goo, sports beans, chomps and drinks available at running stores and sports retail shops. A lot of runners have been asking me lately, though, if they should supplement with food instead of these products. Before answering them, my question back is, why? Here are the most common replies I hear and my response back…
Too much sugar!
With a lot of focus lately on the terrible impact of sugar on the American diet, lots of half and full marathon runners are rightly concerned about taking in sources of concentrated carbohydrate and sugar such as those found in sports supplements. However, when used properly on a run of 75 minutes or longer, these products are designed to be introduced into your bloodstream quickly (typically within about 30 minutes) so they can be used as fuel. In terms of impact on weight management and overall health, consuming a 100-calorie gel while running is a very different scenario than eating a 350-calorie white bagel and sitting on the couch watching TV. Your blood sugar regulation is much more tightly controlled during intense exercise, and you’re less likely to have a blood sugar surge and crash from a gel. With that bagel though, a surge and crash is a much greater likelihood. Not to mention that depending on what else you’ve eaten recently and your activity level, some or all of the carbohydrate in that bagel could be stored as fat. Gels and gus? Not so much.
Ultra-marathoners who are running six, seven, eight or even more hours often look to real food to supplement their events due to the greater calorie needs. In this case, I strongly recommend supplementing with real food! Gels and sports drinks are vital in supporting runners tackling these massive races, but the calorie need is so great, real food is an imperative to keep runners fueled through those grueling miles. The pace is also frequently slower, which means that your body will be able to divert some blood flow to digestion—something that doesn’t happen on a faster, shorter run (if we can call a marathon a shorter run!). Foods to keep on hand include dried fruit, energy bars (look for bars that have a lot of carbohydrates, not a ton of protein and fiber), pretzels and small sandwiches. I strongly recommend ultra runners take a look at ultra-marathon champion Scott Jurek’s excellent book Eat and Run for more ideas and recipes for food on the go. These races also frequently have pit stops, where runners can pick up more substantial foods like bananas, rice, salted skinned potatoes and other easy to digest carbohydrates.
Digestive Distress and I-Just-Hate-These-Things-itis
A number of runners have encountered gasto-distress from consuming gels or drinks on runs, and they’re looking to real foods to help fuel them. This is a little tricky and involves some further investigation. For those of us with sensitive digestive systems (and for those who just can’t stand the taste or texture of these supplements), it may take trying a few different gels, beans, chomps, drinks, etc to find the supplement that agrees with us. Some of these fuels, especially lower calorie drinks and electrolyte drinks, are sweetened with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols, which can wreak havoc on a sensitive stomach. Others have caffeine, which can turn a pleasant morning run into a doubled over hobble ending with a visit behind the bushes. I encourage my clients running marathons and longer events to try a couple products before giving up on them entirely, but for some folks, their systems just don’t agree with the carb supplements. For these folks, I have a few recommendations of foods that travel well on the run and provide the sugar our bodies need:
- Dried fruit is an ideal option! Raisins and dried sweetened cherries are concentrated sources of sugar that are relatively easy to digest and travel well
- Medjool dates are semi-dried fruit that also travel well and are loaded with natural sugars
- Honey packets
- Homemade or purchased energy bars with a high carbohydrate content. Avoid products with lots of protein, fat and fiber. These can be excellent additions to your diet any other time, on a run they cause gastro issues, and they’re not readily converted to fuel.
Still not sure how to properly fuel your long runs? Let’s chat! Message me on Facebook or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org