I have spent many years, days and hours on the road running. I’ve probably spent way more time on the road and trails than I would even want to admit. In all of this time I have learned a lot about the sport, my body, and how the two can work together in the most efficient manner.
Running is truly a personal experiment. How many miles can I push myself in a given day or week? Can I make it through a marathon? What type of shoes work for my body? This list can go on and on. The hardest experiment to figure out and the one that can take years to really get right is fuel and hydration.
Every person is different. What works for me could easily make you sick to your stomach and vice versa. In ideal world I could tell you to take a certain supplement every 3 miles and you would cross the finish line successfully. But that is not the case.
In fact, last year when I was training for a marathon I was trying to figure out just what to eat before my long training runs. I am lucky in many ways because I can handle a bigger breakfast before a run and do up to 18 miles without needing something else. I realize however, that this would have most runners on the side of the road with serious GI issues. But I had read that Ryan Hall eats pancakes before his runs and I figured if it works for him, why not? And so I began an early Saturday morning regimen of eating 2 pancakes and heading out the door.
The pancakes worked fantastically. I bragged about them. I loved them. I figured I would look like Ryan Hall in no time. And then I did my first 17 mile run and pancakes no more. About 14 miles in I started having horrible heartburn and seriously questioned if I was going to be able to finish my run. Lesson learned.
Rule #1: Figure out what breakfast combination works for you and stick with it. I spent the first few weeks playing around with what perfect combination worked for me. Funny enough it was one and a half bagels toasted and then scooped out (basically I ate the crispy shell) with either peanut butter or cream cheese. Denny over at DKFitSolutions pointed out that this combination was a good one because it contained the carbs, proteins, and fats I needed for my long run.
Once you find the breakfast combination that works, stick with it. Eat it every day before your long run and plan on that for the day of the race. You will also need to figure out how soon before a run you can eat and drink. For me, I know that I need an hour and a half to properly digest so that means that if I plan on running at 6:30am I need to be up no later than 4:50am.
Keep in mind that coffee plays into this combo a lot as well. Coffee can wreak havoc on your GI system. It can act as a diuretic and you don’t want that happening on the race course. But it is a must for me in the morning so I have to time this out accordingly as well.
Rule #2: Start playing with your fuel options now and stick with what works. I have been on many a run with someone training for a race and watched them start out strong only to see them fade pretty quickly and hit that dreaded wall. They ate breakfast in the morning but didn’t bring any fuel along for the run. Nothing stinks more than having a good run get cut short with a bonk.
The only way to really figure out what works for you on the run is to go to a local running store and shop around. Fortunately most of these options are not that expensive. Grab a few packets and take them along on your medium distance runs. See what tastes good for you and sits well in your stomach. Some people get sick off of GU, others can’t get the Bloks down in the first place. I personally love the Jelly Belly Sport Beans, Gatorade Chews, and PocketFuel Naturals.
The next part of this plan is figuring out when you need that fuel and this can be tricky. You don’t want to overload on the run, but you also want to fuel before you start to hit that wall. Listen to your body and look for signs that you need something extra. At the start I would plan on every 5 miles or so. You also don’t have to finish a whole package for each refuel. Try half at first and see how it works for you. Look for signs. If you start to feel grumpy, tired, or even have negative thoughts begin to run through your mind, try some fuel. You might be surprised how little it takes to pick you back up again. As little as 100 calories will pep you back up again. It doesn’t take a full meal so don’t overdo it.
As time goes on you will also find that your body will adjust and you might not need fuel as often as you first did. When I started running longer distances I was taking fuel every 3-5 miles. Especially during marathon training your body will learn how to use it’s glycogen stores more efficiently and you might find you don’t have to fuel quite as often.
Rule #3: Figure out your hydration plan and take it seriously. Hydration is probably the most important part of your plan of attack. Start now and stick with it until the day after your race. Drink plenty of water every day, not just the day of or the day before a long run. It is key for getting you through your entire training plan and keeping your muscles and body healthy. It is also necessary for even the most simple of things, like your sleep patterns.
During your long training runs take water with you. This is key to figuring out how much water you will need during your race. Do you need water every mile or every three? Not only is it a major safety precaution but it will help you figure out this key part of the equation. If you find that you can go 3-4 miles on a few ounces of water you will probably be okay without a bottle or belt during your race. Other runners need water almost every mile and if that is the case you will probably want to take something with you during the race.
Make sure you look at your race’s website. They usually will inform you of where and how many water/aid stations are available during the course.
If you don’t drink Gatorade/sports drinks during your training runs, don’t use it on the race course. Again, you have no idea how your body will react to it. I once bought a Gatorade during a 23 mile run and quickly found out that it made me thirstier than I had been without it. I had to stop and drink water and it really threw my whole plan off.
Fuel and hydration is definitely a personal experiment that never ends. Our bodies change and as they do our personal requirements and preferences can also change. Find what works best for you and stick within those parameters.
What can of fuel and hydration do you prefer?