To Fuel And When To Fuel, That’s A Good Question

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.

My stomach hurts just thinking about this!

My stomach hurts just thinking about this!

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.



This is my absolute new favorite.  I used this for a 17 and 20 mile run and it worked so well.

This is my absolute new favorite. I used this for a 17 and 20 mile run and it worked so well.

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?

28 thoughts on “To Fuel And When To Fuel, That’s A Good Question

  1. Solid advice.
    My hydration rule for racing is to drink all I want untill 1 hour before the race. Then I drink nothing and stay in the porat-potty line. This gives my system time to process that fluid and I’m still well hydrated for the race.
    I’ve also begun taking a 500ml water bottle with me for halfs and marathons. This allows me to skip the first crowded water stops and drink when I want, not just when water is available.

    • Andy thanks for the great thoughts on this. You reminded me that a good friend of mine who is a successful marathoner suggested that I drink at every water stop starting at the half marathon mark. I started a bit later but had I not known that, I would have definitely slowed due to dehydration. Also, the porta potty dance is an important one to learn at the start of any race…shuffle to the front, start over, repeat until race time.

  2. i make myself stop and grab a lil cup at almost every single station and take at least a sip or two — learned this the hard way after getting severely dehydrated after my first half and ending up on the couch/bed alllll day. woof. i start with water for the first half of the race (for a half), then switch to gatorade cups around mile 7-8. done and done.

    • Dehydration is a terrible lesson to learn, but we all have to experience it to truly understand how important it is to keep the water coming. Great plan with your races and the water/sports drink. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great tips! Long runs are perfect times to experiment with what works. For me, I try to eat a simple, carb-heavy bfast (pancakes would definitely work!) and eat 100 calories of blocks every hour or so.

  4. As always, right on right on. I used to think pssssh I don’t need fuel! And then you bonk a few times and figure out better. That’s part of the reason that I can be kind of a nazi with regards to my pre-long run and pre-race fueling and nutrition rituals. Of course, I have had these things blown way off course (see MCM and this weekend!) and still managed to pull through, but you can always tell what makes you perform best. I love english muffins with jam and pb, half banana, and a ginger chew the morning of a race. Or, the “hotel” version (my original pre-race selection)–a single box thing of special k original, a clif z bar (honey graham) and half a banana, and then ginger chew (both with half caff coffee and water). One of the times that I bonked was because I was so scared to try the Vega version of Gu (because I had heard so many horror stories) that I just waited way too long. I did fine with the thing, but my run suffered. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE.
    Unless you are at mile 23 of MCM and they are giving out donut holes. then at least take a bite!

    • You are so right. It really is about practice practice practice. Thanks for sharing your lessons and what you have found works for you. And donut holes at mile 23?! Sounds perfect.

      • I thought it was water at first (they were in water cups) and I had on my ear buds by that point and they were shouting NOT WATER but it didn’t register until I looked in and remembered seeing that Dunkin was doing that thing and was like WTFNot and took a bite, crushed that cup like it HAD had water it and threw it to the ground and soldiered on.

  5. Great post! I eat oatmeal with peanut butter and a half of banana before every long run or race. I am usually good with no fuel/water for half marathons, but anything longer than that and I plan my refuel (usually every 7 miles or so). Luckily, my stomach is pretty strong and all kinds of gu/blocks work as long as there is no caffeine!

  6. Awesome tips! Fueling is such a tricky topic for me. My last half marathon I had to learn the hard way what I can and can’t eat. I can make it 3-4 miles with no water and then I like sips every 2 miles afterwards. I also love honey stinger chews but think I should look into some other options. I just can’t get over the taste or texture of a lot of products.

  7. Delighted I can’t across this post. I’m about to do my first half in 4 weeks and am just putting together my race day fuel plan. Big step up from the leisurely 10k runs which I manage without fuel or hydration during.

  8. Ha, nice! Great tips! I’ve learned that for me, it’s all about what I eat and drink the days leading up to a big run. The morning of I keep it pretty light. I also learned to be more careful with fluids – in a 90 degree marathon last year I drank way too much water. I felt so full and sluggish from it.

  9. I’m a strange person when it comes to this. I have to figure a lot of the out still, with my marathon coming in October and my long runs on deck. All I eat before a run is a banana. My stomach doesn’t really appreciate much else. Though I did eat a cereal bar before a 30K and that was fine. I also hydrate a lot before a race. During the race I hardly take water unless it is super warm and humid. During that 30K I took water twice but it was 12 degrees that day. Thanks for the advice. I’ll be trying a bunch of stuff leading up to the big day.

  10. Most of the ultras I run start before 7 a.m. I’m lucky if I can choke down a banana and a Cliff Bar. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to eat real food during the race. Half marathons are my toughest to fuel for. I’m too worked up to eat much, and drinking just about anything puts me in the porta-potties 10 minutes later. Yeesh.

  11. My tried and trusted fueling is a bowl of spaghetti bolognese for dinner, and breakfast I’ll have 1 or 2 slices of toast with egg mayonnaise, plus a gu.
    I then carry at least 1 gu with me, and a few gu chews for my re-fueling on the run… and always a bottle of water with me because I tend to need just a tiny sip at times when there would be nothing on a race course.
    I’m a huge fan of Gatorade after a run so am going to find these gatorade chews you’ve pictured and give them a try during a run.
    Thanks for a great post 🙂

  12. Great read! From what I’ve learned so far, bagel or peanut butter toast works the best before my run. I haven’t used any fuels yet for my longer runs (15-17 km), but I make sure to have a Camelbak with me. During my last 2 races, I’ve tried Gu and it worked fine for me. However, I am really curious about all those chews you mentioned in your post. I’ll have to look more into it. xoxo

  13. Such awesome advice! I went into my last big race with a good plan in place and then realized that I didn’t really need to do it quite the way I thought since they had so many water/fuel stops. It’s unfortunate that not every race is going to be that awesome. 🙂 I’m probably going to be doing some more experimenting before my next one and I’m bookmarking this post to help me along.

  14. So true, nutrition is so individual. I rely on a bowl of cereal the morning of a race – the mix of carb and milk sugars sits well on my stomach with no issues if taken about an hour or more before a heavy workout. For tri’s I have to make sure I rehydrate on the bike but not overdo it or I’ll have water sloshing in my stomach on the run – yuck! One race ran out of cups so I prefer to have a bit of water with me just to sip every few km.

  15. This is a much appreciated refresher. I recently bought my first belt and it made my longest long run to this point much easier. My rule: one sip of water every time the GPS watch beeps. For anything under a half, I’ll have a half peanut butter and banana sandwich before I leave and have the other half when I get done!

  16. I am SO bad at fueling!! Sometimes I sleep in or I just stupidly forget my stuff so I end up buying a gel or a waffle at a running store ): I really need to be more consistent!

  17. I haven’t reached that serious mileage yet, but I ran a 15k on a piece of Ezekiel bread, nut butter and half a banana and had the best run ever! In sub freezing rain! Definitely agree to each his own! I also must have water 100% of my run. Still learning about hydration there.

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