Fall race season is over and many of you may be taking time to reflect on your race and what you could do better next time. Did you bonk? Did you start to experience cramping? Did the run feel effortless or did it feel exhausting from start to finish?
Whether your next goal is a spring marathon or maybe you are waiting until the next fall season; racing a half, full, or ultra-marathon you will have many progressive long runs integrated into the training plan weekly to help you improve in your endurance for your goal race. In order to achieve these distances, you must fuel correctly.
When it comes to fueling for a race, you don't have to be be new to running to have questions. It takes many of us quite a few tries to understand what works best during a long run or race and, at times, learning how to fuel your long runs can feel overwhelming.
How Long Before I Start Fueling?
In general, runners need to add in 30 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrate each hour that they are running when they are running longer than 90 minutes. The timing of your fueling will need to start earlier than 90 minutes into a run. If you waited until 90 minutes to being your fuel, by that time your tank will be empty. Once your tank hits empty it is very hard to recover - if you can recover at all. You should plan to eat 30 grams - 60 grams (depending on your specific body weight/needs) every 45 minutes when you are running longer than 90 minutes. Any long runs greater than 2.5 hours, male or female, consumption of 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour is recommended.
If you are starting from scratch with fueling for your long runs, starting with much smaller quantities of carbohydrates every 45 minutes during your runs may be beneficial to avoid gastrointestinal distress. Start small and work your way up.
But WHY is the timing so important? Our bodies have been continuously working for an extended amount of time and when working for that amount of time we start to run low in glycogen (stored carbohydrate) and get closer to “bonking” or feel the need to stop running at the same intensity. If we fuel ourselves before we start to feel tired and while we are still feeling strong, we can keep our glycogen levels and, in turn, our intensity levels consistent.
It's also important to note that the longer you are moving at a certain effort level, cardiovascular drift occurs. This means that for a constant effort level, the longer you go, there is a gradual increase in heart rate . So by fueling earlier in your run, you are able to absorb carbs better because the need to pump blood (and oxygen) to working muscles is less and the blood flow needed to promote proper carbohydrate digestion is higher.
Remember to start practicing your fueling early into your training. The earlier the better, this way you can try various products and train your gut to take on fuel. Just like you train your legs and your lungs to be strong enough to carry you through a workout, you must train your body to take in calories. If you neglect gut training until race day, you may experience gastrointestinal distress, cramps, or bonking.
What Should I Fuel With?
When you run long distances, your body relies initially on glycogen as its primary fuel. Glycogen is derived from eating carbohydrates and stored in the muscles and liver for easily accessible, efficient energy.
Running fuel should consist of easily digestible carbohydrates that contain minimal protein, fat, and fiber. While fat is an essential energy source for your body, it takes a while for your body to convert fat into fuel. Protein should be a huge part of your daily diet and post exercise recover; however, it is not a primary energy source and, therefore, not a typically essential component of mid-run fueling.
Fueling also consists of hydration. It is important that you take into consideration your hydration strategy for long runs. Chews, gels, sports nutrition beverages, and whole foods may be used to fuel your long runs as these contain those quick digesting carbohydrates. Some athletes use bananas/gummy bears/home-made energy bites as their fuel.
You should also aim for 300-500mg of sodium per hour with 16-24 ounces of fluid.
How to Practice Fueling
Here are some tips on how to start practicing your fueling. Remember it will look different for each runner.