When it comes to race day nutrition, there is no shortage of fueling options available.
That said, not all fueling options are viable choices for every runner.
For example, I find gels to be completely unpalatable. I have tried several different brands and flavors, and I simply find them all disgusting. My stumbling block is the texture/consistency of the gels, but thankfully there are other fueling options available that I don’t have any trouble using during a race.
For me, my fueling options are limited by my taste buds/gag reflex.
I am lucky.
I know many runners that struggle with GI distress when they take in nutrition during a race, no matter what type of fuel source they use.
I can’t imagine be forced to find a port-a-potty (or bush to squat behind) within minutes of eating something during a race, but for many runners that is their reality.
The 10,000 Foot View of Mid-Race Nutrition
I am a lot of things, but one thing I am not is a gastroenterologist.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the basics of nutrition and why some runners really struggle with finding fueling options that work for them.
When food finds its way into your stomach, your body starts breaking it down and extracting the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from the food. Said vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are then carried by the blood stream to the different parts of your body that need them.
The breaking down process of food happens at different rates based on what type of food you are eating, and the quicker it breaks down the quicker it gets absorbed by the blood and the “good stuff” is transported to the rest of your body.
And the stuff that doesn’t get broken down? That gets pushed on through the system, if you will.
When we are running our bodies aren’t as adept at breaking down our food because our energy is needed elsewhere–namely our legs so we can keep running!
The simpler a source of nutrition is to break down, the better our bodies are at extracting the nutrients (typically the sugars) and using them for fuel during our race.
That’s why gels are so popular–no chewing/breaking down needed! Just choke down that glucose and let your blood take the fuel to your legs so you can keep on keeping on.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least in theory.
Possible Issues When It Comes to Fueling
- Dramatic Dietary Change: Have you ever looked at the label on a gel or a chew or most other packaged fueling options marketed to runners/endurance athletes? There are many ingredients on the label, and more than a few almost seem to be made up words. I’m not trying to say that a gel or a chew is “bad” for you, but as someone who tries to eat real food as much as possible there is no way you can convince me there is anything “real” about this product.
- Exertion: Like I mentioned above, when you’re running your body doesn’t want to expend a whole lot of energy to break down whatever fuel sources you are putting in your system. Put something in your stomach that requires more energy to break down than what your body is willing to allot, and your body is going to get rid of it by whatever means necessary. For some, that means it comes back up. For others, it means expediting the evacuation process…
- Flooding Your System: There are some cases where too much of a good thing is a great thing, and then there are those instances where too much of a good thing is a complete nightmare. If you flood your system with more fuel than it can handle at one time, you’re setting yourself up for some issues. And typically for runners, we are flooding our system with so much sugar that we are just going to feel like complete shit (pun ABSOLUTELY intended) and our body is just going to want to get it out of our system. So again, it’s either coming back up or it’s blowing out the other end.
What Fueling Options Work Best?
Clearly, there are no one size fits all solutions when it comes to fueling options for runners.
I’m lucky that I have an iron gut when it comes to mid-race nutrition, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t found certain fueling options to be much more effective than others.
For me, my best races always start with a big breakfast of eggs, grits/home fries, and coffee. I like to start a race with a full tank, and this does it for me. Now, I do wake up early enough before the race to not only prepare the food and eat it, but also to let the food settle in my stomach a bit before the race begins.
If you have a sensitive stomach, or even if you don’t, this may not work very well for you. But it definitely works for me. (Remember, no one-size solutions here.)
In terms of mid-race fueling options, there’s no question in my mind that citrus fruits are the best sources of fuel that I’ve ever used in a race.
If orange slices aren’t available, I’m open to other options with a preference toward real food. I’m a big fan of Picky Bars and some nut butter and/or honey is always good. And if I have to, my stomach can definitely handle chews and/or gatorade during a race.
Again, this is what works for me.
Keep Trying Differing Fueling Options
I learned what works best for me by trying different fueling options and being aware that a GI disaster was a possibility when trying something new.
So clearly, the best time to try something new isn’t on race day. Instead, try a variety of fueling options during your training runs.
- Eat a big breakfast/meal a couple of hours before your run, and see how that works for you.
- Try liquid fueling options like TailWind, or swing back by the house halfway through your run for a cup of chicken broth.
- Stash an orange some place that you plan to run past mid-run, and see if a little citrus helps you as much as it helps me.
The key is to just keep trying different things until you find something that works FOR YOU, and then sticking with it.
On race day, you may need to take your own fuel with you and forgo whatever fueling options the race is providing.
But if that means you’re not jumping in the nearest port-a-potty every time you take in calories, I’d say that’s a pretty good trade.
What Have You Found That Works for You in Terms of Mid-Race Fueling Options?
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