QT: Thoughts, Suggestions, and My Take on Mid-Run Nutrition/Fueling
I feel like there are few more loaded topics in the world of running than mid-run nutrition/fueling.
There are so many different schools of thought about what works best.
Maybe that’s why it’s a topic I haven’t talked about a whole lot, eh?
However, it’s a topic I get asked about fairly regularly.
So perhaps I should take a stab at addressing mid-run nutrition then, eh?
But First, an Important Reminder…
When it comes to mid-run nutrition, there is absolutely no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
Awhile back, I put up a post in the FB group asking for suggestions of topics to discuss in the future, and when the topic of mid-run nutrition/fueling came up it was accompanied by these two comments:
- Tell me exactly what to eat
- Don’t tell me to just try different things.
If the nutrition/fueling puzzle was so easily solvable that I could just tell you exactly what to eat and when, this wouldn’t be an issue worth discussing!
There would already be countless books/articles/podcasts having been published, and none of us would ever wonder what we should eat during a race because the answer would be clear as day.
Clearly, that isn’t the reality in which we live.
The fact of the matter is that there is no way that I can tell you exactly what you should eat during a race, and the only way you’ll be able to figure out what works best for you is to try different fueling options on race day.
Some Science to Keep in Mind
Now, this may sound like a one-size-fits-all situation, but it’s really more like a rule of thumb.
Admittedly, it’s a blurry line between the two, but there is a difference.
The following bits of science aren’t ironclad.
They are generally true, because science, but I’m not proclaiming them as universal doctrine.
Do You Even Need Fuel?
You know that you may not need to fuel, right?
As humans, we all are able to have a certain amount of glycogen stored in our muscles and liver that can be tapped into at any time.
In general, those stores are capable of providing enough fuel to get us through 90-120 minutes of good, solid effort.
So right off the bat, a strong argument can be made against the idea of fueling at all for any run/race that you expect to finish in less than two hours.
But if we dig a bit more below the surface, the fact of the matter is that we all probably have a bit more fuel than those 90-120 minutes.
Unless you are really blasting, you’re probably not burning through your carb stores exclusively during your run.
In all likelihood, you’re burning a mix of body fat and glucose/glycogen while you’re running.
How much body fat are you burning?
It’s almost impossible to know for sure, but as a general rule the easier you’re running the more body fat you’re able to burn.
So for a long run at an easy effort, you may not need any fuel at all even if your run is 3+ hours long!
And on the other side of that coin, if you’re really getting out there and hammering for a half marathon with the goal of breaking 2 hours for the first time, there is a decent chance that you may need some fuel to make sure you don’t start running out of gas over the last few miles of the race.
But the point I’m trying to make is that you may be taking in some mid-run nutrition when you really don’t need to.
Fueling Options Abound
You know as well as I do that there are no shortage of fueling options available.
You have to figure out what sits best on your stomach during a race, and the only way to do that is to try some different options.
Gels. Chews. Liquids. Real food.
All can work. All can cause problems.
Start trying different options during your long runs, but remember that what works during an easy 20-miler may not work as well during 26.2 miles at goal pace.
The Timing Conundrum
Knowing what fueling options work well for you is important, but knowing when to fuel also matters.
Another rule of thumb is that it takes about 30 minutes from the time you take in your fuel until your body is able to utilize said fuel to power your runs.
Digestion isn’t an instantaneous process, after all.
So make sure you’re taking in your mid-run nutrition before you actually need it!
As you probably can deduce, there are too many variables at play to give any specific advice saying that you should start fueling after a specific amount of time.
But as a general rule, it’s wise to err on the side of starting earlier than later.
Maybe start after 60 minutes? Maybe after 75? Or 90?
Impossible to say for sure, but if you’re running long enough/hard enough to need fuel, it probably makes sense to start fueling somewhere in that 60-90 minute range.
You Can Only Handle So Much Fuel at a Time
One last rule of thumb to keep in mind is that your body can only process about 150-200 calories per hour during exercise.
As such, it’s important to remember that over-fueling is a very real possibility!
And the effects of over-fueling are typically not pretty.
If you’re overwhelming your digestive system with calories during a race, your body will figure out a way to rid itself of the excess fuel.
Aka, your body is going to purge the system from one end or the other.
Safe to say, neither of those situations are things you want to have to deal with during a run or a race.
A Humble Suggestion…
Mid-run fueling is a necessary evil in our sport, especially for those of us that run relatively long distances.
As a general rule, since that seems to be the theme of this post/episode so far, the more fuel you take in the higher the risk of having some GI issues during a run/race.
I’m not saying that you can’t/shouldn’t take in mid-run nutrition. But I am saying that it may be a good idea to err on the side of taking in a bit less fuel than to run the risk of over fueling.
What that looks like, specifically, is going to vary from one person to the next.
But few things ruin a run/race like a grumbly tummy. And nothing causes a grumbly tummy like overdoing the fuel during a run or a race.
My Mid-Run Nutrition/Fueling Strategy
Before I get to the specifics, a few disclaimers.
First of all, I’m in no way saying that you should adopt my fueling strategy.
It works for me, but hopefully, by now, you realize that doesn’t mean that it would work for you too!
Secondly, there are no shortage of dieticians/nutritionists that would tell me that everything I’m doing is wrong.
I’m ok with that.
Why? Because it works.
I tell you that to tell you this:
If you find something that works for you, don’t waste any time worrying about what anyone else says about you are doing.
With those things out of the way, here is what I do when it comes to fueling during runs and on race day.
When it comes to fueling a training run, my strategy is simple: I don’t fuel.
If I’m going over 20 miles, I might have a bit of tailwind toward the end of a training run.
But save for those really long training runs, I run 100% fasted.
I believe that training my body to utilize fat for fuel helps me on race day.
It means that when I’m pushing the pace, especially for a marathon, I don’t need to worry about fueling very often because I’m not burning through my stores of glycogen/glucose as quickly.
I also like the idea of making it more difficult on myself by training fasted and then using some fuel on race day.
Maybe it’s mostly mental, but I feel like doing this helps me to tilt the odds in my favor of having a strong race.
My race day fueling strategy has evolved over the past handful of years.
I used to eat all the things pre-race. Eggs. Toast. Potatoes. Coffee.
These days? It’s a cup or three of coffee and maybe a piece of pineapple or two.
For the first 10-15 miles of the race, I keep things pretty simple: just water.
Beyond that, I’ll mix up a bottle or two of tailwind to sip on while I’m running.
For marathons, especially road marathons, that’s often it. Depending on what is available at an aid station, I may grab something small along the way (an orange slice, quarter of a banana, etc.).
But I’m not going to take in a massive quantity of calories during a road marathon, in large part because I simply don’t need to.
At an ultra, where the aid stations are a bit more appealing than a bunch of nasty gels, I’m more likely to do a little bit of grazing.
I have a personal rule to never say no to potato chips on race day, which also applies to a road race. I’ll also maybe take some M&Ms or a cookie or two over the course of 30+ miles.
And a bit of ginger ale is a special treat that I have a hard time saying no to as well.
But that’s it for me.
No detailed strategy down to the minute of when I need to take in certain fuels.
I simply bring what I need (some tailwind to mix into my bottles once I need to refill my bottles) and any extra calories that I take in are the proverbial icing on the cake.
What is Your Mid-Run Nutrition/Fueling Strategy?
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