Fueling Long Runs – Before, During, and After
If you have ever miscalculated your fuel during a long training run or during a race, you know the importance of making sure you have a proper fueling plan in place before your big day. As marathon season approaches, we get so many questions about how to properly fuel and hydrate during training runs and during a race.
Keep in mind that everyone is completely different. Are you eating a diet full of real food and keeping an eye on your sugar intake? Or, are you eating the standard American diet loaded with processed carbohydrates and very little fat? This makes a difference.
You must remember that your training or race fuel is not just what you pack to eat during your run. It includes what you put on your fork up to days before your long training session. You have to approach your nutrition just like your training schedule. Look at it as a whole.
The Night Before
What you eat for dinner absolutely affects your morning run. Loading up on pizza, beer, and ice cream probably isn't going to yield great results on your 3-4 hour training run the next morning. Not only does what you eat the day before matter, what you eat throughout the week can have an effect on your training runs and your race day.
Fuel your body as much as possible with real food. While some athletes definitely still run to the pre-race spaghetti dinner, in my opinion, you are much better off ditching the noodles and opting for something with more nutritional value. When I am in endurance training mode, my favorite meal before a long run or a race is very simple - a great steak with a baked potato (or a sweet potato) and a huge salad. With this meal, I get plenty of healthy fats, some carbohydrates from the potato (not from a processed source), and lots of vegetables. This is paired with (maybe) a glass of red wine but also A LOT of water and then a glass of Ultima before bed.
Try eating real food as much as possible during the days leading up to your training run or your race. Limit you sugar intake and your consumption of processed carbs. Try getting your carbohydrates from real food sources such as potatoes or berries. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the week.
My best advice is to find something you love, and stick to it. This will alleviate all of the "what if" questions that can cross your mind and add stress to your already adrenaline packed race morning.
The timing of your training will determine how much and when you need to eat. Hopefully, you are doing most of your training during the time of day that your race will be held so that your body is accustomed to your routine. If you aren't, make sure you try to get at least some long training workouts done at a time that is similar to your race time.
If you are training in the morning, give yourself time to eat. I recommend downing a glass of water or electrolyte as soon as you wake up, but definitely before your first cup of coffee. I would follow this with a light breakfast. Get a little fat and some carbs, but don't go overboard. I really love to make sweet potato waffles, and then eat half of a waffle topped with almond butter. If you are short on time, a boiled egg, some nuts, and a few berries should work just fine.
If your training comes in the middle of the day or the evening, you need to be thinking about what you are eating for lunch. Make sure it is a well rounded lunch and keep it real. About an hour before your training session, grab some trail mix or a scoop of almond butter and some fruit.
Again, what and when you eat before you head out the door is all about you and how you eat during the week. Even if you and your spouse are training for the same event, you might have very different preferences when it comes to what you eat and when you eat it. That's okay!
Get something that works, and do that before every long training run. This way, you don't have any surprises during race day. If something didn't work, it's no big deal. That's what training is for...try something else next time.
So, just like you need to keep your pre-training meal pretty much the same, you have got to nail down what works for you while you are actually exercising. Training is the time to experiment.
I would always recommend having fluids with you when you are training. Maybe it's because we live in Florida, but the worst feeling is needing something to drink and knowing the next aid station is still a mile away. Keep some salt tablets on hand. I really like Salt Stick. Try one training run where you carry electrolytes with you (we like Ultima). Then, try a run on just water. Which one did you feel better on?
I can't stomach sugary chews or gels anymore, so I almost always fuel with real food. If you can find something easy to carry, I recommend trying that during a long run. Things that work well for me are trail mix, Kind bites, and mini Larabars. I do keep some sort of quick sugar with me as well. I love the Muir energy gels. They are made from real food, and they are gentle on the stomach.
You MUST practice eating during training. If you are planning to eat in your race (which, if it's over a half marathon, you probably should), you need to have practiced. When you are running long distances, a lot of blood is pulled from your gut, making it difficult to digest foods. If you haven't practiced your fueling, this can lead to a lot of porta-potty visits, and a very miserable race.
Practice, practice, practice here. Once you nail it down, stick with it.
Let's be real for a minute. After an 18 mile training run, a 3 hour bike ride, or a really intense pace interval, a salad is absolutely not calling my name. I do usually give into my cravings after a really long, hard training session, but I do try to be mindful. Most of the time, I crave a burger or a taco. And...I go get a burger or a taco. However, I do add as many veggies as possible, and I am careful not to over do it.
Remember, you cannot out train a poor diet. A day of crappy food choices is not your reward for completing your training session or race. The completion is the reward. Try not to fall into the trap of heading to the doughnut store or the ice cream shop after every long run. Instead, eat as much real food as possible, and try to stay balanced.
Your recovery will be impacted by what you eat after you race. Maybe don't stand in line for the post race pizza or borrow your friend's beer tickets. Instead, have your one beer, and go get some awesome breakfast.
It's All About You
How you fuel is a completely personal decision. Regardless of what you choose, make sure that you hydrate well, use electrolytes, and eat as much real food as you can. Use your training as your experiment. Once you find what is working, just stick with it. You might never want to eat a Larabar again, but at least you aren't jumping into your race not knowing how your body will handle a new food.
You can read about my last long race experience here.
Happy training, and go crush your race!