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When I ran my first marathon I knew next to nothing about fueling. Oh, I did plenty of research on the internet, but still my fueling on long runs was haphazard at best. There was the time when I ate a chicken dinner 2 hours before running 16 miles and it didn’t stay down. There were times when I got light headed from inadequate fueling.
In the last few months I’ve come across some information that has revolutionized my personal fueling. I can’t take credit for coming up with these ideas. Here are some guidelines for smart fueling success:
Before Your Marathon. . .
1. Don’t “Tank” Up!
Don’t drink excessive amounts of water or fluids in the days prior to a race or long run hoping to get a “head start.” The only thing you’ll accomplish is getting more exercise by running to the bathroom frequently. Instead make it a habit to drink water consistently throughout the day. You need approximately .5-.6 of your body weight in pounds in ounces during the day (depending on weather conditions and your activity level).
2. Back Away from the Pasta!
This refers to the infamous carbohydrate loading technique. You’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice about carb loading. For me the bottom line is not to do anything radically different than what you did in training.
Think back to the most successful long runs that you had and use a similar fueling technique. Leading up to a race you don’t want to stuff yourself with extra food. Any excess food that you take in will either be passed through your digestive system or stored as body fat.
The time period for training your muscles to maximize their glycogen storing is during training. You have a one-hour window of time after each workout where your muscles are most receptive to storing glycogen (this is the time to carb load).
3. Put Down the Salt
Don’t sodium load before a race. The average person consumes approximately 6,000-8,000 mg per day which is above the recommended dosage of 2,400 mg/day. Taking in extra sodium before your race can actually disrupt the hormonal system responsible for regulating sodium and your fluid balance. Sodium is only one electrolyte that’s necessary in the body.
If you’ll be running more than 3 hours or in hot, humid conditions (or you have a history of cramping) you may want to consider a sports drink with a full profile of electrolytes or some electrolyte tablets. Be sure to practice using any electrolyte supplements before race day.
4. Don’t Pig Out the Night Before Your race
You won’t cause your body to store extra carbohydrates. The only thing you’ll actually accomplish is clogging your digestive system and causing water retention. Eat that pre-race dinner until you’re satisfied and save any indulgence foods to celebrate after the race.
5. Don’t Eat the Morning of Your Race.
Here’s more of the story on this one. If your race is over 60 minutes in length, don’t consume any calories three hours prior to the race. Eating a prerace meal at the wrong time will negatively affect how your body uses its limited supply of glycogen.
Glycogen is how your body stores fuel and it is broken down into glucose to maintain steady blood sugar levels, which controls your energy level. If you eat less than 3 hours pre-race it will stimulate an added release of insulin which will cause you to burn through your glycogen more quickly.
Even though your stomach may be empty in the morning, your muscles still have their full supply of glycogen on board. The only thing that eating a pre-race meal does (besides filling your stomach) is to top off the glycogen supply in your liver (which is tapped into during your night’s fast).
Don’t sacrifice sleep to eat. If the thought of waking up at 3- 4am to eat sounds nauseating, a better strategy may be to consume 1-2 energy gels 5-10 minutes before the start of the marathon. This will top off the liver glycogen stores nicely, which is the goal of the pre-race meal. It will also provide some calories to increase muscle stores at the beginning of exercise without negatively affecting how muscle glycogen is used.
During Your Marathon. . .
1. Don’t Guzzle Fluids During the Race.
Keep your fluid intake between 16-28 oz per hour. Research shows that having a consistent fluid intake over 30 oz/hour increases your risk for dilutional hyponatremia, which is diluted sodium levels in the body. A recent study suggests only drinking when thirsty. Too much fluid consumption can be fatal.
The body knows that it can’t take in as much fluid as it’s excreting during exercise. If you try to match output with intake while running you’ll overload your system. Drink to replenish, not replace lost fluid. Have a plan for fluid replenishment and listen to your body.
2. Remember Less is Best
Maybe you’ve heard that the average runner burns 100 calories/mile. Doing some quick calculation you realize that approximately 2,600 calories are burned during the course of a full marathon. Don’t follow a calories in/calories out approach. Your body simply can’t handle this level of calorie replacement and will react with bloating, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Just like with hydration, try to fuel to replenish, not replace. The best approach is to replenish calories at a rate that your body can assimilate them while allowing your fat stores to make up the difference. It’s important to keep blood sugar levels stable through calorie replenishment, but not worry about the calorie deficit that you create. A good guideline to follow is taking in approximately 200-280 cal/hour.
3. Not All Sugars are Created Equal
Simple sugars (like glucose, sucrose, fructose, etc.) are not ideal fuels for exercise and they’re health hazards when consumed regularly in your normal diet. These simple sugars give you energy peaks and crashes and are not absorbed very efficiently by the body. They need to be mixed in weak concentrations of 6-8% for efficient digestion, which means you can only take in about 100 calories/hour. You can consume more, but you can’t absorb more. You’ll only get sick trying.
Complex carbohydrates, however, absorb at about three times the rate as simple sugars. You’ll also avoid the “highs and lows” so common with simple sugars and get steady, reliable energy.
4. Don’t Sacrifice Muscle
When exercise extends beyond about two to three hours, your body begins to rely on some protein to fulfill its energy requirements. If you fail to include protein in your fuel, your body has only one other choice: your own muscle! This process is called “lean muscle tissue catabolism.” When your body starts using its own muscle tissue it hinders performance and increases fatigue.
Here are some observations that Hammer Nutrition has made over the last 23 years on fueling success and failure: *Note, the above link is our affiliate link. Our referral number will save you %15.
Under 30 fluid oz/hr
Sodium intake between 300-600 mg/hr
Calorie intake less than 280 cal/hr
Minimal simple sugar intake, complex carbs
Body weight at finish decreased no more than 2-3%
Over 30 oz/hr
Sodium intake over 600 mg/hr
Calorie intake over 300 cal/hr
Simple sugar based fuels= stomach problems
Dehydration or weight gain
This has been a rather lengthy post but it is hard to re-educate ourselves without dealing thoroughly with these topics. In the near future we plan to have a fueling expert on the podcast. Stay tuned! -Angie