For the most part, running is a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated sport. At its core, runners literally put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, hundreds if not thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of times. By and large, especially compared to other sports, running doesn’t require much in the way of specialized instruction or high-tech gadgetry.
However, once runners cross the threshold into long distances, everything changes. Sure, runners are still doing the same movement — putting one foot in front of the other — but now, with the uptick in distance, runners have to make some other careful considerations, including the basic what shoes am I going to wear? to the more specific what can I eat to fuel my long runs?
Below, I’ll dive deep into fueling strategies that runners can use as they figure out how to fuel themselves to prepare for a long race. More than anything, remember that you’re an Experiment of One, especially when it comes to diet. What works for me may not work at all for you. Definitely take the time during your training cycle to conduct some trial-and-error and see what’s best for you.
Why fuel for long races or long runs?
When runners are training for long distances, such as half marathons, marathons, or ultramarathons, fueling becomes a necessary component to their training. This isn’t particularly the case when it comes to shorter distances, such as the 1 mile, 5k, or 10k, simply because for the most part, your body’s energy stores will be sufficient to carry you through the shorter distances. In the longer stuff, that’s not the case.
Why do runners need to fuel properly for long runs or their long races, then? Perhaps the best way to think about this is in terms of energy expenditure. Without launching into a food science discussion, remember that every single piece of food or beverage we consume has some amount of energy to it. Reading nutrition labels will give you an idea of the caloric makeup of a particular food.
When it comes to running long distances, in order to cover the distance well without bonking — a concept we’ll visit momentarily — your body has to have the sufficient energy stores. Think of your body as a car; if you don’t have enough gas in your tank, your car won’t run properly, if at all. At a very basic level, so, too, is this the case for your body. In order for your body to be able to adequately cover the long distances that are part and parcel of half marathon, marathon, and ultramarathon training, it has to have enough “gas” in the tank.
What about bonking or hitting the wall?
If you’ve been training for an endurance event for a while, you’ve likely heard other runners’ horror stories about hitting the wall, or bonking, mid-race. While there are potentially tons of reasons for why runners hit the proverbial wall — ranging from improper training or pacing, dehydration, weather, or mental fatigue — oftentimes it comes down to an energy expenditure and imbalance issue. Simply stated, oftentimes runners who bonk mid-race are ones who didn’t fuel properly.
What are some pre-run fueling strategies?
Fortunately, bonking mid-race isn’t a requirement to be an endurance athlete; it’s something that can, in fact, be avoided. The internet is awash with fueling strategies that runners the world over use to help propel them through their runs, and just like anything you read on the internet, some tips are better (and more helpful) than others.
Minimally, some pre-run fueling strategies to consider include the following:
Avoiding fried, dairy-rich, particularly fibrous, or “heavy” foods in the immediate hours before a run (so as to avoid the dreaded runners’ trots mid-run)
Eating at least an hour, if not more, ahead of your run so as to give your body enough time to digest the foods
Consuming foods that are easily digestible
For some people, caffeine can be beneficial to their runs, and for others, it can be detrimental. Regardless, ease up on the caffeine to help mitigate its diuretic effects.
Additionally, starting a run sufficiently hydrated is always a good idea.
I’ve heard of carb-loading; is that a good strategy?
As we all likely remember from our high school biology classes, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. You can consume carbohydrates in many different types of foods, and thanks to the traditions inherent to the running community, most runners equate “carbohydrates” with “pasta” and swear by their pre-long run or pre-race pasta dinner.
With anything diet related, it’s important to remember that you should do what works for you. If you have a dietary restriction that precludes you from eating pasta or bread, then obviously eating copious amounts of those foods the night before your big run would be a terrible idea. Instead, you can glean carbohydrates from many other sources, including millet, quinoa, or rice.
What’s most important to remember about carb-loading is that doing it all at once, the night before your big race will likely be less beneficial than you assume. Instead of gorging on carbs the night before your big race, in the 3-4 days leading up to it, slowly start to include more carbs in your snacks and at meals. Incorporating more carbs this way will likely leave you feeling less sluggish than if you were to eat a huge meal the night before a big race.
What about mid-run fueling strategies?
Mid-run fueling strategies warrant its own separate post! Obviously, when you’re in the throes of a long run or race, you’re not going to stop competing to go have a sandwich or drink a smoothie. Instead, the focus is on portable energy, on foods that you can carry with you, consume easily while running, and that can bring you energy fast.
The market for mid-run fuel is expansive and enormous and seems to be widening every day. Runners can choose from any number of options, including gels, chomps, sports beans (like jelly beans), gummies, special drinks, special powders, and energy bars. Conversely, runners can also find tons of DIY recipes for mid-run fuel online and create their own bars and gels using “real,” whole food and ingredients.
The main idea behind mid-run fueling is to continuously top-off your energy stores before you completely tank and bonk. How often you fuel, and how much you consume, will vary tremendously and depends on tons of factors, including the distance of your race/run, your nutritional needs, the length of time you’ll be running, and of course — and very importantly — how much your stomach can handle.
Again, you’re an Experiment of One when it comes to figuring out which mid-run fueling options work best for you, so do not wait until race day to figure out your plan!
Going for the long haul
Even if you’re the fittest and fastest person in a race, if your energy begins to tank and you can’t recover from it, or worse yet, if your stomach becomes to have a gastrointestinal emergency, you’ll come to understand just how important a role fueling plays to a runner’s success with endurance races.
Fortunately, basically every time you lace up for a long run, you’ll have before you an opportunity to experiment. You can see how the previous meal you ate “sits” with your stomach. You can see if you like the taste of a particular gel or chomp or if you can even open the packaging while running. In fact, it behooves you to figure out your fueling strategies early in your training — and to practice it often — so that come race day, you are cool as a cucumber and already know what works for you.
Fueling strategies for long runs and long races will become a critical part of your training, much as your physical and mental conditioning is. Leave nothing to chance, and remember that what works well for someone else may not work well, or at all, for you.