Fueling Differences for Short and Longer Races

  Oct 9, 2017  |  #Marathon Training

Hey friends,

How was your weekend?! I’m off to Georgia today for a two-day tour with the National Peanut Council, so be sure to follow along on Instagram for up to date fun.

On another note, I thought it was time for a running and nutrition post because you guys know this is like my favorite topic (aside from telling people to eat more). Very timely considering yesterday was the Chicago Marathon! Did anyone watch? Congrats to American Galen Rupp for winning – he’s such a stud! And Jordan Hasay got third for the women, but setting the fastest American women’s time. She’s so impressive, even at the ripe age of 26. I remember listening to an awesome Runner’s World podcast where she was a guest when I was training for the Ogden Marathon and I felt so inspired by her. I would be so curious to know about their fueling strategies and fueling differences among races.

I’m more of a longer distance running kinda girl. I’ve done a few 10ks, just recently did a 15k, but the half marathon and marathon are more my jam. Maybe it’s because I’m built for endurance. I don’t have the speed for the short term races. Although, after doing a long race, a 5k, 8k and even a 10k feels like a piece of cake. But, fueling strategies change based on the length of the race, so let’s talk a little bit about that today.

Confused about how to fuel for a 5k, or 10k vs a half or full marathon? Here are some of the basic differences on calories, electrolytes and fueling for shorter vs. longer distance races

Sports Nutrition 101

Typically, I think most people are well-versed about carbohydrates being of most importance before a race/workout. You’ll want to space them out depending on how far in advance of your workout you’re eating. However, after a workout is when protein comes into play. The amino acids which make up proteins help rebuild the protein that has been broken down to fuel your muscles and movement. So, eating protein helps to rebuild them. The carbohydrates go towards replenishing your “stored fuel” (glycogen) in your muscles. All of this is important so you can exercise again in the next few days and your muscles recover properly.

I also talk about some of my favorite recovery foods here.

chocolate milk

The Difference Between Short and Longer Distance Running

Shorter Distances

Typically, I tell people if you’re exercising under an hour, you don’t need to plan for a snack during exercise. Now, these cases do vary for people who may suffer from hypoglycemia, diabetes or other conditions. But, a general rule is that if you’ve been fueling properly beforehand, you have enough fuel stored in your liver and muscles to get by. This is assuming you had a balanced meal/snack beforehand, with ample carbohydrates.

So, for most 5k’s and some 10k’s, you won’t need to fuel during. However, there are always exceptions as mentioned above. If you practiced fueling say every 30 minutes on your own and you run a 10k in 60 minutes, then sure, I’d recommend taking your gel or chews halfway through. But, for most cases (and you have to practice this beforehand), our bodies can get by without fuel for exercise lasting under an hour. Make sure you eat a good breakfast 2-3 hours beforehand with carbohydrates, or a power snack an hour or so beforehand to help with this.

toast with banana, pb and flax seed

Some of my favorite breakfast ideas are a bagel with PB/cream cheese or oatmeal with fruit/peanut butter. I have trained myself to handle toast with eggs also, but you may want to practice this one if you don’t know how they will sit in your stomach.

Favorite snack ideas: Banana with peanut butter, 1 piece of toast or 2 rice cakes with peanut butter and chia seeds/flax seeds, granola bar, dry cereal, Gu stroop waffles (ya’ll, these are amazing with coffee and a little bit of PB)

Longer Distances

Now, anything longer than an hour, I work with clients on coming up with a fueling strategy. It’s important to remember here that everyone is so different. For example, I’ve kind of trained myself to not need a snack for anything less than a half marathon. I can do up to 10-12 miles feeling okay. Not to say, I won’t bring a gel with me for desperate times, but more often than not, if I snack/eat enough beforehand, I’m fine for that distance.

Others, however, find that they do well with consistent fuel. For example, I have a client who’s training for a half marathon. We’ve reviewed the course map and learned that they will have fueling stations every 2 miles. So, on his longer runs, we’ve practiced taking a gel every two miles to see how his stomach handles it. Or even, half a gel each time. That works for him because each time he takes in the gel (mostly carbohydrates and some electrolytes), he gets a burst of energy that seems to last until the next mile marker/fueling station.

If you’re curious about gels, I usually recommend Huma gels, Gu’s (more viscous and thicker than Huma gels), Honeystinger chews, or Clif Bloks. If you don’t handle gels or shots well, you can try Tailwind if you’re more of a liquid person. These are ones I have personally tried and enjoy.

Huma plus gel with running sneakers

Others, however, have more trouble taking fuel during. It can lead to cramping, GI distress or other symptoms. We usually practice and try new strategies slowly, and incorporate water WITH gels to dilute them a little bit. Or, sometimes just raisins or fruit snacks seem to work better (These worked great for my marathon training). I wanted something to chew and they were just what I needed. The gist of the matter is that when you’re running, the blood that usually helps you digest food in your stomach is diverted to your extremities to allow you to keep exercising. So, digestion is not at full capability, and discomfort may appear for many people. A large part of it takes experimentation, and sometimes working with a professional to understand electrolyte balance and proper hydration.

There are so many options out there – for those who swear by liquids only (just want to make sure you’re getting calories and carbohydrates and electrolytes in those liquids, not just plain water), Tailwind is a great option to just mix in your water.

Why do we need fuel?

When you’re running over an hour or two, you definitely need to add fuel because your muscles can only store so much. We store glycogen in our liver and muscles, but our muscle stores are much more finite. We’re also using fat for energy in long distance running and to some extent, protein, but we don’t want to rely on protein and further break down our muscles. Our body is smart and is not ever relying “exclusively” on one fuel source. But, carbohydrates are the main fuel source that is called upon the most because it provides the greatest amount of ATP (energy) per unit of oxygen. So, this is why we need to constantly refuel to avoid bonking or “hitting the wall.”

Fueling Differences Between Shorter and Longer Races

Depletion of our carbohydrate and energy stores is associated with fatigue, reduced energy output (i.e performance decline), reduced skill and concentration and increased perception of effort (Source).

[Tweet “How to fuel for a shorter race versus a longer race #runchat #RDchat #fuelingstrategies”]

My Recommendations

I usually recommend to my runners to start with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour over 75 minutes. This could mean about 2-3 gels/hour, or half gel every 10 minutes, whatever works. I recommend taking gels at regular intervals so your brain and body is receiving a steady flow of glucose.

Confused about how to fuel for a 5k, or 10k vs a half or full marathon? Here are some of the basic differences on calories, electrolytes and fueling for shorter vs. longer distance races


I definitely don’t want to undercut the importance of hydration in running. I almost think I need to do a post about it on its own. My favorite thing to tell runners is that you can’t ever catch up on hydration. If you go into the race dehydrated, you’re in a lot of trouble. When you think about losing 1-3 pounds of sweat per hour of running, you can see how important it is to hydrate. The best way to stay on top of your hydration is to start early, have a plan for throughout, and replenish after. For every pound of sweat you lose in a longer run, it requires 16-24 oz of water to replenish. I tell people to aim for about 16-20 ounces 2-3 hours before hand. You can also even add in another cup about 30 minutes before your run.

Like fuel, water needs vary depending on the person. Is your sweat salty, light or heavy? You normally want to aim for 6-16 ounces every 15 minutes, depending on the quantity of your sweat and the running conditions and temperature. For me, I carry a small water bottle with Tailwind for long runs and stop and grab water at every water station throughout the marathon.

My favorite way to replenish after is with NUUN tabs, which provide some electrolyte benefits as well. For more information on electrolytes, check out this post.

water with electrolytes

[Tweet “Why and how fueling during a race is beneficial #Runchat #running”]

Looking for more running inspiration?

5 running tips for beginners

What time away from running taught me

How to recover from a race

Confused about how to fuel for a 5k, or 10k vs a half or full marathon? Here are some of the basic differences on calories, electrolytes and fueling for shorter vs. longer distance races

I hope you guys found this helpful! I’d love to hear some of your personal fueling strategies, what’s worked and what hasn’t. And for you non runners, I’d love to hear your favorite pre workout snack!

I’m linking up with Hohoruns and Misssippipiddlin for the Weekly Wrap.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. This does not affect your purchase of the product but help keep BLT running, so thank you!

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40 responses to “Fueling Differences for Short and Longer Races

  1. I have such a sensitive stomach that I will have stomach issues if I try to have any “solid” food before or during my run. So … during any 10k race I will take a PowerBar SimpleFruit (applesauce consistency) because I NEED something. For a half marathon I will take 2-3 of these nutrition packs with one before the start of the race. Might seem like a LOT but I NEED it or else I BONK! 🙁

    1. I haven’t tried the SimpleFruit yet, but I know that many people who can’t do solids like the applesauce consistency. Thanks for sharing! And it just speaks to how individual we all are. I’m glad you’ve found that works for you!

  2. I am a huge fan of Tailwind. Lately, though, I’ve had issues even using that on my long runs. I’ve changed up my fueling strategy, bringing one bottle of concentrated Tailwind and stopping at the water fountains to take in water. So far so good. I’m thinking this will fit in nicely with my run/walk strategy, where I can walk through the water stations.

    On shorter runs, I like to run fasted, except for my morning coffee.

  3. Great tips… fueling is so an individualized, there isn’t one thing that works for everyone. I really love the huma gels (particularly the huma+). I have a packet of tailwind i need to try out on my next long run…. I hear great things about it.

  4. Great post. Honeystinger chews and gels for me during marathon training worked great. I hate mixing those with anything other than water so I relied on salt tabs for electrolyte balance and enhanced hydration. Also stopped at most water stops before 15 miles and every water stop after during the marathon.

  5. I’ve been practicing with Honeystinger waffles and I’m really liking them! I’m having more trouble lately with hydration. I come home covered in salt and can’t drink water quickly enough before I get a headache! I probably need to add electrolytes to the water I bring on my runs?! But I always forget this before I head out, ha!

  6. Great tips! Thanks for sharing! I usually have to eat “real” food when I’m doing runs longer than 2 1/2 hours…all throughout marathon training the gels have made my stomach upset so I stopped doing those and started trying other things. I’ve found that potatoes work well and oranges usually do well for me too. Gummi bears have worked for me in the past as well. Just something with sugar!! Lol.

  7. There’s a lot of great info in the post! What works for fueling and hydration is specific to each individual. Runners must try it all to see what strategy works best. I don’t eat anything before or during a training run for up to an hour unless it is very hot. Then, I feel I need a little something in my stomach. Even the weather can change my strategy. I’ve also learned too much liquid before a race doesn’t set well with me. Thanks for linking!

  8. I love how you broke it down; I think I was doing a lot of my runs earlier this year with too little fuel, and I definitely felt it on some of them. I don’t normally have to take any fuel up to about 7-8 miles, but after that I really start to feel it. It’s amazing how our bodies need those carbohydrates.

  9. Love this! It’s so interesting how different fuel sources help different people. I tried chews on my run this weekend and discovered that chewing while running results in me coughing up a lung lol so I will stick to gels from now on. I’ve never tried nuun tablets but I think I will since they seems to have good benefits!

  10. I ma phasing away from Gu gels (nasty tummy troubles post-race), but Honey Stinger gels are not as bad. I’ve never tried Huma gels….I keep forgetting to look for them when I’m in sporting goods stores.

  11. Great advice. I usually do 10 milers and don’t need fuel, but I’ve got a few Halfs on my schedule. I was using chews until I broke a crown during the NYC Half in March. I take applesauce on my bike and might try that during my next half.

  12. Great tips! Ive used Gu and Honey Stinger Gels during runs, and I’ve been curious about Huma. I did my first long run in awhile this weekend and had a Gu. I was nervous about how I would feel but luckily had no issues! Hope you have a great trip!

  13. These are awesome tips. I love NUUN tabs in my water during/after workouts, too! This morning before spin I had some Greek yogurt and coffee with almond milk about an hour before, and it worked perfectly.

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