Fueling Differences for Short and Longer Races
- October 9, 2017
- Last Updated: November 8, 2021
- 40 Comments
It is time for a running and nutrition post because you guys know this is like my favorite topic (aside from telling people to eat when you’re hungry). Very timely considering yesterday was the Chicago Marathon!
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I remember listening to an awesome Runner’s World podcast where Jordan Hasay 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.
Sports Nutrition 101
Typically, I think most people are well-versed about how carbohydrates power exercise but there are sports nutrition myths surrounding carbs. In terms of timing, you’ll want to space them out depending on how far in advance of your workout you’re eating.
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 post workout recovery foods in this post.
The Difference Between Short and Longer Distance Running
Before I go into the distance, if you want a guide to help distinguish some of the higher sodium/higher carb sports foods options (gels/chews/hydration, etc), check this resource out!
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.
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).
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 to prevent hitting the wall in a marathon or long distance. 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.
We want to practice to reduce any symptoms of runners stomach because our gut is a muscle and can be trained!
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 or UCan if you’re more of a liquid person.
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.”
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).
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.
I definitely don’t want to undercut the importance of hydration in running, especially summer hydration running.
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.
But, you also can’t discount dehydration in the winter, either!
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 on why electrolytes are important for runners.
Looking for more running inspiration?
- 5 running tips for beginners
- Race Day Nutrition
- Easy Meals for Marathon Training
- How Running Relates to Your Relationship with Food
- How to recover from a race
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.