What to eat during a long run or race

Last Friday, I discussed what to eat before a long run or race. Continuing my blog series on Running and Nutrition, today’s question is: What should I eat while I’m running (during a long run or event)?

There’s a reason we need extra carbohydrates on a long run, race or other strenuous workout. Our bodies have a limited store of glycogen (stored glucose); and after running for a while, the supply runs out (even despite eating breakfast). There’s a reason we hit a wall when we run a marathon: our muscles and brain literally run out of glucose. Consuming carbohydrates helps stabilize our blood sugar to avoid a total crash. But I must warn you, it doesn’t necessarily “save” you during the last six miles of a marathon. That said, why not do anything that might help a little? Here are a few suggestions to help you out on long distances and other endurance events/activities.

Don’t eat nothing. As I mentioned in my “Deadly Sins” post, it took me several marathons to realize I needed something besides Gatorade to fuel my long runs. Not sure why I had to be completely incoherent at the end of so many races before I figured out I needed a pick-me-up before it was too late.

Try and see what you like. The good news is that there is now a plethora of products available to eat, drink and swallow. I actually like the energy lift I get from eating energy bars (e.g., Power Bar, Luna, Balance, Cliff), but sometimes I find them hard to digest when I’m running (easier if I’m cycling). Often I get stomach cramps– at other times, I just feel nauseated. Not to mention, if you’re exercising when it’s 20 degrees outside, the darn things are heart to bite and chew. There’s when gels come in handy. There are several brands available: GU, PowerGel, Carb-Boom, Cliff Shot, and Honey Stinger. My personal favorite is GU, because I like the consistency better. And my favorite flavors are Chocolate, Espresso and Chocolate Mint – but not everyone tolerates caffeine well. Most gels provide complex carbohydrates to give you quick energy on the road. I haven’t yet tried Honey Stinger, but this particular product has a low glycemic index and contains electrolytes and vitamins. There are energy gel blasts, energy bites, energy gummy bears and energy chomps. You’ll have no shortage at finding something that tastes great and works well with your body.

Fruit is a nice source of carbs as well, but bananas and oranges not optimal to carry on long runs. For this reason, fruit can be more convenient to sample during races. You may also prefer brownies, a candy bar or Fig Newtons. If it works, then eat it. (I lived on brownies when I ran Hood To Coast years ago).

Don’t wait too late to start. Runners World touts a 75 minute rule, the point at which a person needs additional calories, either via gels or sport drinks. I personally like a carbohydrate source beyond fluids if I know I’m exercising/running 2 hours straight or more (approximately 12+ miles). The most important thing is to intake carbohydrates before you bonk, not after. Earlier is better, if given the choice.

Pace yourself. When I am on a long training run (12+ miles), I generally “eat” my first gel at about the 90 minute point, continuing to have one about every 30 minutes. Some of your might prefer one every 45 minutes or so. For a race, I usually eat gels more frequently. After I heard about how many gels Lance Armstrong ate during his first New York City Marathon, I figured it might work for me, too. (Right?) In fact, if I’m not cramping or feeling bloated, I eat them every 2-3 miles starting at around mile 10. Either way, practice your intake on training runs to determine what optimizes your performance and minimize tummy distress. (When I participated in the Boise 70.3 in June, I saw the elite/pro athletes taping about 8-10 gels to the top frame of their bikes to eat during this portion of the race).

Don’t fret over the calories. But monitor them. If you are drinking Gatorade or other sports drink along with the Gels, you may be eating too many calories for your body to be able to digest. So depending on how many gels you are eating, you might substitute water for the sports drink accordingly. About 250-300 calories/hour is about the maximum your want to consume, either via gels + water, gels + sports drink or sports drink. (Each GU gel has 100 calories; 8 ounces of Gatorade contains 50).

Down them with water. You need to wash down the gels with water. For one, you might start choking when you swallow them (I can personally attest to this). Taking gels with sports drink may be more carbs than your system can handle at one time. Also, the carbohydrates in the gels are more quickly absorbed by the blood and converted to energy if taken with water. The other reason I drink water? I swallow my gels like pills, because it makes me less nauseated. Unless its’ the chocolate mint, of course, then I pretend I am eating a peppermint patty. Also, if you want to be a dork like me, you can buy a pair of these shorts that makes carrying gels a walk in the park.

Melinda Hinson