How to Avoid 3 Common Marathon Fueling Problems

How to Avoid 3 Common Marathon Fueling Problems

Marathon fueling seems pretty straightforward: carb-loading and mid-racing fueling don’t appear too complicated at first glance. However, once you account for logistics, individual variables, and room for human error, you can encounter many fueling problems on race day.

These three common marathon fueling problems can happen to any runner – no matter what your level of experience. But don’t worry – you can easily avoid these race-threatening problems on race day following these tips!

How to Avoid 3 Common Marathon Fueling Problems

Three Common Marathon Fueling Problems and How to Avoid Them

Problem #1: You drop your fuel.

I tell each of my marathoners this rule: carry at least one more gel/pack of chews/banana than you expect you will need on race day. Why?

Running a half marathon or marathon can mess with your circulation. More blood flow is diverted to your working muscles and as a result, parts of your body like your hands receive slightly less blood flow than usual. The result can be numb hands and a loss of dexterity.

A loss in dexterity makes those gel packets just that much more difficult to open and hold. That’s not to account for any wind, rain, or cold temperatures that can further detriment your ability to use your hands. All things considered, it’s fairly easy to drop your fuel on race day.

So what do you do if you drop your fuel? It’s a race – you’re not about to stop, turn around, and pick it up.

Your best bet is to take the fuel offered on course, even if it’s not your fuel of choice. Most marathons and half marathons offer gels at certain aid stations so you can get the carbohydrates you need in the scenario that you drop your own fuel. 

Yes, the cardinal rule of racing is nothing new on race day. But here you are faced with two “new on race day scenarios:” completing your longest and/or fastest long run ever without fuel, or trying a new fuel. It’s a Catch-22 – either way, you’re doing something new.

The small risk of GI distress is almost always more favorable than the high probability of bonking if you run a marathon without enough fuel. Not having enough carbohydrates or calories is one of the top causes of bonking on race day.

Of course, if you know for certain that the provided fuel will render you with GI distress so severe that you have to drop out of the race, weigh your options more carefully.

Problem #2: Your stomach feels heavy on race day morning.

Just say no to the large pasta dinner!

Carb-loading does have value for the marathon and half marathon, but the common concept of eating a huge pasta dinner the night before is a recipe for GI distress. You don’t want to eat a giant meal the night before a race and you don’t want to eat only simple carbohydrates at that meal.

A large meal just a couple hours before sleep may not be fully digested by the time you wake up on race day morning. Instead of leaving your feeling fueled, this meal will likely leave you feeling sluggish.

Instead, spread your carbohydrates out throughout the day on the day before your race. At dinner time, eat a normal size meal with a high percentage of carbohydrates but also plenty of lean protein. For example, chicken breast and rice and/or a baked potato will provide you with the carbs you need – but without the stomach ache the next morning.

No matter what you choose to eat on the night before the race, practice the meal before your long runs (especially a race simulation long run) in training. You need to train your stomach just as much as you need to train your legs to handle those long distances.

Problem #3: You wait too long after a training run to eat.

But wait, isn’t this list about common fueling problems on race day. Yes it is – and the fact is, the timing of your post-run meals will directly impact your fueling on race day.

Carb-loading isn’t just a three-day long process in the days before a race. That would be like cramming for an exam during finals week rather than taking notes and doing the homework in a class for the entire semester and then doing some dedicated studying for the test.

Carb-loading occurs in the hour after each run, especially hard speed work or long runs, when your body is primed to process the carbohydrates and effectively store them as glycogen (which is what your body uses for energy while running). That’s why running coaches like myself are always telling you to eat a meal with a 3:1 or 4:1 carbs to protein ratio after your runs!

After long runs or fast runs, both of which will burn a good amount of glycogen, your body will actually increase its capacity for storing glycogen. By the eating within the hour window, you can gradually teach your body to store my glycogen – which will then gradually help you carb-load for race day.

Then, once you do a carb-load before the race, your body will more easily store up those carbohydrates for race day.

Master Your Fueling and Hydration E-Course

Want to learn how to fuel and hydrate for your marathon or half marathon? I offer a comprehensive Master Your Fueling and Hydration e-Course to help you improve your hydration and nutrition for training and racing. 

Master Your Fueling and Hydration eCourse for Runners 6 Week Course: Learn how to create an individualized nutrition and hydration plan for your best running! 6 Week e-Course Straight to your Inbox| Lessons, Worksheets, & Guidance from a Running Coach | $75

Not sure if you want to invest the course? Read a review of the e-course here at Lisa’s blog and here at Meredith’s blog

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What would you add to this list?
Have you ever dropped your fuel on the course? 

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33 Responses

  1. so I take 3 gels with me to the race. I leave my car with two in my pocket and my other pocket has jelly beans. why the third gel in the car? I always think maybe somehow I will lose one or something like that before I even get out of the car lol. the jelly beans I put in my pocket in case I don’t want the gel, lose the gel or can’t stomach more gel and just need something. I remember during the long island half in 2015 (terrible race, I had been sick a few days before), I didn’t use gels but did use jelly beans back then and the beans got stuck in my pocket – I couldn’t get them out! there was a small hole in the pocket where most of the beans fell lol.

    1. Oh that would stink to have the jelly beans fall out of a pocket! That’s smart to have multiple types of fuel. Sometimes by the end of a race gels are just the nastiest thing ever. But then again, at least it’s gels and not a food that is eaten every day!

  2. Dropping fuel – I’ve never done it but I’ve had the unfortunate luck to step on chews during a race. They totally got smooshed on the bottom of my shoe and made it feel like I was wearing high heels. I had to stop and try to scrape them off which resulted in me loosing time and throwing off my pace afterwards. That’s why I prefer gels! 🙂

  3. Great tips! I used to carbo load before and realized it doesn’t work well at all for me. ALso, as someone with low blood sugar issues, eating right after a run, even a cutie, is key. Great tips!

    1. Thank you! Traditional carb loading doesn’t work for everyone – most people have better results with eating more carbs gradually over several days than in one meal the night before a race.

  4. This is part of the reason that I am so weird about my fuel on race day–make sure that everything is in there, and be careful when opening! Also, don’t step on the gel packets that are on the ground–you might take a little slide!
    My hands are basically useless by the end of a marathon. And during cold days? You know the drill with Reynauds!

    1. Thank you! Eating after a long run really does make difference in recovery – I feel so much better as well when I eat right away afterwards, especially if it’s nutritious and not too heavy.

  5. Never been a fan of the big pasta dinner or any pasta the night before a race! Always sits heavy on my tummy. I like to get a subway veggie sub or either thin-crust veggie pizza, personally. Good point about dropping fuel on the run though, better to have extra just in case. Even if you don’t use it all, just save it for the next run or race.

    1. The pre race pasta dinners always sound as if they’d be better after the race, when it’s anything goes on food. Not before a race when pre race jitters can mess with stomachs!

  6. YES! I had never dropped fuel before ever until last Sunday! For anyone else reading this comment (I know I already wrote about it) I was in line at the port-a-potty, managed to go pee and come out JUST as they were singing the anthem. But while they were all lined up at the start, the anthem going, I realized that I left my gels in the van (it was parked close by). But I couldn’t move during the anthem, so as soon as it was over I SPRINTED to the van, grabbed my gels, sprinted back to the line, jumped the rope just as they said go and I took off, fumbling around with my watch, and my headphones and then boom. I dropped all my gels and they got stampeded. Good thing they had gels on the course but they weren’t my favourite. Oh well. I lived to tell about it.

    1. I think the worst part of that is how you did remember them but then they got stomped on! But good for you for not letting that get to you. It is always good when a course offers gels there just in case the worst happens!

  7. Great tips. I definitely find I can’t have anything too heavy the night before a run. I think what you said is essential, never try anything new. I guess that can be hard for people who are traveling from out of town for races and are limited to only the foods they packed or can find.

  8. Really great advice! I didn’t realize that losing circulation in your hands is why I feel like such a klutz when I’m trying to handle my fuel during a long run, that makes so much sense! I’ll be sure to always bring extra fuel now just in case!

  9. I am a chronic offender on #3…I’m just not hungry after a long run! I’ve found the way to get myself to eat something is to have it made beforehand and waiting for me.

  10. Great tips!! Another big mistake I see is not practicing your nutrition at race pace. Some people (myself included) can’t process some nutrition as well at faster paces (or really long days) and you don’t want that surprise on race day. 🙂

  11. 32 km into my first marathon I dropped a gel. Thank goodness for the kind runner who let me know and picked it up for me! I then proceeded to drop and disable my phone/music! Haha. Good times. But I always carry extra gels (and hair elastics) with me on long runs!

  12. i think the most common marathon mistake that everyone make is drop the fuel. Honestly, its so happen to me :(. awn, have to be careful next times and following your tips. Thank you for sharing these useful information.

  13. This is really useful information! dropping fuel could be happened while running. My stomach felt pretty heavy after running an half race. i thought i might ate too much last night and in the morning! It must be a normal size meal and spread carb throughout the day as you said!
    Thks for your sharing. Cant wait to see you next post soon!

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