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!
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.
Linking up for Wild Workout Wednesday!
What would you add to this list?
Have you ever dropped your fuel on the course?
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.