How I Improved My Fueling and Hydration for Long Runs

How I Improved My Fueling and Hydration for Long Runs {Part One}

One of the goals I set for 2016 is to improve my fueling and hydration for long runs and races. While I will check in on my goals as a whole each month, I want to devote posts solely to the issue of half marathon and marathon fueling, as I know this is something that other runners struggle with mastering as well.

The Problem

I encountered problems in my past two races (the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon and the Portland Marathon) with not consuming enough electrolytes to balance out what I was losing from sweat. By ⅔ of the way through both races, I was walking through water stations because I felt so thirsty that I could not get enough fluids. My performance suffered (I epically ran positive splits at both race) and, in the words of Ryan, I finished “looking more tired than I ever had before.”

I also had the issue of an upset stomach at the Portland Marathon. This could stem from a few issues, but I know that my stomach will cramp on runs due to (1) GI issues, (2) muscle cramps due to not having enough electrolytes, and (3) under-fueling.

While I don’t want to gorge myself on gels and bagels before and during a long run or race, I’m realizing that a banana and handful of cereal isn’t quite enough. I talked about the importance of balance in running yesterday; while I achieve balance in my overall nutrition, I need to work towards better balance in my pre-run nutrition.

How I Improved My Fueling and Hydration for Long Runs

Improving Fueling and Hydration for Long Runs: Progress So Far

Enduropacks Electrolyte Spray

After reading Allie’s review on Enduropacks, I decided to give this sugar-free (as in, even fake-sugar-free) electrolyte spray a try.  I was just about to purchase a bottle when I learned I won a spray bottle of Enduropacks. I tend to sweat a lot during harder workouts (just what you always wanted to know, right?) but I can’t tolerate many sports drinks in terms of both taste and GI issues.

Enduropacks makes an all-natural electrolyte spray free from any sugars, artificial sweeteners, or preservatives. The ingredients include only purified water and minerals! Even better, you can customize how concentrated your electrolyte drink is and easily carry the bottle on your person for a quick electrolyte pick-me-up.

So, on my first long run of half marathon training (12 miles), I sampled the Enduropacks spray. The immediate verdict? It worked! I did not experience any stomach upset, stayed hydrated, and finished my run with the feeling that I could have kept running for several more miles.

Carrying Water on Long Runs

I have a very low tolerance for objects in my pockets on runs. Before I started using my SPIBelt, I would carry my phone in my hand because the weight and movement of an iPhone in any of my pockets would annoy me.

Given this disposition, I never tried a hydration belt because they seemed so cumbersome to me, like something I’d try once and develop an immediate disdain for it. Carrying a water bottle in my hand also bothered me, as I felt unbalanced and irritated by the sloshing in rhythm with my running.

We all have our quirks, right?

I purchased a couple 12-oz Amphipod Hydraform handheld water bottle to fit into the pockets of my new Saucony Bullet Capri while I run, and filled the bottles with water plus Enduropacks spray to drink during my run.

The result? I barely noticed the ergonomic water bottle in the large side pocket of my capris. I even checked a few times during my run to ensure it had not fallen out a few miles back – that’s how lightweight this bottle was and how comfortable the pockets in the capris are. As for the bottle itself, water came out easily and in portioned amounts. No choking, no spraying water all over my face, and no fuss.

Being able to hydrate as I wished made a huge difference on my run, especially during winter when the trail water fountains are shut off. I’m already considering running with a bottle during my race, since I did not notice any weight from the bottle during my run. 

How I Improved My Fueling and Hydration for Long Runs

Hammer Gels

I trained and race my first half marathon with Hammer Gel with great success. I only switched to GU, particularly the salted flavors, because I wanted to make sure I got enough electrolytes on my long runs and in my races.

GUs worked well enough for me in terms of carbohydrates and fueling, but I still was not getting enough electrolytes from them. On top of this, they seemed to increase my thirst, which is not ideal on a run.

Hammer Gels are supposedly easier to digest than GUs, so I reconsidered them after my stomach issues at Portland. Both Hammer and GU contain maltodextrin as their first ingredient, which is an easily digestible carbohydrate in the form of polysaccharide. However, GU contains fructose as the other sugar, while Hammer uses natural fruit puree.

The ingredient list on Hammer Gels is shorter than that of GU, which is important for me since I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Hammer Gels only contain 2 grams of sugar (22 grams of carbohydrate total), which means these gels won’t cause you to have a sugar crash or upset your stomach (which too much sugar can do for me, especially when I’m running!).

Meredith uses Hammer gels as well, and we share the same opinion on Hammer Gels: they are the closest thing to consumable rocket fuel!

My general guideline for gels is to only consume them on long runs (runs longer than 90 minutes) and only take 1-2 gels, depending on the distance. While energy gels (or some sort of mid-run fuel) should be a part of your fueling strategy for long runs, you also do not need to eat one every half hour.

On the same long run during which I tested Enduropacks, I took one Hammer Gel (half at mile 5, half at mile 7.5). I finished my long run wondering why I had ever switched away from using Hammer gel. My stomach felt settled, my energy levels had remained stable, and I did not finish the run feeling ravenous.

Eating More and Better Carbohydrates before Long Runs

I usually eat a banana and drink a cup of coffee (along with plenty of water) before a run. However, for long runs, I decided to experiment with eating more. During marathon training I’d add a handful or two of Rice Chex to my pre-run banana, but let’s be honest: Chex is essentially puffed air, and puffed air isn’t always the best fuel when you’re running for hours. It worked well enough, but part of me was just curious to see if something worked better.

I had been hesitant to eat bread before a long run because I know that wheat can be slow to digest. But then, I went back and read the guest post I wrote months ago for Run to the Finish (I am still so grateful and amazed that I got to guest post on my favorite running blog!) on what to eat before a race. My guidelines: easy to digest and full of low-glycemic carbohydrates that won’t cause a sugar crash during the run.

While potatoes, rice, and oats are my preferred sources of carbohydrates, toast is always gentle on my stomach (think of the BRAT formula for what to eat when you have an upset stomach: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) and a single slice is just the right amount of food for before a run.

I opted for a slice whole grain toast with a drizzle of local honey and a banana as my pre-run meal, washed down with a couple cups of coffee and plenty of water. I let myself digest for 2.5 hours (I was aiming for two hours, but road construction on my way to the trail delayed my run) and then was off running.

The verdict? As I said above, my stomach felt good, my energy levels were stable, and I didn’t dig into the leftover Christmas candy when I first got home. I was pleasantly surprised that fiber in the whole grain toast didn’t upset my stomach, since I do believe the lower glycemic index (more slowly released carbohydrates) helps prevent an energy crash during a run.

I still have several long runs and races to test this strategy on, so a lot could change. Just determining new approaches adn trying new strategies for fueling and hydration for long runs is progress towards my goal.

Half marathon and marathon hydration and fueling are highly individual subjects; what works for me may not work for you. While I am not a RD, I am a certified coach, so please contact me if you have any questions on fueling and hydration (or any questions about running). I’d love to help you!

While this post does contain some Amazon affiliate links, I’m not currently affiliated with any of these companies. I’m simply letting you know what worked for me, in hopes that it can help you if you in training and running your personal best.

How do you fuel and hydrate during training runs?
What do you struggle with for fueling and hydration?
What weird running quirks do you have?
What is your progress on your goals so far?

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28 Responses

  1. That’s great that you’re finding things that are working for you. And I’m a big fan of Endurpacks. I used them (spray, patches, vitamin) through my last half marathon training cycle and I think that they made a huge difference, especially in my recovery.

  2. Glad you figured out what works for you! I love Hammer gels as well. And I don’t like those little water bottles (and I can’t stand carrying things when I run) but I don’t mind wearing a camelback backpack so I can drink water on long runs. I’ve had mine for over 4 years so I am thinking about getting a new one at whatever point I train for another marathon.

    1. Thank you! I can’t stand to carry things either, which is why the water bottles only work if I have the right pockets. That’s great that you’ve found that Camelbacks work for you – I bet those are especially useful for long runs!

  3. I have quickly come to love hammer gels! Thanks for including me 🙂 They definitely take the edge off of my appetite and do not bother my stomach at all. My pre run breakfast works for me – it’s always oatmeal but amounts and additions (like banana and/or peanut butter) depends upon how many miles i am running or if it’s a race. I am working on better hydration though for long runs, especially at that time of the month when I can feel the negative effects much quicker.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I should look into their vitamins – I prefer vitamins to be all natural and those just aren’t easy to find! And I’m already considering buying more pairs of the bullets, because they also stand up to the Seattle rain!

  4. This is SO great!!! I’m so happy for you because figuring out fueling is one of the headrest parts of marathon training – at least IMHO!
    I just ordered the entire Enduropacks system since I’m ramping up my triathlon training. I use the spray every single day and I know it’s improving my hydration since I drink a lot less during my workouts these days.
    I think I need to try those Hammer gels… off to Amazon…

    1. Thank you so much for the giveaway! Fueling for endurance events is SO hard, especially since I’m still relatively new to them (only 2 years now). And yes, you should try the Hammer gels – I hope they work for you if you do try them! They’re not as over-the-top flavorful as other gels either, which is great.

  5. I don’t hydrate that much on the runs themselves, unless I am in a marathon/race situation. I hydrate throughout the day before hand, before the run, and start when I take nutrition (another reason that I don’t hydrate much is I don’t take in much nutrition unless I am in a race situation) about halfway through. I hate water belts and hand helds–I don’t like the sloshing!

    1. Handheld sloshing is the worst. I didn’t notice any sloshing with the bottle tucked in my pocket, thankfully. You must have magical camel powers to not need water on long runs! I need it for any run over 10 miles, even if I hydrate before.

  6. Its great to read how you’ve figured out what works best for you. It really is an individual thing. I have not tried hammer gels before but LOVE the fact that they don’t have processed sugar. GUs are okay and I really haven’t tried anything else (yet). I agree that they make me pretty thirsty. I’m going to get my hands on hammer gel to try! I have found success with bananas and half a plain bagel with fruit preserve the morning on long runs. I usually don’t eat before runs under 8 miles. I don’t know if this is a good thing but I don’t seem to be running on empty as long as I ate enough the day prior. I am weird about carrying things in my hands while running. It bothers me and I also don’t like things hitting me either which is why I like the SPIbelt too!

    1. It is SO individual and I really feel that hearing what works from everyone helped me piece together the puzzle a bit. You should definitely try Hammer gels – the low sugar part is so great and it makes the flavor milder as well (which makes them easier to eat, in my opinion). That’s great that you found the pre-run meal that works for you! Mmmm, and now I’m craving a good bagel 🙂

  7. I think fueling is one of the hardest things to figure out in a race. It sounds like you really figured out what was going on and I could not be happier for you. Congrats.

  8. I don’t really do gels, but I like Hammer products like Recoverite. I feel like they are higher quality than other proteins and really trust the brand. A lot of endurance athletes I know use those. I do love the large pockets on the Saucony bullet because they are great for races when you need nutrition.

    1. They really do use such high quality ingredients and there seem to be fewer preservatives or weird flavors than in other brands of sports foods. I loved how I could stash my gels into the bullet pockets and access them so easily, but not have to worry about them falling out.

  9. This is great! I’ve never tried Hammer Gels and now I really want to, but I can’t really experiment with them until after this weekend’s marathon. Also, I listened to a podcast once (I’ve tried finding it and I can’t remember which one it was!) where the guy says to eat FOUR HOURS before a marathon and eat and drink NOTHING from that four hour mark until 10 minutes before the race, where you take a couple gulps of electrolyte drink. Four hours is a long time. But that’s what I did last time, and it worked perrrrfectly. I guess it’s different for everyone.

    1. You should try them after the marathon! They’re one of the few gels that (ahem) doesn’t make me feel like I need to run to the restroom from all the sugar, which is nice. That’s so interesting about eating four hours before! I’ve heard of not drinking anything in the 60 minutes before a race, but not that long! That’s great it worked for you, and I’m super interested why – maybe it was the longer digestion time? It is so different for everyone!

  10. I’m a big fan of the Honeystinger chews and gels but also used the Gus during marathon training. I use Nuun for hydration but it’s only hard during races when I can’t refill my little handheld waterbottle. I used the belt before but this year it just bounced around too much so I opted for the handheld and to use gatorade. The Enduropacks spray sounds interesting! Toast and PB with honey or banana and PB and honeystinger waffle are my go-to pre-long run eats!

    1. I’ve heard a lot of people say good things about the honey stingers! I do love honey, although the one time I tried honeystinger it ended up in a big mess all over me – oops! The spray is interesting – some people tuck it in their shorts during a race so they can spray it straight in their mouth whenever they take in plain water at a race. It sounds like you’ve nailed your fueling! 🙂

  11. I’ve struggled with fueling over the years–I have a crazy sensitive GI tract. I’ve settled on Tailwind Nutrition for my long runs. It’s an ultramarathon fuel, and I wrote to the company before I took the plunge. Their motto is “no gut bombs” and it is the truth. I have to carry a handheld, and I take 200 calories ( 1 packet) per hour. Both marathons I never hit “the wall”. For shorter runs (8+miles), I usually just take Clif Gel, which has sugar in it. They don’t bother me at all. I just have trouble getting more than 1-2 of them down.

    I have to admit I’m a little skeptical of an electrolyte spray. It’s the medical person in me, I think. Glad you found that it worked for you!

  12. It took me so long to figure out my hydration/nutrition needs back when I started running marathon. I would be so sick to my stomach starting at about the halfway point (in my epic 3rd marathon in LA, I would stop at the first aid tents and try to make myself throw up, hoping that would make me feel better. It did not.). I finally ended up carrying my own fluids, which helped enormously. This was in the late 90s, so many products that are available now just weren’t out then.

    1. That sounds so rough! I’ve considered carrying my own fluids as well because it’s hard to time everything with what the courses provide. I’m glad that it improved your hydration to do so!

  13. Great tips! I hate figuring out fuel – I’m always worried that something will make me sick and ruin my run plans, so I just stick to what I know (oatmeal). I might have to try out some toast though!

    1. Thank you! I’ve heard a lot of people say oatmeal works well for them, which makes sense since it’s so easy to digest and provides a slow and steady energy release!

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