When I first started running, the idea of taking in fuel during a run sounded crazy. Why would I want to take in calories when I’m burning calories? More so, the idea of eating anything when I was running sounded liked it would cause nausea or cramping.
As I began to run longer and longer distances a couple of years ago, I began to notice how my energy lowered as I passed the hour or 75 minute mark of running. What felt like an easy pace for the first few miles felt harder to maintain as I approached ten or twelve miles. Even more, I felt both ravenous and mildly nauseous when I finished the run – my body needed food but my stomach felt too upset to eat.
Since then I read more and more running blogs, and I learned about gels, chews, and how to fuel for a long run. Gels and other fuels still sounded questionable to me – the texture sounded disgusting, and I still wondered how I would be able to eat them when running at half-marathon pace or faster.
When I started training for my first half-marathon, I tried out a couple different types of fuel – Hammer Gels and Cliff Shot Bloks – to find what would work with my body. I thought that I would not like gels, but I found that the Hammer Gels work well for me – they’re easy to take while running and don’t upset my stomach.
Why should you fuel on a long run? Let’s look at some exercise science to understand why fueling on long runs and races is important. You often hear of marathoners talking about “the wall” or “bonking,” which means that all of sudden their energy drastically dropped. This can happen to half-marathon runners or on training runs for these distances also, although some runners can make it 13.1 miles without needing additional fuel. The drop in energy during long distance running and racing happens when your body’s glycogen stores (carbohydrate stores) are used by since glycogen is the primary source of energy during running. Glycogen stores usually reach empty around 2 hours of running at marathon pace – so any longer or faster requires fueling. Gels, chews, and other forms of running fuel are made of easily digestible carbohydrates that will replenish what you spent on running and keep you going strong. Taking in fuel during your long run or race is the best way to prevent hitting the wall.
Learning how to fuel for a long run is the key to finishing your long run feeling strong. You want to take in enough to keep up your energy and pace, but taking in too many carbohydrates can cause digestive upset, cramping, and emergency stops at the bathroom. Most sources, such as Runner’s World, recommend consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates during a long run (75 minutes or longer) or race. This is a large range, so how many carbs you exactly take in depends on your weight, intensity, the weather, and how long you will be running for.
Most gels offer 20-22 grams of carbohydrates, so you want to fuel accordingly. Many runners, including myself, perform best when they start taking in carbohydrates early in the run and at regular intervals. It is recommended to start fueling within the first 30-45 minutes and to continue to fuel every 15-45 minutes. On my long runs, I take my first gel about 45 minutes in and my next at the 80-90 minute mark, depending on how I am feeling. My 10-12 mile training runs last about 90 minutes to 1 hour and 50 minutes, so I am taking in about 42 grams of carbohydrates for a run just under two hours in duration.
In addition to fueling during the run, most runners will benefit from eating some easily digestible carbs within a half hour before they start running. You can take a gel or eat foods such as bananas, raisins, or pieces of a plain bagel. I always have a small banana 30 minutes before I leave on a long run.
You want to find what type of fuel and what fueling strategy works best for you before race day. Try a variety of fuels on your training runs – that way if one certain brand causes GI distress, you don’t risk your PR or have to drop out of a race. Practice also how frequently you take the gels or chews. On one long run, take smaller bits of fuel every 15 minutes; on the next long run, take a whole gel every 30-45 minutes.
Finally, always take in some water when you ingest your fuel. Water helps the carbohydrates enter your system faster – without water, all those carbs may sit heavy on your stomach or take a long time to digest.
Speaking of long runs, here’s how my training for the half-marathon went this past week:
Monday, October 6:
Recovery week means no speed work. 6 miles very easy, averaging around a 9.55 min/mile.
Tuesday, October 7:
4 miles at progressive pace, starting out at an 8.57 min/mile and finishing at an 8.08 min/mile. I also did core work and some light weights.
Wednesday, October 8:
5 miles easy, 9.52 min/mile pace.
Thursday, October 9:
Yoga and core work.
Friday, October 10:
5 miles easy, 9.45 min/mile average pace.
Saturday, October 11:
12 miles, with the last 6 at goal pace. I held an 8.05-ish pace well for miles 7-10 but then slowed down a bit in the last two miles. Despite this, I still averaged a 8.29 min/mile – taking in two Hammer gels definitely helped.
Afterwards, I snuggled up with Ryan and this sweet little puggle.
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