This post is mainly for marathon training (but principles can be applied to other distances) and contains the guidelines I give my clients. As always, make sure you talk to your doctor about your body’s needs. I am not a medical professional. I’m a running coach who helps others find what works the best for them. This is how I do it.
Long Run Fueling Needs
KEEP IN MIND:
- Your fueling needs are unique to you. Take time to experiment.
- Fueling for you run starts BEFORE your run (dinner, breakfast).
- Hydration is part of run fueling. Don’t forget hydration!
- Ask people you trust for recommendations on types of run fuel.
- Try out a new kind of run fuel on a 6 or 8 mile run. See how it sits with you before trying it on an 16 or 28 mile run.
- Fueling for your long run includes your recovery fuel afterward.
What you need:
- A long run fueling journal. Digital, paper, doesn’t matter. The point is that you keep track of what you ate and when and how you felt at different points of your long run. Here is a printable sample you can download:
- A timing device. Most of you have a GPS sport watch or running app on your mobile. If you can set it to beep at you at regular intervals (every 20 minutes, for example) that will you practice your fueling schedule.
- A variety of fuels; gels, beans, blocks, etc and probably a few kinds of electrolyte drinks. You don’t have to get them all at once, but over time you’ll want to try different things.
Here are products I use (these are affiliate links):
Coach’s Oats is my go-to pre run meal. Island Boost (this link is for a giant pack) is my favorite run fuel and Nuun my favorite electrolyte drink. I recommend you try them!
Sample Fueling Timeline:
If you’re not sure where to start, try this timeline on for size. Take notes. Make adjustments as you need too. This is roughly what works FOR ME, assuming it’s nice weather (65 degrees).
- Hydrate all week leading up to your long run/race. It goes without saying but…so many say they will without actually doing it. So just do it. Please.
- Eating and drinking long before the run helps increase your chances of dumping any excess before you start running. Your bowels may need a different timeline.
- As you run, pay attention to your energy level, muscles, and gut happiness. If anything feels like it is starting to go poorly, make a mental note when you first noticed it.
- As soon as you’re done, write all this down in your training journal.
Once you’ve logged your fuel for a run, it’s time to interpret your “data”. Yes, there is some guesswork as to why you crashed on the run and how to fix it. However, the goal is to figure it out through trial and error, right? So be patient, it may take years to get it just right.
So, check this out. I used my journal template (click to download a printable pdf) and filled in some sample notes. Perhaps the visual will help this all make more sense.
In this sample, it looks like I ate breakfast too close to my run and felt like it was still sitting in my stomach when I took off. I made a note to eat a little earlier next time. I also started to fade in the second half of the run so I made a note to fuel more frequently next time.
Tips on making adjustments:
- Stop using anything you didn’t like. Duh, and yet… some will try to force something to work because they think it’s the best fuel. If it made your tummy feel funny or stuck to your teeth annoyingly or just generally bothered you, stop using it.
- Be Patient. I hate being patient. But this is one thing that is worth taking the time to get right. It makes running marathons MUCH more fun. I have my system and my last (pregnant) marathon required zero potty breaks and I carried exactly the right amount of fuel. No waste! Haha.
- Make SMALL adjustments. If you normally take fuel every hour but you think it isn’t enough, don’t switch to fueling every 20 minutes next run. Try 45 minutes next run and see how that goes first.
- If you crash in the beginning, eat better pre-run. If you’re feeling low on energy in the first hour, you are either intentionally running on no fuel (that is a thing and has a purpose) OR you need to be smarter about your pre-run fueling. Eat a better breakfast and/or try taking a gel 15 minutes before your run.
- If you crash in the middle or end, increase your fueling frequency. You started off well but then fizzled out? You waited too long to refuel. Increase your fueling intervals slightly and try again. If you’d tried fueling every 50 minutes last time, try every 40 minutes next time.
- If you feel liquid sloshing in your belly, reconsider your hydration. For some reason your body isn’t absorbing what you’re drinking. Maybe you’re drinking too much too fast? Maybe you need more electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium) to help your body absorb the liquid. Try a different drink. Take smaller sips.
- Once you feel dehydrated, it’s too late. You must find the balance between staying ahead on your hydration and not getting sloshy belly like I mentioned above. Personally, if I don’t feel thirsty or feel borderline “sloshy belly” when I’m schedule to drink, I’ll still take a sip or two. Once you’re dehydrated, you won’t be able to catch up on the run.
- Fuel takes time to benefit you also – about 30 minutes on average. In other words, a gel won’t help you the moment you swallow it. There is a time gap as your body absorbs it and starts to access the energy. This is why you take fuel BEFORE you feel like you need it. Once you feel like you need it, it’s too late.
- Chase fuel with water, NOT electrolyte drink. I’ve heard this from my running coaches but this Runner’s World Dietician agrees. Most electrolyte drinks contain carbs (hello high sugar Gatorade). Those carbs PLUS the carbs in your gel are a lot all at once. So chase your fuel with plain water instead and it should absorb easier.
- Don’t take fuel in the last 30 minutes of a long run. Considering the above tip, it’s better to take your last fuel 45+ minutes before you expect to finish so it can help you in the last 15+ minutes of the actual run. Or save the extra fuel pack for another run.AND MOST IMPORTANTLY
- Sometimes the problem is not your fueling strategy. If you feel you’ve tried it all and still can’t figure out your long run energy or GI issues, look at the bigger picture. Things like lack of sleep, overtraining, life stress, or broader nutritional issues can all be a part of the puzzle. I make my clients ask themselves about these things as we problem-solve our way through training. Sometimes I encourage them to talk to a medical professional.
Are you ready to fine tune your long run fueling strategy? Hopefully these basic suggestions are a good starting point and help you experiment your way to success!
Ready. Set. Experiment!
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- Long Run Recovery Timeline
- Electrolytes For Runners – Runners Connect
- Paleo run fuel recipe from Fit Views
- Tips on adjusting nutrition from McMillan Running
- How To Make Yourself Poop – Runner’s World