If you run longer than 1 hour for any of your weekly workouts, you have probably considered what nutrition may be necessary to improve your performance or to complete the distance more comfortably. Fueling for performance during exercise is a huge industry. If you are looking to fuel your body on your next long run the choices are endless. How do you decide what is best for you? What does your body need to perform?
First of all let me explain my credentials. I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. What I have to offer is personal experience and a lot of trial and error. I have completed 6 marathons, 2 half Ironman races, 2 Ironman aqua bikes, and a full Ironman. I have also completed 40 half marathons. During these events I have made every mistake in the book. These mistakes and a lot of experimentation during training have allowed me to "figure out" what seems to work for me on long workouts.
At what race distance do you need to take in nutrition? The reason why there are so many products and different opinions is because everyone is different. We all have different genetic make-up, fitness levels, weight, backgrounds, etc. All of these factors and many more determine what you need to improve performance or just to finish an event.
One of the funniest things I have seen is a number of years ago Manny Ramirez, who was playing for the Red Sox at the time, hits a home run and after running the bases grabs a medium Gatorade and chugs it down. Now, even Gatorade would have to admit you don't need their product after running the bases. So when do you need it? I typically use the rule that if I am going longer than 75 minutes then I probably need some nutrition. If I am running for 2-3 hours or longer then I need to plan to intake food/drink every 45-60 minutes to make sure I am fueled and hydrated throughout the run.
Ok, I know I need nutrition. What should I eat/drink on my run? There are many factors involved with this answer but I will try to cut through the mystery. Here are the most important factors for me:
1) How does it taste?
If you are fueling during a marathon you are already in enough pain. Don't make it worse by eating/drinking something that tastes like s*%t. The number one thing for me is I have to like the taste. This is especially important in the later portions of the race when you need fuel just to finish the event. The last thing you need is a bad taste in your mouth.
2) How does your body react?
This requires experimentation. With so many products and flavors out there you have to know if eating/drinking something will result in an upset stomach or bathroom issues. It is essential that you test your nutrition plan in training before race day. One of the biggest "rookie" mistakes is grabbing something new from a water stop during the race and having a negative reaction.
3) Easy to use?
The choices are endless. GU, gels, shots, bars, etc. It is essential that you are comfortable with the product. Some factors here include things such as:
a) Is it hard to chew? Is it possible you will have to stop running in order to eat? Especially when you are exhausted towards the end of the event. Breathing and chewing can be labor intensive when you are struggling.
b) How do you open it? Can you open it while running or will you have to stop? Will it melt after a few hours making it impossible to open?
c) How will you carry your nutrition? Some are easy to carry and others are more difficult. Will all of the items fit in your fuel belt?
4) Does it work?
Something could get high marks on all of the above points and fail on the most important. It has to work! If you are fueling properly you are consuming 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. There are many other ingredients that could improve performance including sugar, caffeine, electrolytes, sodium etc. Again experimentation is key. Once you know something works in training you can enter your big event with confidence.
So you want details....Here is my nutrition plan for my upcoming marathon in October. I use these items for all of my long runs so I know how my body will react.
Breakfast: cup of coffee, bagel with peanut butter, and one Ensure. I eat the coffee and bagel as soon as I get up and then drink the Ensure about an hour before the event. This combination gives me the carbohydrates and enough calories to give me some power. The caffeine jump starts my system.
During the race: Starting at about the 45-60 minute mark I will eat one mini Snickers bar (yes..I said Snickers) and then eat one every 45 minutes until the end of the race. Throughout the race I also drink Gatorade making sure I drink early and often to get calories and to maintain hydration. Eating a Snickers bar is easy to do and has a great taste. I also get sugar and caffeine in addition to carbohydrates.
I also plan on using my secret weapon at the New Hampshire Marathon. Around mile 17 I will have a friend hand me an ice cold Mountain Dew. This is a totally different taste than Gatorade and is filled with sugar and caffeine. Exactly what my body needs to power through the last section of the race. I first started experimenting with soda on long bike rides during my Ironman training. I ate so much junk food during the Ironman my training partner said I was utilizing the "teenage diet" nutrition plan. But guess what? It works....so don't judge me. Watch the Tour de France. You will constantly see the riders being handed cans of Coke. It works.
After the race: Cold beer! Celebrate! You did it!
The bottom line is that everyone needs some type of nutrition for long distance events and you need to experiment to determine what works for your body. Whether you use the latest scientifically tested formula or you use Gatorade, Mountain Dew, and Snicker's Bars if you get to the finish line and meet your goals then one choice is not better than another. I don't use products because they are cool or the latest trend. I use what works and so should you. Start experimenting and find that perfect combination that will keep you energized and allow you to cross the finish line.