As I begin training for my fourth marathon, I thought I’d tackle the issue of fuel for runs. During my first marathon, I did everything wrong: didn’t train well, ate way too many carbs, and knew NOTHING about fueling for runs. Turns out, your body can only go for so long with out fuel before it begins to protest, bonk, fatigue, or shut down. (She says from painful personal experience,)
One of the questions I get asked often is how to fuel properly for runs, whether it’s looking for advice for fuel to take during long runs, or how to fuel after a workout to boost recovery.
I thought I’d share just some general tips for fueling. These are just some basic guidelines when it comes to fueling for runs, and since everyone is unique, try different things to see what works for you. Some factors to consider when fueling for runs include gender, mileage, time of day, and sweat. (Did you know some people have more salt in their sweat then others? This impacts your nutritional needs, big time.) So as I share these tips, keep in mind your personal needs and lifestyle.
Before a Run
A good rule of thumb is to eat something that’s a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein at least 30 minutes (if it’s small) but ideally two hours before a run. Something like whole wheat toast and peanut butter, half a sweet potato and almond butter, or my protein-packed peanut butter balls (pictured). You should try and let it fully digest before you head out for a run because the last thing you want is a pit stop mid run. Depending on when you run, you could plan your meals around you workouts to ensure you have the fuel you need.
Personally, I ignore these guidelines. (Say, WHAT, Cate?) I usually run very early in the morning, and I don’t like running with food in my stomach. I have learned the hard way on more than one occasion when something digests too quickly on a run. I don’t know if most experts would recommend running on an empty stomach, but I’ve found that is works for me. For runs 10 miles or longer I do try and have some food beforehand. It’s usually bacon, which isn’t the best choice, but I’ve found that I’ve had the least amount of digestive distress with it.
Bottom line: Find what works for you but aim to get some protein and carbs in at least 30 minutes before a run.
During a Run
Any run longer than 60 minutes will require some fuel. The basic science behind that idea is you have only so much glycogen stored within your muscles. Glycogen is the stored energy your muscles use to function. (Imagine little tanks of gas in your muscles.) Once that runs out, your body has to shift to other sources of energy like fat and protein, which (if you are not fat-adapted) is pretty difficult to do. Depending on length and effort, you may need to fuel every 15-30 minutes. (See here for more information.)
There are endless fuel choices when it comes to your nutrition. For me personally, I’ve been using Generation UCAN which allows me to have steady energy and teaches my body to burn fat for fuel. Other options include gels (I’ve tried GU, and Honey Stinger, and I prefer Honey Stinger), chews, bars, and even real food. Things like honey, dates, dried fruits, and baby food are different options your can try. Yes, I’ve taken little baby food pouches of a mix of fruit and chia seeds on my runs before. Don’t be afraid to try different things and see what you like best.
Bottom Line: For long runs, you need fuel. Find what works for you. Just be sure to always take fuel with water.
After a Run
Just after a run, you need a mix of carbs and protein to put energy back into your muscles (remember that glycogen we talked about? You need to replenish that) and to aid in muscle recovery. Protein contains amino acids which build and repair muscle tissue. Another thing to consider is your hydration. For some, plain water is fine, but if you are a salty sweat-er, or if conditions were particularly hot, you will need additional nutrients. Coconut water is a great choice for natural hydration that is full of electrolytes. I’ve been using UCAN’s hydrate in berry. (They now have watermelon!) I would not recommend something like Gatorade. Just my personally opinion.
I usually time my runs so that my recovery/post run fuel is my breakfast. I usually have eggs with some additional protein (whatever’s leftover: chicken, sausage, etc.) and lots of veggies (sweet potatoes, potatoes, peppers, broccoli, spinach, whatever we have.)
Bottom line: Be sure to eat and drink within 45-60 minutes after you run.
The biggest takeaway is just to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to take in nutrition during your runs, or try and convince yourself that a fasted run will be beneficial to you. It won’t be. (I speak from experience.) Take care of your body, give it what it needs, and you’ll see how well your body can perform.