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.
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.
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.
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?