When I first learned about marathons years ago, my second thought (after how could someone run for that long?) was about food and energy. How does someone run that long and not get hungry or tired from lack of food?
Of course, I’ve learned the answers to those questions over the past several years, both from reading and from firsthand experience. Still, I’m fascinated by the topic of marathon nutrition and hydration and I enjoy reading how others fuel their marathons. I really nerd out on all things sports nutrition, especially for the marathon and half marathon. For me, changing my marathon nutrition made a significant difference between my first and second marathon.
The difference between how I felt when I crossed the finish line of my first and second marathons was drastic. At the 2015 Portland Marathon, I finished feeling depleted, exhausted, thirsty, and disappointed. At the 2016 California International Marathon, I finished feeling tired but still going strong and proud.
At the 2015 Portland Marathon, I missed my goal of a BQ time by 15 minutes. At the 2016 California International Marathon, I qualified for Boston by 3.5 minutes faster than my qualifying time.
What changed? While I did change my training (from the Hansons Marathon Method to self-coaching), I believe that my marathon nutrition and hydration had the most significant impact on the drastic difference between those two races.
Train Low, Race High
I first encountered the idea of training low on carbs and racing high on carbs in Matt Fitzgerald’s The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition. Doing some runs without carbs during the run would train the body to be more fuel efficient, so to speak – so that when you added in a high amount of carbs on race day, those carbs would feel like rocket fuel.
A low-carb long run is different than a glycogen depletion run, as I explain in this post. I still ate my normal pre-long run meal before these runs, but I did not consume any carbs or food of any sort during these runs. My longest low-carb run was an easy-paced 16 mile run in the first third of my training cycle. I still drank water with electrolytes during these runs as well.
As the race approached and my long runs became longer and faster, I switched over to using carbs. Some runs I would use less fuel, to keep up with the training low philosophy, but for my three 20 milers and any runs at marathon pace (which were about half of my long runs), I practiced fueling as I would during the marathon.
Practicing my race day nutrition during long runs helped me find the type of fuel that worked for me, determine the best intervals at which to take it, and train my stomach to handle fuel just as it would on race day.
Thanks to the low carb runs, my body could use both fat and carbs as fuel rather than relying predominantly on carbs. My body was also trained to tap into stored glycogen rather than rely solely on glucose (blood sugar).
Then, during the race, the extra gels gave me a huge boost of energy. I never hit the wall. The miles where I had to work to maintain my pace were not a result of low energy, but rather of fatigued muscles.
Sipping on Gels Rather than Taking All at Once
I could babble on for a long time about why sipping gels is a better idea (gastric emptying, sugar crash, GI distress, etc.), but I truly believe this is one of the best methods for avoiding GI distress and having steady energy levels during the marathon.
On race day, I took my fuel every 40 minutes – 40 minutes, 80 minutes, 2 hours, 2 hours 40 minutes, and a final partial gel around 3 hours. This was quite a bit of fuel – as I said above, my plan was to consume a high amount of carbs during the race. I stored my gels in these Gear Well reuseable pouches for easier consumption and storage during the race.
At each 40 minute mark, I would take a couple sips of gel. Five minutes later, I’d take a couple more sips, and then five minutes after that, I’d take a final sip or two. This method provided me with the equivalent of one gel, but instead of gulping in all down in a matter of seconds, I slowly took it over 10-15 minutes.
I sipped my water as well, rather than holding off early and drinking larger portions later. I started taking Nuun at the first aid station – just a few sips – and then alternated water and Nuun at each station and drank to thirst.
Carb-Loading The Right Way
I honestly forget how I carb-loaded for the Portland Marathon, but in retrospect, I don’t think I did the carb load right (at least for me).
For CIM, I did a three-day carb-load with ~70% of my calories from carbohydrates. I didn’t cut out vegetables until Saturday and tried to get a decent amount of my carbs from foods such as potatoes, squash, fruits, and other vegetables.
I did count calories and carbs during the carb-load because it’s actually hard (or at least was for me) to eat that high of a percentage of carbohydrates!
I didn’t do a fat-loading phase or a caffeine fast at all – I didn’t find them necessary for my level of training. For me personally, something as drastic as a caffeine fast would be reserved for trying to break through a long-standing plateau. I’m a bit of a coffee addict.
Eating More Before the Race
To expand on the previous point, I also changed what I ate before the race. Glycogen stores are partially depleted by an overnight fast (sleeping for 7-9 hours), so a small breakfast before the race tops off your carbohydrate stores before the start line.
Before my first marathon, I ate a banana and snacked on dry Chex cereal. I was nervous about the race and didn’t have much of an appetite – and I’m sure the paltry pre-race breakfast didn’t do me any favors during the race, especially when I fell off my pace at mile 14.
For my second marathon, I ate a full-sized breakfast just over 2 hours before the race: a whole plain bagel topped with a bit of peanut butter and honey and a banana.
For hydration before the race, I drank 1.5 cups of coffee, 12 ounces of water with Enduropacks, and probably another 12-16 ounces of water in the three hours before the race. I stopped drinking more than just a few sips about 1 hour before the start time.
Nutrition and hydration seem to be ever-changing, so I know that just because I nailed it at CIM, I may not always nail it during training or racing. Bodies change, training needs change, and weather is always a factor. But I definitely did improve my marathon nutrition from my first marathon to my second marathon!
Of course, what worked for me might or might not work for you. I always encourage runners to listen to their bodies and find what works for them.
If you want some guidance on marathon nutrition or hydration (or for the half marathon), check out my coaching services and my special e-course on Fuel Your Fastest Running. This course delivers eight videos to help you optimize your nutrition and hydration during training and race day – including topics such as preventing GI distress, avoiding the wall, and whole food alternatives to gels.
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
How have you improved your nutrition and hydration for racing/running?
What’s your biggest obstacle in marathon or half marathon nutrition?