Topping off the Runner's Tank

Amanda Marino | April 3, 2019

We all know that guy who approaches the finish line of a local 5k as if he’s being pulled backward by a fishing rod. His pupils are rolling into his head, protecting his mind from seeing the swaying limbs of the caricature he has become. His saliva becomes a sudsy solution, slowly bubbling at the corners of his mouth. His feet slam to the ground, the strength of their impact conveying the opposite message of his snail-like pace. The best part-- he’s the same guy who told everyone it’s perfectly fine to run a 5k without training.

This scenario is what makes running an island in the land of sports. It’s precise. If you practice running a specific pace in your training, you can be fairly confident in your ability to maintain that pace during a race. If you say you’re going to be fine running a 5k even though you’ve done everything except run in the past 6 months, you will be that guyFollowing this logic, if you’re signed up for a race that requires an intake of fluid and calories, you must ingest fluid and calories during your training. Practicing this element is as crucial as practicing the act of running.

My experience For this post, I am sharing my experience with managing nutrition while running. While there is plenty of research on this subject, I have found the most significant issue to tackle is balancing calories ingested with digestive tolerance. I believe each individual needs to use trial-and-error in order to create his or her ultimate race nutrition plan.

Shorter Training Sessions and Races For every training session that lasts 60 minutes or less but is more than just an easy run, I drink a 50/50 diluted sports drink throughout. For example, if I have a track workout that consists of 10 x 400m, I’ll sip the drink on my way to the track, after the warm up, in between repeats (as needed), and afterward. The drink is never fancy-- usually something that can be purchased in bulk at the grocery store, which is made up of simple sugars and contains 50-60 calories per 8 ounces. After I prepare the 50/50 water/sports drink mix, I add a dash of salt for electrolytes. The small blood-sugar boost helps my mental psyche and makes me feel ready to run fast. In addition, the fact that it’s not plain water helps me stay hydrated without feeling waterlogged. For these reasons, I also consume this drink surrounding shorter races-- anything from a 5k to a race that last 60 minutes or less. For competition beyond this duration, I become more strategic about my nutrition.

Before I continue, I must emphasize that race nutrition is more dependent on time spent running rather than total distance. The longer you take to complete a long-distance race, the more you’re going to need to ingest. Below, I’ve broken down my race nutrition experiences based on duration, and I hope this makes it easier for you to gauge your own needs.

Training Sessions and Races Lasting 60-90 minutes During training sessions or races lasting 60-90 minutes, I stick with 50/50 diluted sports drink before and during, and I usually add in one sports gel about 2⁄3 of the way through. For example, during a half marathon, I will use 1-3 fluid stations depending on the level of heat/humidity. Over time, I have found the best plan for me is to grab a cup of sports drink first, sip as much as I can, then grab a cup of water farther down the fluid station and sip the sweet taste away. If I happen to be in a race where the fluid station is not set up to make two drinks possible, I will opt for only the sports drink (every time I have consumed plain water while racing, I have gotten a side stitch). Around mile 9, I usually consume a sports gel that contains ~100 calories and a relatively high sodium content (125-200mg). Although I’m fine with getting sports gel down, some of my competitors opt for sports chews or “beans.” Again, this is something you must experiment with during training.

Training sessions 90 minutes or longer For all of my long training runs leading up to the 2018 Chicago Marathon, I consistently practiced the following: Every ~30 minutes, I slowly sipped 8-10 ounces of my 50/50 diluted sports drink while running (I kept a bunch of bottles on top of my car, ran by, grabbed one, and drank while maintaining pace). This meant for a 2.5 hour run, I drank 32-40 ounces throughout. In addition, I consumed a sports gel every 45-60 minutes.

Races 90 minutes or longer On race day, it's not easy to replicate EXACTLY how you fueled in training. However, if you have consistently exposed your digestive system to fueling while running, you should be fine with anything that's in the ballpark. The following worked for me at the Chicago Marathon: a swig of Gatorade AND a swig of water at just about every fluid stop (there were at least 20) and four gels total, at approximately miles 8, 13, 18, and 21. If I would have changed anything, I would have added another gel earlier in the race and spaced the rest out to allow my last one at mile 23. In my earlier marathons, I drastically under-fueled for fear of having an upset stomach, which often left me feeling sluggish and weak after mile 20. Over the course of the 7 I have completed, I have become more confident in my ability to fuel effectively. Thus, the most important point I can emphasize is to practice, practice, practice! See what works (and what doesn’t!). Fueling yourself properly will raise your chances of crossing the finish line strong, in control, and ready to celebrate.

Happy training and fueling to those of you running the Novo Nordisk NJ Marathon & Half Marathon on April 28th!

About Amanda: A resident of Asbury Park, NJ, Amanda Marino competed collegiately at Villanova University, where she helped the Wildcats claim 2 NCAA titles in cross country and earned 6x All-American status individually. She currently competes at a high level in the marathon and has a personal best of 2:38:04. She recently qualified for her 3rd straight USA Olympic Trials Marathon, which will be held in Atlanta, GA in February 2020.


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