Nutrition on the Run
Training for a race can be time consuming. There’s a lot of time and effort put into the training plan, executing the runs, stretching, massaging, and cross training. Runners will often obsess over which shoes are right for them, which socks will they wear on race day, hat or visor, short sleeves or long sleeves? So many things to think about! An often overlooked piece of the puzzle is nutrition. How will you get your energy on the run? If you don’t practice your nutrition strategy prior to race day, they results can be disastrous!
There are a variety of nutrition products out there which can bring up a lot of questions about which ones might work for you. If you have never eaten anything while running before, the thought of consuming one of those weird looking gel packs can be disgusting and intimidating! Maybe you have completed a half marathon before and didn’t “need” anything while you were running. If you are running (or performing other endurance activities) that are lasting longer than 90 minutes, you might not be performing at your full potential if you are not replenishing your energy stores along the way.
Part of the training for your endurance event should include practicing taking different types of energy products while you are running. This way, you can figure out which ones work best for you, which ones definitely don’t work for you, and which ones you actually like the taste and texture of.
Why is nutrition on the run important?
While running, the body uses readily available carbohydrates as energy. Generally, for the first 60 – 90 minutes, we have plenty of energy (carbohydrates) ready to use from our previous meal or snack. As we continue to exercise, the body burns through those carbohydrates, then taps into its energy stores in the muscles called glycogen. Using glycogen for energy is inefficient and the more glycogen we break down, the more fatigued the body becomes. Glycogen prevents the body from using protein as an energy source, which is a good thing! We want protein to be used for muscle growth and repair, not for energy. If glycogen use exceeds replenishment, the body will shift to using protein for energy. Not good! The best way to keep our body performing at its optimal level and prevent glycogen use for energy is to consume carbohydrates while exercising.
If you are training for a race, that means that day after day you have to put some miles in. If you deplete your glycogen stores during a long run, it is going to be harder for your body to recover. So when it’s time for that next run after your long run, your body won’t be performing as well as it would have if you had kept it properly fueled during your previous long run. Keeping your carbohydrate levels topped off during a run will help to keep a high level of glycogen stores in your muscles, which means that your body will be ready to go when it’s time to train again!
How much do I need to consume?
The recommendation is to consume 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour for activities lasting longer than 90 minutes. Most nutrition products have a serving size that provides around 25 grams of carbohydrates, or 100 calories. Depending on how long your run will last, you might need to fuel just once or multiple times.
Now we know why consuming energy on the run can be beneficial, let’s make sense of the different types of nutrition products:
Gels – gels are a quick source of carbohydrates that come in a variety of flavors. Each brand has different features, try a few of them to find the one that is right for you!
Gu, the original energy gel, also contains amino acids and electrolytes to speed up the conversion of carbohydrates to energy and prevent cramping.
Hammer gels contain a chain of complex carbohydrates that provide sustained energy without spiking insulin levels. Hammer is gluten free!
Honey Stinger gels use natural honey and tapioca syrup to provide energy. Many of their products are organic too.
Clif gels have a thinner consistency than others, use the least amount of ingredients, and are about 90% organic.
Chews – Chews provide similar nutrition benefits as gels. Sometimes, people just don’t like the consistency of a gel, so chews are a great option!
Honey Stinger chews are small, soft, and contain organice tapioca syrup and honey. They are gluten and dairy free and won’t stick to your hands or teeth!
Gu Chomps – have the same nutrition content and benefits of their gel counterpart.
Clif Shot Bloks – Clif uses organic brown rice syrup as their major carbohydrate source.
Jelly Belly Sport Beans – just like the jelly beans, but with electrolytes and vitamins to help you on the run. If you like jelly beans, you’ll like these!
Bars – these products have the look and consistency of the everyday treats that most people are used to. These also work well for a pre-run mini meal or a snack during the day.
Bonk Breakers - these use all natural, organic ingredients and contain no dairy or wheat. Each bar is 250 calories, so break it in half while on the run, or use it as a perfectly portioned mid-day snack.
Honey Stinger Waffles – inspired by the Belgian treat, Honey Stinger layers organic honey between two thin waffle wafers.
Drinks – drinks are beneficial because they can provide energy and electrolytes and keep you hydrated! Make sure if you are using a drink as an energy source that it contains carbohydrates! Some electrolyte replacements are sugar free, which is great, but if you are looking for energy, you aren’t going to find it there!
UCAN – this innovative product uses SuperStarch to provide long duration, slow release energy. UCAN does not spike insulin levels and will not upset the stomach. Just one scoop can last up to two hours and it’s gluten free!
Hammer Heed & Perpetuem – these drinks contain the same complex carbohydrates as Hammer gel, providing long lasting energy. Perpetuem contains a protein component and should be used for activity lasting longer than two hours.
Protein helps with muscle growth and repair. The 30 minutes following exercise is a key time for recovery. It’s important to replenish carbohydrates as well as protein during this time. Products such as UCan Vanilla Cream and Chocolate and Hammer Recoverite contain protein to help with muscle repair and can be used as recovery drinks. If you like something more simple, good old chocolate milk provides carbohydrates and protein too!
You will notice that some of the products contain caffeine. Caffeine can be beneficial as a mental stimulant for increased focus during exercise. If you typically can tolerate caffeine well, you should be fine using energy products that contain it. If caffeine doesn’t work well for you, stay away from it for your running needs!
How to prevent stomach problems while eating on the run
The body is made up of mostly water. When dehydration sets in, the gastrointestinal tract gets upset, and it doesn’t function well! Dehydration can cause your GI system to reject those fast acting carbohydrates that you are putting into it. The result; time to find a porta potty! You can help prevent this from happening by maintaining good hydration throughout your run. This means that if you plan on running long, you need to hydrate early on in your run, even if you are not thirsty yet. It is extremely difficult to get out of the hole once you become dehydrated. Even though you won’t take an energy product until after an hour of running, you have to maintain your hydration during that first hour. A hydrated stomach accepts energy products much better. Wash down your energy products with water and keep drinking for the remainder of your run.
Some products contain complex carbohydrates and very little sugar to help provide long lasting energy without spiking insulin levels. It is recommended that you stick with the same type of carbohydrate during your run. Mixing carbohydrates that contain sugar with complex carbs could throw your body off a little and upset your stomach. Products that don’t spike insulin levels are Hammer, UCan, and Honey Stinger.
As you ramp your training up this Spring, don’t forget to focus on your nutrition! You will find that you have more energy, can perform better, and recover quicker; all adding up to more enjoyable running. You might find that a certain product just doesn’t work well for you. Don’t give up! Keep trying different brands / types of products to find what does work! The good thing is that most of the products come in yummy flavors and actually taste good! So enjoy your nutrition experimenting!