When it comes to training and gearing up to race, there is a lot to practice and consider. One nugget many runners may not initially think about is when to fuel during a race and how to make sure you have exactly the nutrition you need on race day. Many races provide water, electrolytes and/or carbohydrates to athletes on course, but because they are providing it, does that mean it is going to be the right stuff to sustain you through the whole race? The answer isn’t a simple one; it all depends on the race and the runner.
Here’s how to know whether or not you need to bring your own fuel to your next race.
WHAT TO EXPECT TO SEE ON COURSE
The type of fuel provided on course varies not only by distance, but also by sponsor. Of course, it is almost certain you’ll see water on course no matter the distance. As races get longer, there may also be an electrolyte drink or additional fuel source provided. For carbs, you may see bananas and bagels handed out post-race for runners to munch on as they cool down and head home. The biggest note is every race is different and it is up to the runner to do their research on what exactly will be provided.
“Most marathons will state what fuel source they provide, what flavors are available, and when on the course it will be given out,” notes Amy Goblirsch, RDN, a nutrition coach with Run4PRs Coaching. “Some may provide a gel or chew once, while others give it out 3–4 times. It is important to look up what fuel source will be given out during [a race] and how frequently it can be expected on course.”
For example, Mwangi Gitahi, a running coach and founder of RUNFIRST, shares that in the past, the New York City Marathon has provided Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gels, while the Boston Marathon has Clif Shot Energy Gels. Both contain similar fuel sources, but can actually provide a very different experience from runner-to-runner. That’s why it’s important to experiment and know when — and how — you personally should fuel your run.
THE ART OF FUELING DURING A RACE
Unfortunately, deciding when to fuel during a race isn’t as simple as a sweeping generalization based on race distance. It actually comes down to your personal pace and is based on time spent running. Of course, no matter how long you’re running, drinking water helps you avoid dehydration (just beware of drinking too much water — yes, that’s a thing). Replacing electrolytes and fueling by replacing carbohydrates are two different things; and you want to know the difference.
“The purpose of an electrolyte drink is to hydrate the body and replace electrolytes,” explains Goblirsch. “Many electrolyte drinks are sugar-free, carbohydrate-free and calorie-free, thus making it a poor fuel source.”
You can use electrolyte drinks during runs of any length and they may be advisable for those who run in warm climates or are what Goblirsch refers to as a “salty sweater.” Some races offer these drinks alongside water and whether or not you choose to use them often depends on how your stomach reacts to them. When deciding to go with an electrolyte drink offered on course you may want to err on the side of caution and should use what is familiar and you know your body reacts well to; this is especially true if you are using it a third of the way into your marathon. You don’t want to suffer from side cramps or stomach upset later in the race.
As for fuel sources such as a gel or chew, which medium and flavor you choose is up to you; the crucial part is making sure you are taking it correctly. It is typically advised that athletes running for 90 minutes or longer want to use a fuel source; however, this often means taking it after running for an hour so your body has time to get the benefits.
“Typically, athletes who are running for 90 minutes or more will want to start using a fuel source — but that doesn’t mean waiting until the 90-minute mark to take in the first gel,” confirms Goblirsch. “To be adequately fueled, 25–60 grams should be consumed every hour. Most athletes will find that to be adequately fueled and avoid hitting the wall that their preferred fuel source should be consumed every 30–45 minutes depending on the amount of carbohydrates it contains.”
The timing and which fuel you choose comes down to preference and practice; Goblirsch adds that some runners may only need to consume fuel at 60-minute increments or take a few bites of a chew every couple of minutes versus all at once. Trying different products and timing is the only way you can know what works best for you.
“Keep a journal to write down after long runs how often the fuel source was consumed and a short summary of how the run went,” adds Goblirsch. “This can help answer questions about what works best to eat before and during long runs and what didn’t work.”
WHEN TO BRING YOUR OWN FUEL
To guarantee you have your fuel of choice and make sure you have easy access to it, runners should always plan on bringing their own fuel. It can serve as a backup if you drop any chews along the course fumbling with packaging or if you find you need to replace fuel at times where course nutrition isn’t provided. There is no one right way to carry your fuel, but again, practice and planning is vital.
“This can make or break a race so it’s important to practice it in training,” shares Mwangi. “It really depends on the distance and also what is offered along each course. If a runner prefers to use a product that isn’t going to be offered along the course, they basically have two options: 1) carry the preferred nutrition or 2) have [a friend or coach who is spectating] hand it to them.”
There are many products out there made to carry fuel, from handheld water bottles (that can also carry your electrolyte drink of choice to help your fuel source be consumed a bit more easily) to hydration belts and even just the pockets built-in to your running shorts. It is all going to depend on your personal preference and how much fuel you are carrying, so in this case, practicing in the gear and apparel you’ll wear on race day is also advisable.