Scan the crowd at the starting line of any long-distance race, and you’ll learn that no discovery is complete without a fanny (or bags) full of goo and chew. These belly-filling treats aren’t just fad fodder. The right fuel can help you meet your race day goals, as long as you eat the right things in the right amounts.
Wait, do I need to eat during a run?
Whether or not your race is helped by a mid-race bite depends on the length of the race, as well as your preferences and body type. If you’re doing a 5k or 10k you don’t need grub mid-run.
“You need to exercise for about 75 minutes before you need to consider a mid-workout snack,” says the nutritionist and strength coach. Albert Matheny, RD, CSCSCOO of ARENA Innovation Corp and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. In general, he explains, it is how long it takes the body to use up the glycogen stores. That said, the higher percentage of maximum intensity that gives, the faster your body will use up your carbohydrate reserves. Meaning, if you’re all in a rush, you may need to refuel more quickly.
After the 75-minute mark, you’ll want to continue eating once every 30 to 40 minutes, for the duration of the run, says a fitness and nutrition expert. Jeff Cunningham, official running coach for BPN.
Okay, so what should I eat during a run?
Simply put, some well-tolerated fast-digesting carbohydrates and some sodium are your best bet, says Cunningham. The reason why you opt for fast (or simple) carbohydrates is that they are easier to metabolize than complex carbohydrates, so your body can use them more easily as energy, he explains.
Did you I do not know try to replace the exact amount of calories you’ve burned or the stored carbohydrates you’ve already used for fuel, Matheny says. You need enough to keep you going. “Generally try to consume 100 to 200 calories of fast carbohydrates for every hour you run,” he says. Consuming more calories than that at the time can cause gastrointestinal distress.
You should also aim to ingest 500 to 750 milligrams of sodium per hour to maintain healthy hydration levels and electrolyte balance, says Cunningham. (Even if the weather is hot, you may need to bump that up to 800 to 1200 mg of sodium per hour).
So where should I get those fast carbs and sodium?
This may come as a surprise, but this is one time you probably don’t want to reach for “real” foods. “Real foods often don’t have readily available energy sources that you need during a run,” says Cunningham. Usually, you need to digest and absorb the nutrients in real foods before you can fuel them, he explains, and their more complex nature can cause GI distress during a high-intensity run.
Luckily, the market is flooded with gels and goos, sports drinks and chews that are designed to give you energy ASAP. “Some of the most popular gels include Huma, Spring energy, Maurten, GU, PowerGelto name a few,” says Cunningham. Most of these contain about 100 calories per serving, 25 grams of carbs, and at least 100 milligrams of sodium. Some products also contain caffeine, which can be a welcome energy boost. towards the later kilometers.
While these are all formulated with easy-to-digest carbohydrates and sodium, your body will likely tolerate some better than others, Cunningham says. That is why he recommends to try and find the brands and products that agree best with you. More specifically, he recommends trying them out during training.
The adage “nothing new on game day” has stuck around for a reason, Matheny says. “What you’ve always eaten during your training sessions is exactly what you should be doing on race day,” he says. Just like you have to train your legs to handle the miles, you have to train your gut to metabolize fuel while you’re moving. And you want to know how your body reacts to a particular product: Some people suffer cramps if they go too heavy on the fiber, or take the files if they consume chemicals and additives. If this is true for you, it is something you want to learn about yourself at first race day
Our favorite race day fueling options
Huma Chia Energy Gel – $30.00
$30 for a 12-pack variety
If your stomach can’t handle the dextrose and maltodextrin in most traditional gels, you might want to try Huma. The natural formula based on chia seeds is typically easier on the digestive system, using brown rice syrup to provide carbohydrates. Plus, the grains offer a bit of texture, which some runners like.
Honey Stinger Energy Chews – $32.00
$32 for a box of 12
If you prefer a chew instead of a goo, Honey Stinger has some of the best tasting options. (We’re partial to pink lemonade and cherry blossom.) Chews can be useful for spreading your fuel over time, instead of taking in 100 calories at once, you can have a single chew, wait a few minutes, then to get. another one. Or stick one in your cheek to slowly suck.
Gu Roctane Energy Gels – $62.00
$62 for a box of 24
When you’re racking up serious miles (especially looking at you, ultra-runners), sometimes you need an extra boost. Gu’s Roctane Energy gel line includes sodium for better hydration, amino acids for happier muscles, and caffeine for a quick energy boost.
Maurten – $4.00
$3.90 for a single serving
If you are someone who wants fuel like the pros, you can check out Maurten. The hydrogel technology behind these goos delivers carbohydrates and electrolytes directly to your intestines, making it easier to digest higher concentrations. It also makes for a thicker consistency. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated versions are available.
Okay then, you need it drink during a race?
It depends. “Like food, whether or not you need to hydrate during a run varies between individuals depending on body size and composition and sweat patterns,” he says. Danine Fruge, MD, ABFP, medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida. The length and location (think: climate, soil, humidity) of the race also matters, she notes.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommend drink 5 to 12 ounces of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes during a marathon. Although “if your sweat rate is low, it can be too much,” says Dr. Fruge.
Usually, an easy way to know if you are well hydrated is that your urine is a light color and not dark yellow. But if you’re in the middle of the race, you probably won’t stop to pee—and if you do, it’s probably in a portapotty—which makes it impossible to tell. So instead, make sure you drink water as soon as you feel thirsty. “Thirsty is a sign that you’re already dehydrated, so you want to make sure you’re drinking when the symptom comes on,” says Matheny.
What fluids should you drink, exactly? Usually, the water is beautiful. “But water alone may not be the best strategy for people who sweat a lot,” according to Dr. Fruge. Sports drinks and electrolyte mixes can help the body absorb water more easily. (Plus, many are super tasty.)
“Just make sure you read the labels carefully to avoid unnecessary dyes, artificial sweeteners and chemicals,” says Dr. Fruge.
What you eat and drink at first race matters too
For long runs and big runs, you usually want to eat breakfast two and a half to three and a half hours before you shoot the gun, Cunningham says. Exactly how much you eat during your morning meal will vary. For a marathon, you’ll want to ingest 600 to 750 calories, while for a half marathon, half that amount will probably be enough.
“You want to avoid foods that are too high in fat and protein, as they can be difficult to digest,” says Cunningham. “Instead, you want to eat a meal with carbohydrates and protein in the 4:1 range.” A bagel with peanut butter and honey, or a bowl of oatmeal with a banana and a spoonful of peanut butter are two good examples, he says.
Oh, and don’t forget to drink water in the morning and the night before. “Avoid drinking 20 to 25 ounces of fluids two hours before the race,” says Cunningham. If you usually add electrolytes to your pre-run refreshment, go ahead and mix some into your breakfast bevvy to support your hydration levels, he says.