Race Day Nutrition – By Julian Spence – The Running Company – Ballarat.
Julian Spence – The Running Company – Ballarat.
Scarily, the gun for the iconic Great Ocean Road Marathon goes off in just over 2 months time.
If you’re not getting into the bulk of your training over the next few weeks then you certainly should be! That training should include a weekly long run that exceeds 2 hours which brings into play the discussion around event day nutrition.
One of the recurring discussions that we have with our customers is about what to eat and drink on race day. What to use? How to use it? How much do I use? A common one – “My friend said gels gave her the runs!”
There’s an abundance of confusion and misinformation about fuelling that pervades running groups and Internet forums. Even at the pointy end of the field I see experienced runners make huge mistakes. Mistakes that can turn a race that you’ve worked hard all year for, into a nightmare of toilet stops and stomach aches.
Below are my thoughts on how to best approach fuelling for the half and full marathon. This information is relevant for races that will take from 2 hours to 5 hours. Although I wasted 3 years of my life doing a Food Science and Nutrition degree, most of what is listed below is knowledge gained through my own personal experience and research and time spent in running circles.
To kick off the discussion, WHY do we need to fuel during our long runs? For this, a simple understanding of the physiology behind why we slow down at the end of our marathons is required.
We’ve all heard about (and many experienced!) “hitting the wall” in a marathon. For those that haven’t run into the wall, try to imagine a feeling like a much worse case of those last few k’s in your training long runs. The body starts overheating, you have trouble thinking clearly, get dizzy, legs feel like bricks, you have trouble stomaching any water or nutrition; basically all things that make you want to stop your forward progression to the finish line. For most it’s anywhere from 20-40km, others it’s at the 35k mark. Some runners get all the way to 40km before the wall jumps out in front of them!
The most common factor that causes a runner to ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’ is the depletion of their stored glycogen. Glycogen is the term given to the body’s stored form of carbohydrate, found in the liver and the muscles. It is glycogen that fuels muscle activity. Metaphorically, it’s the petrol to run your engine. When running, more carbohydrate is required than at rest, thus requiring glycogen to be broken down and burnt in the fire at a greater rate. Most trained runners have about 90-120 minutes of stored glycogen at their disposal. After the 90-120mins, we enter glycogen depletion and the body starts to break down it’s own proteins and fats for fuel. This is an inefficient fueling system for the intensity required to perform well and as such, we try to avoid at all costs through supplementation with sports nutrition products.
We’ve worked out what limits our performance over longer distances, HOW then do we prevent or delay glycogen depletion.
Training is the number one way to prolong the bonk. The more that we run, the better our bodies get at preserving glycogen and increasing the efficiency of our fueling process. By running at the right intensities during your training program you’ll teach your body to operate using less petrol thus extending burn time of the amount in your fuel tank.
This is why the long run is the most important session of the week for a marathoner and should regularly be more than 2 hours long.
There is now an entire industry dedicated to delaying the bonk! There are tons of products with long and exotic ingredient lists that come in liquids, solids and powders. This is the confusing bit for runners! What’s best for your particular gut might be totally different from the runner beside you downing the
salted caramel apple twist flavoured gel. Your body is too busy trying to flood your legs and arms with oxygenated goodness to concentrate on clearing your stomach of whatever you’re sucking down. We need to focus our fueling efforts
on substances that require little effort to transport across our digestive tract and into our blood stream. Comfortably ingested, easily digested and transported straight into energy production is the goal. Gels that list carbohydrate as their main ingredient achieve this better than anything else. The specific carbohydrate in the gel may vary but most companies like to use a polysaccharide called maltodextrin because it provides a sustained release of energy. Rather than an immediate spike in blood sugar and then an equally quick drop, complex carbohydrates offer a more even, sustained energy release. Coca Cola and lollies such as snakes are all simple sugars that drive the peak and crash blood sugar rollercoaster…
Right, so we’ve worked out that we need gels or liquids. Now lets look at how much we need and when we need it.
Although it would be convenient to wait until we use up our stored glycogen and then top up with gels in the second half of the race, it doesn’t quite work like that. Once you’ve hit that wall there really isn’t much coming back from it without a decent chance to sit and replenish. I believe that the fueling protocol should begin early in the race for the purpose of delaying the bonk as much as possible. Supplement early to take away the early drawings from your stored glycogen. Also, continue to stick to your nutrition plan until late in the race. Just because the finish is within 30 minutes doesn’t mean that you should forget to fuel. I loved watching Michael Shelley rip open a gel at the 38km mark of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games before outkicking the Kenyans to win gold!
Individual requirements for carbohydrate fueling vary based on two factors – the intensity that you’re working at and your weight. A lightweight runner who is running at a lower heart rate will require fewer calories (carbohydrate) than a bigger runner who is working much harder. The general rule of thumb is that the stomach can digest about 60g carb per hour when working at a marathon intensity. Most gels contain between 20-30g of carb so it makes sense to aim for 2 gels per hour. This might sound like a lot but if your body can handle it, it’s only going to aid performance. Keep in mind that more things can go wrong from having too many gels than not enough! If you ingest too much carbohydrate for your body to digest, the dreaded gut issues arise and you’ll know all about stomach cramps or will find yourself in the aid station porte-loo.
Without getting into too much detail, the simple sugar ‘fructose’ can be a stomach nasty to many people. Fructose is found in several gel brands so be careful if you know that you’re sensitive to this.
Experimentation is required. Again, your long runs are most important here. Practice your gel protocol on your runs. Know that you’ll most likely have to take the gel with only a cup of water on race day and this can get messy. Practice makes perfect though so try to set up some race day scenarios during training. You’ll find that some gels are easier to open and get down than others. Some are viscous and others are runny. Just like the family member who raids the lolly jar for the raspberries and you steal all the green frogs, flavor is individual preference. Most gels come in a citrus flavour and there is research to show that citrus is more inviting when you’re feeling ill. Try to chase the gels down with a cup of water so time your gels to coincide with aid stations. When I’m about 400m from the station, I’ll rip the gel open and suck it down in a few goes. Then throw it in the trash at the station and take a cup of water to drink and one to wash the gunk from my hands and mouth!
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade market themselves as both an electrolyte and a sugar source. The problem with consuming liquids as your carbohydrate source is that because of the dilution of most sports drinks, you need to consume over one litre per hour in order to get your 60g carb. During events like a marathon this just isn’t practical and you may end up with stomach distress from too much liquid.
There is one drink which you can have a large dose of carbohydrate without having to have a litre of water and this is “tailwind”, it’s easy on the tummy but to get the high carbs, you’d need to make a very sweet drink and this may not be to your liking!
The debate around hydration during endurance activity is a very contentious topic. The last couple of years have seen a certain change on traditional thinking on how much, often and what to drink. The agreed upon consistent is that individual requirements vary greatly due to your sweat rate and the weather. Current research suggests drinking water to thirst rather than trying to hit certain amounts. If your event or training day is especially warm or you are a heavy sweater, try taking electrolytes through non carbohydrate sources such as Shotz tablets. By drinking high amounts of sports drink for electrolytes, you’re inadvertently taking on increased amounts of carbohydrate which could create further GI distress.
We’ve all got that running buddy who swears by the 30km Vegemite sandwich and won’t hear a word about your gels that are full of ‘processed crap’! Bread does have a high amount of carbohydrate but because it’s in a solid form and is accompanied by other nutrients, the body has to undertake extra digestive processes before it can be absorbed and used. This all equates to a higher risk of gut issues. Also, have you tried chewing down sandwiches and trying to run? Not much fun! The more similar the food is to the consistency of what’s in your gut, the better. Hence, gooey gels!
There are some sports nutrition products like Clif Shot Bloks and GU Chomps that use similar ingredients to a gel for those runners who can’t handle the texture of the gels. The stabilizers used in these products take bit more to break down but they’re the next best option outside of the energy gels.
Yep, it’s one of the only proven performance enhancing substances that is legal and yep, you can get gels with them! The Shotz Cappuccino energy gel has 80mg of caffeine in it which is about the same as a shot of espresso. These ones come in handy when you’re starting to lose concentration and get mentally fatigued around the 2 hour mark. Think of them as your secret rocket fuel! Other gels have caffeine in them not for a stimulant benefit but to help with the digestion of the gels. Caffeine can be one of those sneaky little gut killers so make sure you’ve tried and tested these in training!
So you’ve worked out your favourite gels, flavours, how many you need, when you’re going to take them and now you’re on the start line trying to work out how to carry them all!! Tuck a few into your bra. Another couple in your shorts. Maybe carry one? In the past I’ve tried all sorts of things – taping them to my back, Spibelt, safety pinned to my waistband, leaving them on the course trying to remember where! In the end I shove as many as I can into the pockets of my shorts and maybe carry one in my hand for the first 25mins. Not ideal but unless you have your mate on the bike meeting you at different spots, there’s not too many options on a course like GOR. Maybe take some cues from ole mate in the video below!
If you’re comfortable using them, a hydration vest can be a great option for an event such as this. The vest allows access to water, electrolytes, gels, music, camera all without stopping at any aid station. It’s also great as a training tool if you’re off running in the bush without any water around. Best to try a vest in training and work out if the convenience factor outweighs the added weight factor.
Gone are the days of gorging for the entire week before the marathon. There’s only so much storage space for all that carbohydrate! Your taper means that you’re running less and not dipping into your glycogen as much during that last week so there’s less need to replace it like unlike your big weeks of training. The general consensus on optimising your glycogen stores pre race is to increase the percentage of carbohydrate at your meals over the 1-2 days prior to the event. Adding slices of toast and honey to your meals, energy bar snacks, soft or sports drinks, a few lollies can all help get your calories through carbohydrate. A heavy protein or fat based meal the day before can sit heavy in your stomach and is something to avoid. I like to make my biggest meal the lunch of the day before.
Control yourself at the pre race pasta party! If you go overboard, you can pay for it the next morning by feeling full, heavy and a bit gross. It’s also wise to avoid anything that can play havoc on the guts the day before. Although it sounds obvious, chilli and spices are to be avoided. As are high fibre fruit and vegetables, dried fruit and anything that you know doesn’t sit well…
On the morning of the event, keep your breakfast simple and eat it early. You’ll won’t have burnt many calories during your sleep so just top up with some gentle carbohydrates. I try and take the solids in at least 90mins before the race start and then sip on a sports drink up to the race start. This might mean waking up very early, downing some toast and coffee and then heading back to sleep. Eat too late and you’ll risk the solids food not digesting in time.
So there you have it. A general guide for how and what to eat and drink during your marathon. This sort of nutrition protocol is what most runners should be following. There will always be those that this doesn’t work for. Those runners will find their niche through the wonderful experimentation process of trial and error. These days, there’s gels out there to suit everybody. Gluten free, vegan, dairy free, fructose free and all the flavours of the rainbow. Try different things and practice your routine. The more confident you are on race day, the better.
- There is no ‘one size fits all’ nutrition plan
- Experiment with different protocol and products until you find the right combination for you. ‘Nothing new on race day’ is never more important than with your nutrition.
- Practice EVERYTHING during your long runs!
- Gels are the most easily digestible and convenient race day fuel.
- Adjust your electrolyte intake based on the heat.
- Start your fuelling early in the day and try to stick to your plan even if you feel great on race day.
- Simple, medium sized meals leading up to the big day
Oh and if you get all this right, then you get to indulge in post race recovery food and drink.
This is by far the most enjoyable category of nutrition!!
Julian Spence is the back to back winner of the Great Ocean Road Marathon 2015 and 2016.
Julian and his partner Bri are the owners of The Running Company – Ballarat and have extensive knowledge and experience when it comes to nutrition before, during and after running a marathon and love to help you reach your potential – drop them a line at the store.