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How To Master Eating and Drinking During a Marathon

Posted Feb 18 2013 6:00am

running marathon nutritionNot surprisingly, the main focus for runners who are training for a marathon is on the long runs and workouts.

Runners understand that the success or failure of a marathon race will predominantly be determined by how well they’ve trained. However, many runners often overlook that nutrition during the race and on the course is a significant component of success and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Learning how to gulp down water without choking while maintaining race pace is definitely an acquired skill. And, unless you’re Allen Iverson , we all need to practice if we want to be our best when it counts.

In this article, we’re going to outline some actionable steps for practicing your race day nutrition strategy to ensure that you’re ready.

Why you need to practice nutrition intake in training

While learning how to eat and drink on the run without choking or having to stop is certainly a primary objective, it’s not the only reason practice is important.

You also need to acclimate your body to running with a full stomach, taking in more fuel and process it more efficiently, to ensure your chosen fuel and beverage would sit well in your stomach after 20 miles of running hard.

Running with a sloshing or full stomach isn’t something most runners want to inflict on themselves. To prevent it from causing discomfort and performance interference on race day, especially if it is hot and you need to drink more fluids than normal, adapt your body in advance slowly to running with a full stomach. With the strategic tips we’ll outline in the next section, you should be able to teach your stomach to take in more fluids and fuel with less discomfort.

If you practice enough, your stomach will readily process effectively fluid and gel – and more – without issue.

One of the main problems with eating and drinking on the run is that it is difficult for your body to process the nutrition you consume. As you run farther and harder, your body becomes increasingly distressed. As your effort continues to increase, your body diverts energy from non-essential functions like digestion to your muscles and brain to keep you going at the pace you’re running. Therefore, when you consume those energy gels and jelly beans late in race, it takes much longer for them to get processed into the blood stream where they can be used by the muscles for energy.

How to practice taking in fluids

The first step is deciding when, how and what you’ll be taking for fuel and fluids. Once you’ve got your strategy down, you can practice.

Generally speaking, you should be hydrating with 6 – 8 oz. of sports beverage every 20 – 30 minutes and taking an energy supplement every 45 – 60 minutes. For more specifics on energy gels, look here .

Based on your specific strategy, you now need to decide how you’ll be eating and drinking.

Will you use the cups on the course, bring a bottle with you, have someone hand you something? Defining this step’s details is important because learning to drink from a cup while on the run is a different skill set than learning to be comfortable carrying a water bottle.

Likewise, determining how you will take fluids and fuel will help you select the products. If you plan on using the aid stations, take a look at the race website and practice using the same flavor gels and sports drinks. If you’re going to carry your own, make sure the flavor you like at 5 miles is the same as what you like at 20 miles.

Similar to how you should train your body to burn fat as a fuel source, you want to train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running hard.

This means taking fluid and gels while running at an easy pace is not the most effective strategy – it’s not specific to what you’re doing in the race.

You need to practice eating and drinking when your body is under duress, like during a marathon paced run, tempo run, or in the latter stages of your long run. This will specifically train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running hard, which is exactly what you want to accomplish on race day.

Many runners mistakenly try to change simultaneously too many variables when they are practicing their nutrition strategy. Think of yourself as a scientist. If you bonked on your last long run or the combination of fuel and fluid didn’t sit well in your stomach, change only one element at a time.  As with a good scientist, manipulating too many variables won’t allow you to understand the actual cause of the problem.

Yes, this will require some time, but you should have at least 12 – 16 weeks to figure it out!

You should practice your nutrition strategy as often as logistically possible during your workouts and long runs in the last eight weeks leading up to your race.

More importantly, you should schedule at least one, but preferably two, marathon simulation long runs in which you implement the race day nutrition strategy. If you nail it the first time, or you’re an experienced marathoner, one run should be enough. However, in case it doesn’t go well, leave yourself another chance to practice. Even marathon veterans should run a marathon simulation each training segment just to make sure everything still works.

Here’s a practice tip that I recommend.

  • If you plan to use the aid stations on the course and will run through the water stops, head to the store and pick up some paper cups.
  • Take them to the track or plan a short route around you neighborhood; fill the cups with water and set up a table to put them on (or if you have young kids who love to “help” you run, you can have them hold the cups for you).
  • Practice running at a little faster than marathon pace, grab a cup, and take a drink.
  • Practice in your workout or easy run (just surge through the water stop).

Yes, it’s boring, but you’ll be a pro at drinking from a cup and you’ll be teaching yourself how to run with a sloshing stomach.

I guarantee that the first couple of times you run through your makeshift water stop, more water will end up on the ground or up your nose.

Here is a hint, grab the cup and pinch it at the top on one end. This will make one end more of a funnel and also limit the amount of water splashing out.

Also, remember that you don’t need to get all the water down in 5 seconds; you can take your time while drinking and remember to breathe.

As your marathon training begins to get more focused as race day approaches, don’t forget to take the time to plan and practice your nutrition strategy. The marathon is a grueling event, and you want to make sure you get all the details exactly right.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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