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To Eat or Not To Eat? That's Often the Question.

Posted Jul 26 2010 4:25am
Just recently I had an email from Brad, a reader of the blog, about fueling during the long run. Then this past weekend, one of the runners in my half-marathon training group, Amy, had a similar question about fueling your run. "To eat or not to eat?" is often top of mind for runners. Or probably even more accurately, "What to eat or what not to eat?"

For those of you hoping for a definitive answer, I'm sorry to disappoint. There are so many factors involved—likes, dislikes, allergies, digestive tolerance, and on and on. What works for one runner may have another runner praying to the porcelain god (or more accurately the plastic port-a-john god) the entire run.

There are however, some good rules of thumb to follow. The first rule of thumb is "Test well in advance." It's best to try new foods when you're not in training. If you are training, it's best to test new things early on so you'll know well in advance what's going to work and not work. When you're in your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe two weeks before the big race, fight hard the temptation to try something new. Better yet, just don't even go in until after the race. Ask your wife, husband, significant other, sister, brother, mother, the guy on the corner, somebody to pick up what you need. Same thing goes for the natural foods. Stick to what you know works when it's close to race day. And the biggest warning of all...Avoid the "Try me! Try me!" barking of the sales reps at the marathon expo. Although the marathon expo can be an exciting place the day before the race, try really hard to avoid much (if any) taste-testing. You never know what may throw your tum-tum for a loop!

Okay, I've rambled on enough. Sorry, it's the dad in me (as well as being the son of a preacher) feeling the need to give a little sermon on the dos and don'ts of pre-race eating. Here's the info you're really wanting to know.

Pre-run Fueling: Fueling before a long run should actually start the day before. Make sure your snacks and meals the day before your long run are comprised of complex carbs (vegetables, whole grains, etc.). In doing so, you’ll maximize your glycogen stores. Glycogen is the main source of energy for your long runs. When completely full, your glycogen stores have will provide enough energy for about 2hrs of running (~2000 calories). Some runners will tell me, "I ate breakfast before my long run, but I still bonked." There could be several things at play which caused the "bonk", but more than likely, even though they ate breakfast, if their glycogen stores were not full, the breakfast they did eat would only take them so far. Fueling is a continuous thing, especially when you're in training.
The pre-run meal the day of your long run is important too. What you eat before an endurance run can greatly impact your performance. No food or too little food before a long run can result in fatigue. It can also cause you to burn more muscle which can result in injury. Lots of runners don't eat prior to a run because they fear the dreaded upset stomach. But not eating before a long run can result in a less than stellar run. Just like you train to increase your mileage, you need to train your body to eat something prior to running. What you eat and how much will vary from runner to runner. You don't need a heavy breakfast, but a combination of carbs and protein is a good plan.
Eating prior to a run will give your body some fuel to use before having to use its reserves (those glycogen stores I mentioned earlier). If you start off using your reserves too soon and they get depleted, fatigue will soon follow as well as the dreaded "bonk." Fat is needed and is important in the absorption of nutrients, but avoid eating high-fat foods before a long run. These foods take longer to digest and will make you feel like a slug and may even cause you to feel nauseous on your run. For some runners it’s also good to avoid complex carbs right before a run. Yep, normally I’d be telling you to make sure your diet is rich in complex carbs, but for some runners, eating them shortly before a run can cause cramping because it takes complex carbs longer to digest. So, it’s okay to save the whole-wheat pasta for the dinner the night before and eat eat some white bread or other form of simple carb in the morning before your long run. Because your body will digest these foods quickly, these simple carbs will go directly to fueling the body, protecting your glycogen stores for later in the run.
Some pre-run foods to try include:
  • a bagel with peanut butter
  • a waffle with peanut butter
  • two graham crackers with peanut butter
  • dry cereal
  • a banana with peanut butter
  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Uncrustables (those little round peanut butter sandwiches with the crimped sides in the frozen foods section)
  • an energy bar (check the label and make sure it's not loaded with saturated fat)
  • a hard-boiled egg and toast
Keep in mind that you’ll want to avoid running on a full stomach so, you’ll need to wake up a little earlier in order to let your food digest. Eating 1.5 hrs before a morning long run is a good rule of thumb

You can train you body to use fat as a fuel source too. This can come in very handy on really long runs. Basically, running some shorter distances (4-8 miles) on an empty stomach will force your body to go to an alternate source of fuel—fat. The thinking is that if you’ve trained your body to burn fat as fuel, then during a long run, if you run low on your glycogen stores, your body will know to kick-in its fat-burning abilities. But just as I said earlier, you need to test this out well before race day. Don’t wake up race-day morning and decide not to eat anything before your 26.2-mile run so you can burn off all your fat. It ain’t gonna work for ya, and not only will the big brick wall hit ya in the face, it will land right on top of ya!

Fueling on the Run: For runs lasting more than 60 minutes, it's a good rule of thumb to take in 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour. Use the chart below from Runner's World to help you select some foods good for during your run. Be careful when using sports gels. There’s nothing wrong with them, but if you’re using them along with a sports drink, some may find themselves having stomach issues. Both are packed with carbs and usually the carbs are of the simple sugar variety. While your body will need to replenish is glycogen stores during the race, you don’t want overkill. Everyone is different and there’s no one cure-all, but for some carrying a bottle of water to use when taking a gel works well. Some may find that they can continue drinking only water throughout the entire run, if the gels they’re using contain carbs and essential electrolytes.

I’ve discovered that 100% coconut water contains the right amount of carbs and electrolytes for my long runs. I have problems with calf cramps and coconut water naturally has 15x the potassium of a banana and 2-3x the amount of potassium as most sports drinks. Others do better to drink water, take an electrolyte replacement tablet and then pack some pretzels, crackers, jellybeans, or Fig Newtons for their carb source. I have one running buddy that takes an Uncrustable along. Uncrustables are those little round frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crimped sides. He says it thaws on the run and by the time he needs one later in the run it’s ready to eat. Like I said, everyone is different.

Post-run Refueling: Eating 300 - 400 calories with a 4:1 ratio of carbs and proteins within 30-45 minutes after finishing your run will help ensure a quicker recovery. During a long run, you deplete your glycogen stores as well as create microscopic tears in your muscle tissue. Eating a carb/protein mixture helps to restore the glycogen and repair those tiny tears which is the muscle-building process.

Some good post-run eats include:
  • a glass of low-fat chocolate milk (it has the perfect 4:1 ratio of carbs/protein)
  • a bagel with peanut butter or almond butter or Nutella (I love Nutella!)
  • whole wheat crackers and peanut butter or almond butter
  • a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt
  • baked potato with Greek yogurt
  • brown rice pudding with sliced banana
  • whole-grain cereal with skim milk
  • lowfat yogurt and fruit
  • Uncrustables
What are some of your favorite pre-, during-, and post-run eats?
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