In order to build a strong, healthy body it pretty much goes without saying that you must establish overall healthy nutritional habits that include plenty of antioxidant rich and anti-inflammatory foods (read: lots of leafy greens, veggies, fruits, herbs/spices and other nutrient dense real foods!). To really dial into performance nutrition however, a focus on what to eat immediately before, during and after each run becomes important. This will help to give you the cutting edge – boosting energy levels, hastening recovery and enhancing performance.
Last week I talked in part 1 on what to eat BEFORE you run, today I’ll talk about what to eat DURING your run.
Should you eat during your run?
Generally, the rule is that if you are running for longer than 75-90 minutes, you will do well to consume calories while running. Less than that, and you’re okay with just water as needed – or a “carb mouth rinse”.
- Less than 45 minutes: nothing / water
- 45-75 minutes: nothing / carb mouth rinse
Hear me out on the carb mouth rinse idea! A number of years ago scientists discovered that athletes got a performance boost from swishing an energy drink around in their mouth and spitting it out, and this 2011 review summarized that the taste receptors stimulate reward centres in the brain and it responds by increasing corticomotor excitability, effectively enhancing endurance exercise performance.
If you’re going to be exercising longer than 75-90 minutes, you would do well to plan on eating during your run. If it’s a training run, you might choose to run carb-depleted for training purposes – however on race day (if you’ll be out there racing longer than 75-90 minutes), you definitely want your GI system to be fully trained to take in fuel while running.
How much should you eat during your run?
How much to take in largely depends on how long you’re going to be running for, how well your stomach can handle the nutrition, and if you’re fat-adapted or not (if you are, you can get away with taking in less while you run).
Generally speaking, you’ll do best with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (per the position stand of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)) – and possibly more if you’ll be out there much longer than 3 hours, as follows:
- 1-2 hours or more: 30-60 grams carb per hour
- 3+ hours: up to 90 grams carb per hour (or, rather, up to 360 calories – seeing as when you’ll be running longer than 3 hours, such as in ultras, you may move away from just carbs and begin eating some fats and proteins also)
As most commercial energy gels provide 25g of carbohydrate, taking a gel every 30-45 minutes or so is often cited as best practice – and is indeed a good starting place for most runners, as it falls within the 30-60 grams of carb per hour advice.
If you find you do not like taking in nutrition while running or your GI system does not react kindly to gels, chews or food – keep trying! You can train your GI system to accept more fuel, just as you can train your body to get stronger and run faster. Always ensure you are drinking water with each gel – if you skip on the water or use energy drink, chances for digestive distress go up.
What should you eat?
Carbs! When you’re running, you’re burning through liver glycogen and muscle glycogen, which are stored carbohydrates. Our carb stores are limited, which is why we need to eat more carbs if we run long. Carbs equal energy. They are literally the strongest ergogenic aid we have available to us.
Here are a few popular options to reach for while running that are nearly entirely carbohydrates and very easy to digest:
- Natural energy drinks – my favourite is Skratch, which contains 10g carb per 250ml (meaning it is isotonic, or a concentration of 4% or less) and for this reason, least likely to cause GI distress of any energy drink out there
- Homemade energy drinks – such as coconut water or water mixed with juice and a pinch of sea salt
- Natural gels – my favourite is Huma, which is chia seed based and avoids using maltodextrin (maltodextrin is the energy source used in most commercial gels which I’ve seen cause GI distress in many runners)
- Natural chews – such as by Skratch or Honey Stinger (but if you have a sensitive digestive system, I wouldn’t expect to see chews work)
- Homemade gels – such as Citrus Chia Energy Gel, Chocolate Mint Energy Gel or the Chocolate or Cherry KickStart Energy Gels
For marathons or half marathons, it’s pretty simple – sticking to energy drinks and/or gels (or chews) will likely give you the best results. However, in ultras (and even for some marathoners), more variety is likely required. Here are some options for running longer distances where you’ll want to include more real food into the mix that also provides fats, proteins and fibres not found in the above options:
- Natural fruit/nut bars – such as Nākd whole food raw bars
- Easy-to-pack durable baked items – such as Power Cookies, Power Bars or (for a great savoury option) the KickStart Millet Burgers
- Sticky rice sandwiches – such as Almond Butter and Tart Cherry Jam Rice Cakes
- Homemade PB&J sandwich (using organic almond or peanut butter and a fruit spread such as Crofters Morello Cherry, and a simple sourdough or spelt bread – not a sprouted or seed filled or whole grain type)
- Baby potatoes, boiled and dipped in sea salt
- Dried fruit – such as medjool dates, pineapple, candied ginger, raisons, dried tart cherries (be sure the dried fruit is free from sulphites [a preservative], which are known to cause GI distress)
- Fresh fruit – such as bananas, watermelon or orange slices
- Baby food (I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard some runners swear by it)
There are also additional popular items used at ultras, though not necessarily natural or whole food based, that can work very well in the moment. If you’re running such events, you’ll find them there at the aid stations and know what I’m talking about 😉 Of course the rule of thumb is to never try anything new on race day – but from personal experience, it’s amazing the simple carbs such as gingerale or gummy bears that have saved the day for me in various ultras (just to be clear, these are NOT things I’d actually recommend be eaten outside of the race day context ha!).
What about hydration?
Last but not least, hydration is an important part of the conversation when talking about fueling during your run. Every time you consume gels, chews or real food, you need to wash it down with water which helps with digestion. On top of that, drink ad libitum – in other words, drink to thirst (approximately 400ml to 800ml [1¾ – 3½ cups / 13.5 – 27 ounces] per hour). In warm, humid weather the amount you require and reach for will be more than on a cool, crisp day.
To this day there remains a level of controversy over hydration guidelines – a bit of a divide between ‘drink to thirst’ and ‘drink before you feel thirsty / drink 200-300 ml (7-10 ounces) of fluid every 10-20 minutes‘ – the latter which translates into 600 ml – 1.2 litres (20 – 40 ounces or 2¼ – 4 cups) per hour. One might result in you drinking too little and possibly becoming dehydrated, and the other might result in you drinking too much and possibly suffering from hyponatremia (drinking so much water that your blood sodium is watered down, a potentially fatal situation in which drinking a sports drink containing sodium instead of water can slow but not prevent this condition).
Dehydration eventually causes a decline in performance – although it is now well established some elite marathoners have finished marathons substantially dehydrated (at no cost to their performance). For example, Haile Gebrselassie won the Dubai Marathon in 2009, losing 9.8% of his starting body weight in the process, clearly to no detriment.
As exercise physiologist Dr Tim Noakes (an internationally recognized expert on human performance and author of Waterlogged) has been quoted saying, no one has died from becoming dehydrated while running, however, runners have died from drinking too much. For example, 28-year old Dr Cynthia Lucero died from drinking 1.2 litres of gatorade per hour during the Boston Marathon in 2002.
Drinking to thirst (and not forcing yourself to drink a certain prescribed amount even if you don’t feel like it) appears to optimize both performance and safety during exercise and is the best practice advice supported by current sports nutrition evidence for athletes. Be aware your hydration requirements will be elevated in hot, humid conditions and you do need to hydrate, but also know there’s also a danger in overdoing it.
Getting your nutrition (and hydration) during your run right can really make all the difference in the world when it comes to having enough energy, not hitting the wall in a long run or particularly when you race (the half marathon or longer) and finishing strong. Practicing nutrient timing and honing in on your personal race nutrition plan will give you a cutting edge to help you feel strong right to the finish line.
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN