Marathon nutrition – practice makes perfect
Practice makes perfect. Any baseball, basketball, or football player will tell you it’s been a mantra repeated to them throughout their years of competitive play. Unfortunately, runners often forget this time-honored rule when it comes to racing. We get so preoccupied with the physiological training adaptations needed to make gains in fitness that we often forget that racing itself is a skill. This is especially true in the marathon and half marathon because, on top skills like pacing and mental toughness, you’re adding the variable of consuming energy and fluids.
In my last article, I discussed the specific training workouts you can implement to ensure that you don’t bonk during the marathon. However, this article will discuss the exact skills you need to practice during training to maximize your ability to consume and process energy gels and fluids.
Getting Your Stomach Accustomed to Eating and Drinking on the Run
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 you effort continues to increase, your body diverts energy from non-essential functions, such as digestion, to your muscles and brain to keep you going at the pace you’re running. So, when you consume those energy gels and jelly beans, it takes much longer for them to get processed into the blood stream where they can be used by the muscles for energy. Sometimes, if the digestive system isn’t working well at all, your body will actually reject the fuel or fluid you put in, which is why many marathoners often experience stomach issues.
To train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running, you need to practice during your training runs. However, this doesn’t mean practicing taking energy while running at an easy pace – 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 even during fast portions 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.
Get Even More Specific
The running industry is filled with nutritional products that are designed to help you fuel during a marathon. You have gels, jelly beans, shot blocks, bars and of course a myriad of drinks such as Powerade and Gatorade. Therefore, it is important you find out which type of product you like best. For some, the consistency of gels will make them gag while others love the taste of gels and their stomachs can’t handle anything more solid. Each person reacts differently, so it is essential that you start practicing early in your training with different products to find the one you like best. Waiting until race day is a sure fire way to fail.
If you think finding the right type or brand of energy product is difficult, you’ll be sad to hear that you also need to find the right flavor. I can’t count the number of flavors available for energy gels and nutrition products; however, each one can react with your stomach in a different way. Also, don’t just blindly trust what you think you normally like. I had a teammate who was a very good marathoner (sub 2:15 pr) and he loved chocolate; yet, when he tried a chocolate energy gel during a marathon paced run, he nearly puked the whole thing up. For a professed chocolate lover, it was near blasphemy, but it was an important lesson he learned in training.
While I think that most of the products and brands are roughly equal in terms of quality, avoid those that contain protein. Your body can’t digest it easily when running, and while it’s been proven to help with recovery, I haven’t seen any convincing science that proves it helps with fueling.
If you’re going to rely on what products are available on the course, you must practice using them before race day. Do some research on the official race website and find out what will be offered on the course. Go to the store and get the same exact flavors and brands available on race day. I know this seems like overkill, but the slightest change in routine can leave you in for a rough day of racing. For example, in the 2008 Olympics, race favorite and 2:04 marathoner Paul Tergat finished a disappointing 10th place due to cramps caused by drinking cold water supplied by the race. Tergat had practiced drinking fluids that were room temperature. In the marathon, you cannot over plan.
Develop a Strategy
Finally, it’s important that you develop a nutrition strategy in advance of race day. This will include exactly when you’ll plan on taking fluids and nutrition and how you plan on taking them. Will you bring you own water bottles or will you use the water stations available on the course? Will you walk through the stations or will you attempt to run through them?
Running or walking through the station is an individual choice, but I suggest that if you’re attempting to run sub 3:45 for the marathon or sub 2 hours for the half marathon that you run through them. However, slowing your pace a bit to ensure you maximize consumption is fine. If you’re planning on a finish slower than 4 hours, you will benefit more from walking through the station and getting in as much fluid or fuel as possible.
If you’re using your own water bottles, make sure you’ve practiced with them beforehand. You don’t want any unnecessary chafing from wearing a water pack you didn’t try first. If you’re going to use the aid stations available on the course and plan on running through the water stops, I suggest heading to the store and picking up some paper cups. Take them to the track and fill them with water and set up a table to put them on (or if you have young kids who love helping, you can have them hold the cups for you). Practice running at a little faster than marathon pace, grabbing a cup, and taking a drink. 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 prevent the water from splashing out as easily. 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.
The marathon is a long event with the potential for many things to go wrong. However, the more you can practice during your training, the greater your chances of success. By developing a comprehensive fueling strategy that includes practicing the specifics outlined in this article, you’ll be on your way to a great run on race day.