How to practice your long run nutrition to find your sweet spot
As we are nearing the end of June, many runners are starting to build up higher mileage as they prepare for marathon and half marathon races in the fall.
With this natural increase in both mileage and long runs comes good and bad experiences in regards to nutrition on the run. Typically, once you have had a bad experience with digestion or food on a run (like bonking or the call of nature) you tend to shy away from whatever you did before that run in an effort to avoid that negative experience. Good idea.
However, instead of making minor nutritional changes to avoid these experiences, many runners make multiple and drastic changes all at once and end up experiencing yet another rough run without a more concrete idea of what is and isn’t working.
This fear of yet another bad run often keeps runners from finding their nutritional sweet spot and getting comfortable in their training and nutrition.
To help, I would like to share some strategies that will allow you to become more in-tune with your body and ultimately help you discover your body’s nutritional sweet spot during long runs.
Let me tell you a story of a runner who struggled with long run nutrition
Let me tell you a story about a runner friend of mine named Crystal. After experiencing the call of nature mid-run and then proceeding to bonk three quarters of the way into her first long run, Crystal decided to make two running routine changes with the hope of avoiding the two negative experiences again.
First, Crystal decided to get up earlier and finish eating two hours before her next long morning run. This change was made to allow time for complete digestion and a bathroom break before the start of the run.
The second change was to nearly double her gel intake. Instead of taking a gel every 45-60 minutes, Crystal started using a gel every 20-30 minutes.
Thinking that drastically changing these two factors was the right call, Crystal went out on her long run the following week. Unfortunately, the end result of these changes for Crystal was low energy and bloating that started in the final couple of miles of the run, which then continued for a period of time after the run was complete.
Crystal made a common mistake by making more than one routine change at a time. In doing so, she experienced two or three additional bad runs and still didn’t have a better idea of how to correct the issue.
Where most runners go wrong when trying to fix nutrition issues
There are three issues Crystal, and many other runners, get wrong when trying to make meaningful nutrition changes in an attempt to avoid the dreaded bonk or stomach issues during their long runs.
First is being afraid to have another bad run and therefore trying to fix everything in one fell swoop by the next run. It’s important to recognize that each long run is “practice” for the actual race.
Second, less is always best when it comes to nutrition for endurance events. If one gel is helpful, that doesn’t mean 15 gels are going to make you 15 times faster. (more on energy gels for the marathon here)
Finally, making multiple changes at once distorts the actual effect of each change; one change at a time is a much better gauge to determine the benefit of each individual change.
How to get your long run nutrition right
Don’t Fear the Negative
When it comes to nutrition for endurance events, you are bound to have negative experiences – it’s unavoidable and part of the process.
While there are many great guidelines on what to eat before, during, and after a long run to avoid bonking and the call of nature, you have to remember everyone’s body is different. Somewhere along the line your body is not going to fit into the general guidelines, and you may experience a hard run or two.
Don’t be afraid of the hard runs and negative experiences
Just like in other areas of life, it’s often the negative experiences that we learn the most from. If you have an awesome 20-miler, how often do you take the time to go back and rethink what you ate the day or two before the run or the morning of the run—not often I presume.
On the other hand, when you have a terrible run, you are much more likely to think to yourself, “What in the world did I eat recently? That was a hard run!”
By no means do I suggest you purposely try to have a bad run, but I do encourage experimenting with what you eat before, during, and after each run while you are training.
Yes, you risk a bad run or two, but you also may find a combination of foods that gives you more energy than what you are currently experiencing.
Use every long run leading up to your final long run as experimental practice runs. Make minor adjustments with your nutrition to determine if it is a positive and beneficial change or not.
The last long run of your training routine should be a dress rehearsal for race day. You should have your pre-race meals (the day before and the morning of), as well as any gel use and hydration requirements determined well in advance.
Less Is best
When it comes to fueling and refueling during endurance running, research has shown us that less is best.
On average, a runner burns 100 calories per mile. Therefore, an individual can burn anywhere from 400-800+ calories an hour.
A common belief that runners often maintain is that they need to consume most of those burned calories while running or they will hit that “wall.” This myth has been the source of many uncomfortable, bloated runs for a large number of runners.
When running at a moderate or high intensity for over 1-2 hours, your body simply cannot keep up with the calorie or fluid loss. It doesn’t matter how much you eat or drink, your digestive system can only process so much while running.
Fortunately, your fat and muscle glycogen stores are sufficient to make up for the non-replaceable nutrient losses if trained properly.
The standard recommendation for endurance athletes it to consume 240-280 calories per hour of training. What this recommendation doesn’t specify is that it is based on a 165-pound athlete.
If you weigh more than 165 pounds, or less than 165 pounds, 240-280 calories per hour of running is not your “prime” calorie consumption. This is why I emphasize the importance of experimenting with your own body’s nutritional requirements.
If you are experiencing digestive discomfort or bloating during a run, often cutting down on the amount of gels or chews you are using is a great first routine change.
If that doesn’t take care of the problem, look at the ingredients in the product you are consuming. You may be allergic or sensitive to a particular ingredient; try other brands with varying ingredients or try real food that you are not sensitive to that will supply your body with the same energy boost.
Make one change at a time
If you are interested in really taking the time to learn your body, and you enjoy taking risks, try this experimental process of making one change at a time to help you find your nutritional sweet spot:
During a long run, don’t take anything with you but water. See how you feel, and ask these questions:
-Did you get hungry? What mile?
-Did your pace slow down? What mile?
-Was your overall time faster? Slower? By how much?
The next long run depends on your answers. For example, your last long run was a 16-miler, and at mile 14, you crashed. For your next run, take one gel with you and take it at about mile 12.
Again, ask the same questions listed above. Continue this process for each long run, making small adjustments, as needed, each run. This process allows you to see what works specifically for your body. It will also teach you how to be incredibly in tune with your body’s nutritional running needs and sweet spot.
When you go through this trial and error process you will begin to learn how your body feels miles before you bonk, which gives you the ability to avoid it.
Depending on external elements, like sleep and stress, you probably won’t bonk at mile 14 every time even if you ate the same and ran the same intensity. But, by implementing this process of listening to your body, you should have learned how you feel three to four miles before you hit the wall. Therefore, you will be better prepared to make critical nutritional adjustments on the fly.
Bonking, crashing, “hitting the wall,” and “calls of nature” are never fun, but they are nothing to be afraid of. If done correctly, each negative experience you have can serve to better prepare you to supply your body with what it needs to be stronger for your next run.
As you get into longer miles this summer, take the time to learn your body’s preferred nutritional sweet spots. It is well worth the time and effort!