3 Reasons You Need to Practice Your Marathon Nutrition Plan (and exactly how to do it)
Legendary coach Vince Lombardi was often quoted as saying “only perfect practice makes perfect”.
It’s a quote many marathoners should pay attention to.
I’ve seen too many runners approach their marathon nutrition strategy with a laissez-faire attitude, especially when it comes to planning how they’ll execute their plan.
Many runners often overlook the fact that the process isn’t over once you decide what you’ll be eating and drinking during the race. Executing your nutrition and hydration strategy during the race itself is a significant component to success and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
You need to practice the plan so you can ensure it works, prepare your stomach, and train yourself to execute properly.
In this article we’re going to explain why it’s critical that you spend the time to practice your race day nutrition strategy and also outline some specific, actionable steps you can take to ensure that you’re ready on race day.
Adapt to Handle More Fuel and Fluids
One of the main problems with eating and drinking during the race is that it is difficult for your body to process the nutrition you consume.
Specifically, as you run longer and faster, your body becomes increasingly distressed. As your effort continues to increase, your body diverts blood from the stomach for non-essential functions like digestion and sends it to your muscles and brain to keep you going at the pace you’re running.
Therefore, when you consume energy gels late in race when you’re tired and your muscles are screaming for more oxygen, it takes much longer for any type of fuel to get processed into the blood stream where it can then be used for energy.
Unfortunately, there is no way to tell exactly what your rate of absorption is. Not only that, but it will change throughout the race as you become increasingly tired.
That’s why you need to practice your nutrition strategy in training.
The more you familiarize yourself with eating and drinking on the run, the more efficient your body will become at processing your nutrition on race day.
Training to Run on a Full Stomach
On a related note, you also have to prepare your stomach to hold more fluids and fuel while running without getting upset, feeling full, or experiencing a sloshing feeling.
Most workouts and shorter races we do are run on an empty or near empty stomach, with just a light meal hours before.
The challenge with the marathon, especially if it’s hot and you need to drink more fluids than you normally would, is that you need to slowly adapt your body to running with a full stomach.
If you’ve ever tried to run just after eating a large meal or drinking too much, you know the distress this can cause your stomach.
While you’re never going to get accustomed to eating a Thanksgiving day dinner right before you run, you can condition your stomach to be more comfortable running holding the fluids and nutritional products you’ll take in during the race.
By practicing your nutrition in training, you reduce the potential for your stomach to cramp or get that sloshing feeling late in a race.
Learning How to Eat and Drink on the Run
Learning how to gulp down water without choking while maintaining race pace is definitely an acquired skill.
Obviously, this isn’t an issue if you plan to walk and/or stop at water stations, but if you plan on running through them then it’s something you need to practice – and need to practice a lot.
I remember the first time I tried drinking from a cup while running at marathon pace. I almost killed myself.
It took almost 3 weeks before I made it without chocking on water, and another 3 weeks before I was actually comfortable maintaining marathon pace and feeling “normal” doing it.
I would expect it to take the same for you if you’ve never done it before.
That’s one reason you want to start practicing early – so your mishaps can come in less important workouts. The last thing you want to do is practice drinking on the run during your last marathon-specific long run and having it not go well because you were having a tough time drinking.
Should you walk or run through stations?
A common question around learning to drink on the run is if it’s even something you need to learn to do.
This is really a personal choice that depends on your ability to drink while running and your predicted finishing time.
My suggestion is to walk through the aid stations if you plan on running over 4 hours.
This is because your overall pace will be impacted less, the stations are more crowded and tend to require walking anyway, and getting in more nutrition is important since you’ll be out on the course longer.
If you’re planning on being faster or very close to 4 hours you can run through the water stations, but make sure you take the time to get in the fuel and fluids you had planned.
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How to Practice Fueling For a Marathon in Training
Now that you know the importance of practicing your nutrition strategy, how do you go about executing during your training plan?
Many of these tips come from elite marathoners and the way they use a marathon nutrition strategy to keep up with their fueling, without losing speed.
Practicing the Small Details
The first step is deciding when, how and what you’ll be taking for fuel and fluids during the marathon. Once you’ve got your strategy down, you can practice it more effectively.
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, or have someone hand you something along the route?
- Where will your gels and solid foods be? On your person (pinned, pocket, carrier) or are you getting them on course?
- If you plan on using what’s on the course, do you know what flavor and brand they have available? Where are the aid stations?
These seem like trivial factors, but having a plan is only as good as your ability to execute it.
You need to determine these small details well in advance so you can practice specifically with them in mind.
If using cups on the course
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 so you can practice beforehand.
Take them to the track or plan a short route around your neighborhood. Fill the cups with water and set them up on a table. 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, grabbing a cup, and taking a drink. Repeat as part of your workout or easy run.
Yes, it’s boring, but you’ll be a pro at drinking from a cup while running at race pace.
I guarantee that the first couple of times you run through your makeshift water stop, most of the water will end up on the ground or up your nose.
But, that is part of the fun, right?
How to drink from a cup
Grab the cup and pinch it “closed” at the top. 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 have to get all the water down in five seconds. Take your time while drinking and remember to breathe.
Finally, cups on a marathon course generally hold 5-8oz and you’ll likely lose an ounce or two from sloshing. Make sure to plan this into your strategy.
Practice In Race Conditions
Similar to how you should try to train your body to burn fat as a fuel source (covered in this article), you want to train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running hard.
This means that taking fluids 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.
Change Just One Variable at a Time
Many runners make the mistake of trying to change too many variables at once when they are practicing their nutrition strategy.
Think of yourself as a scientist.If you bonked on your last long run, or your combination of fuel and fluids didn’t sit well with your stomach, only change one thing at a time.
Don’t make the mistake of changing both the type of fuel you take with the quantity or the timing.
Like a good scientist, manipulating too many variables at once won’t allow you to understand the actual cause of the problem.
Yes, this will require some time, but you should have a 12- to 16-week training block to figure it out!
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 don’t get caught off guard on race day.
If you would like more tips about marathon training, make sure you check out our free 9 part ultimate marathon training schedule video series.Practicing your fueling during training: the ultimate guide from @Runners_Connect Click To Tweet
And please do us a little favor and share this guide with your marathon training friends, for there’s a good chance that it will help them fuel correctly, so they can run the time they are capable of. Then they will love you even more than they already do!