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Mar. 1 2010 - 3:52 pm | 1,116 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Avoid the wall: what to eat during long runs

Vanilla bean flavored GU energy gel.

Image via Wikipedia

It seems there are as many different workout- or race-nutrition strategies as there are runners.  Countless first marathons are ruined by poor nutrition, and often it takes more than a few to get it right.  But sooner or later, most of us find the particular combination of foods that works best for us on the run.  Some swear by gummy bears, others by Clif bars; still others claim Coca-Cola and cookies keep them going (leave it to the ultra runners!).  Here’s our take on that most sensitive type of nutrition, what we eat and drink while we run.

Matt: For a long time, I did the standard energy-gel-and-Gatorade thing.  But after I ran a few marathons and became comfortable with the distance, I began to notice that the part of me that felt worst at the end was not my lungs or my legs, but my stomach.  I came to realize that I needed to find a better way to fuel, so I started making my own, natural foods and drinks for running, and (after a few awful bonks) I’ve finally found a fueling routine that I can live with.

For shorter workouts, like speed training or tempo runs, I consume a decent amount of sugar, usually about 24 ounces of natural sports drink containing mostly glucose and fructose, over the course of an hour.  In a pinch, if I haven’t had time to make a drink beforehand, I still drink Gatorade or a healthier option like Vega Sport.  During these workouts, I don’t eat any solid food; I find that the intensity of the workout and the energy burden of solid digestion don’t mix well.

On long, slow runs where I stay below the anaerobic threshold, I don’t need or desire nearly as much sugar.  I always carry a gel with me for emergencies, but I find I can run surprisingly far without consuming more than an apple or banana every ten miles or so.  I bring salted almonds or pretzels to snack on during most runs, and I generally drink only water with an electrolyte tablet or two.  I’ve found that by restricting sugar intake during training, I feel great on race day when I allow myself to indulge in the sweets a little more.

Megan: While training for my first marathon I thought that a chocolate frosted donut would be the perfect energy boost at mile 18. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately…) that dream didn’t pan out. I ended up following a more conservative fueling plan on race day – Gatorade and Clif shot bloks.

I’m still trying to figure out a fool-proof “on the run” fueling plan, but through research and personal experience I’ve learned a few things that work for me. When I’m running long and my glycogen levels get low – I crash HARD. This means that I have to pay attention to hydrating and fueling before I start to feel fatigued and lightheaded. If I wait until the symptoms of glycogen depletion show up, it’s often too late to avoid “the wall”. On runs that are about 90 minutes or less, I don’t worry too much about fueling. I know that my body can handle 11-12 miles without any solid food, but I do try to take in some fluid via public water fountains. I’m investigating hydration belts for when my marathoning training begins in earnest, but as of right now I don’t carry water with me.

However, when my long runs start inching towards the 2-hour mark, I make a conscious effort to consume fluid and calories on the go. I’m not a big fan of gels – they often sit like a rock in my stomach and I have trouble digesting them. On a recent 16-miler, I had better results with Luna moons (essentially gummy candies), but the  chewiness was distracting and made breathing a bit difficult. During my next long run I plan on carrying around a packet or two of honey. Since “hitting the wall” is basically your body’s cry for carbohydrates it seems logical that simple sugar would do the trick. Honey may not come in flashy packaging or offer corporate sponsorship, but at 60 calories and 16 grams of sugar per Tablespoon, it can boost your energy just as well as a packet of GU. However, keep in mind that natural energy products such as honey and raisins don’t contain high amounts of salt or potassium – something you might want to keep in mind if you sweat heavily. If that’s the case, make sure your fluid of choice (i.e. Gatorade, Powerade, etc) contains these essential electrolytes.

We want to hear from you – how do you fuel during runs?


8 Total Comments
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    I take a one of the new clif shot bloks packages and water for long training runs. If I’m going further than 15, I’ll buy Gatorade and an energy bar or something halfway.

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    Thanks, Megan. I can get honey in a straw. Buy it that way for my youngest on long bike rides (over 50 miles at a clip). I will try that as I do not like gels either.

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    I’m training to run my first marathon in June and in your article you mention that if you sweat alot to “make sure your fluid of choice (i.e. Gatorade, Powerade, etc) contains these essential electrolytes”. Do drink stations along the marathon route have sports drinks or do they only hand out water? I only ask because I do sweat alot and will need to invest in a hydtration belt if they only provide water, Thanks!

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    Megan –

    You mention honey. Have you tried these: http://www.rei.com/product/702791

    No affiliation, I just liked the taste and the fact that they are natural. They are a bit less cloying that straight honey, which I liked as well.

    Great post(s) – I am learning a lot from you guys.


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    I’m running my first Half in June…and this may be a completely daft question, but how exactly do you carry whatever it is you are using for fuel during a race?

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    Christine M – I think that most marathons provide Gatorade or Powerade on the course. However, I would recommend checking with the race directors to make sure. If for some reason they only offer plain water, you can always carry electrolyte tablets or salt packets with you!

    Christine H – Personally, I carry my gummy candies/gels in the pocket of my shorts or running jacket. Some people use water/fuel belts and others just carry a snack in their hand. It all depends on personal preference – definitely do a trial run with the fuel before the half though. You don’t want any surprises on race day!

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    Thanks Megan – I’m already starting to test out my morning meals – will start checking out some of the gels/candies soon too.

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    I have tried a million different strategies and cannot find one that really works, I always bonk at mile 25 or so unless it is race day. My problem is that I like destination or big loop runs but I hate to carry anything on me. I love to do pretzels and bananas but I need water. How does everyone carry water? So far I have tried mini water belts and camel backs and I just don’t have the same level of enjoyment. And almost every runner I know says that when you don’t enjoy it you don’t do it. Solutions?

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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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