The Least You Need to Know About Fueling Your Run

fuel tank 300x225After having a lot of fun researching exercise nutrition for the previous two posts in this series, those on pre-workout nutrition and recovery drinks, I figured the “during the run” post would be a breeze.  After all, everyone drinks (or eats) something during his or her run; only those who take fitness more seriously bother to think about the before and after.

To my surprise, this was the hardest of the bunch.  But that turns out to be good news: The guidelines for during-the-run fuel are few and simple, allowing you to tweak whatever works for your specific body to meet the requirements.

Please note that this list is the result of my own research, fusing bits of information from books like Chris Carmichael’s Food for Fitness, Thrive, Core Performance Endurance, and The Paleo Diet for Athletes.  With endurance running comes the risk of dehydration, bonking, and hyponatremia, which are not things to f  around with.  So don’t blindly follow my advice without doing some research of your own.

Without further delay, I present to you…

How to Eat and Drink During a Run

1.  Get off the commercial drinks and gels. Or at least, check them out to make sure they don’t contain artificial colors and sweeteners.  While some sports drinks are truly designed for athletes, many of the more popular ones must also cater to the masses of non-athletes who buy them as soda alternatives.  Much better to make your own natural sports drink and raw energy gel, both courtesy of pro vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier, in his book Thrive.

2.  Consume mostly liquid or easily-digesting food like gel. Solid food takes more energy and blood to digest than liquid, leaving you with less for hauling ass.  And it’s more likely to cause intestinal distress, which can ruin a race.  Except for the longest events, skip the solids.

3.  For all workouts, take in 4 to 6 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes. Your goal is to replace most of what you lose in weight, so if you want to get precise, you can figure out what you lose during a standard workout and drink the exact amount you need to replace it.  Or just chill out and just follow a rule of thumb like this one.

4.  Get 500 milligrams of sodium with every 16 ounces you drink. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes, and that puts you at risk for hyponatremia if you hydrate without replacing them. For those of you making your own drinks and gels, 500 milligrams is a little less than the amount in a quarter teaspoon of salt.

5. For workouts and races lasting over an hour (and up to 4 or 5 hours), you need 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. 30-60 grams is a commonly-cited figure, but it’s a big range.  More useful might be to divide your body weight in pounds by 4 to get a minimum hourly carbohydrate requirement, in grams.  Accomplish this with a sports drink or a combination of energy gel and water.  Some claim a little bit of protein, in a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio, helps minimize muscle damage.

6.  For anything lasting much more than 5 hours, the nutrition focus shifts to fat, with a smaller amount of carbohydrate. For details, go find an ultrarunner who has run more than a single 50K!

Coincidentally (ok, not really all that coincidentally), Megan and I just published a joint post about this very topic on our True/Slant blog Running Shorts.  That post is about our own habits; doing this research has made me realize that I need to change mine!  (Especially with regard to shorter workouts.)

For more posts and recipes on natural sports nutrition, check out my Running Fuel page.

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Comments

  1. Great information! I have been feeling a little I’ll after my long runs so I was wondering about all the necessary h20/carb/electrolyte requirements, so this post is great. All the information I need in one place, thank you!
    .-= Sonja {Active Foodie}´s last blog ..Couscous and Lentil Salad with Honey Dijon Vinaigrette =-.

  2. What’s your take on number 5 in light of people who avoid carbs? I’m not one of those, but I remember you mentioning once that you tried almonds on your run after speaking with some ultrarunner.
    .-= Evan Thomas´s last blog ..20 Minutes =-.

    • Evan, great question! That’s kind of what I meant with #6, that for ultras, where you are almost always below the anaerobic threshold (and thus burning fat, not sugar), the nutrition should focus on fat more than carbohydrate. For shorter, more intense runs, you burn mostly sugar, so they become very difficult without sugar and the risk of bonking is high (this even includes a marathon, unless you’re taking it really easy).

      There is also the school of thought that if you get less-than-optimal nutrition during training (like, little sugar/carbs), then your body will be better for it because it adapts to the circumstances. I don’t know where I stand on this one; I haven’t had much success with it. Runners who avoid carbs because of a diet restriction are essentially doing this type of training, whether they intend to or not.

  3. During my “lighter” days I run 20 minutes and my more intense ones are 30, 40 max if I’m feeling really energetic, but I’ve never consumed anything during the run.

    I’m afraid that I could feel the water slush inside of me if I drank half a cup or so every 10 minutes. Is this the case or does it help you regain some stamina? Anything that could act as a pick-me-up on the boring treadmill runs (not a fan of cold weather) would be great, maybe I’ll give the water a try.
    .-= Daniel´s last blog ..Recappin’ =-.

    • Daniel, I’m not really sure if you’d feel it sloshing around during workouts. I’ve never consciously followed a guideline like that; I just drink when I’m thirsty. But now that I’ve learned all this, I’m going to try it. Also, it doesn’t have to be every ten minutes. Maybe for you, only every 20 minutes is needed.

      I don’t think you’ll feel any kind of rejuvenating effects of drinking water on a relatively short runs, unless perhaps you are dehydrated beforehand.

  4. Thanks for all that great info. I know sodium is one thing I don’t even think about when replenishing during or after exercise

  5. I understand and agree that it’s best to get off the commercial drinks and gels. However, I hate carrying my own water and so have to drink whatever the marathon offers. I tried making some fig/date things from THRIVE and took them on a run and ended up with a gooey mess in saran wrap, but there’s a good chance I made them wrong. =) Short of hiring a sherpa to run alongside me, I’ll probably be sticking with the gels and Gatorade. =(

  6. Nice post man. I do have a question though… I have been consuming my homemade energy drinks during my long runs, but zero to no water. Does the energy drink replace the water or should I still have both. I ran my second half marathon last weekend and supplemented with water from two aid stations, but didn’t finish the whole cup on either. So, just wondering about that. I’ve been intending to go back over Brenden’s book again just for some review. I tend to forget things if I’m not constantly putting them into practice or teaching others.
    .-= Caleb´s last blog ..Smoothie Tuesday: Nectarine, peach blast cacao smoothie =-.

    • Caleb, good question; I completely forgot to mention that. Yes, the sports drink replaces the water, ounce for ounce. But I have read that if you’re eating, say, energy gel, you should generally wash it down with water, not sports drink. Maybe the reason is just that it might be too much sugar and sodium?

  7. Wow, great post. I love the specifics about how to plan a run for fuel consumption.

    Thanks for doing the research for us! I’ll definitely use it for my spring training.

    I also am around Mile 25 of the Boston Marathon every year … I’d love to know your number so I can cheer you on!

    Lisa
    .-= Lisa Johnson´s last blog ..How to Put on a Sports Bra =-.

  8. I’ve had a problem with fueling recently as I increased my mileage to train for my first half. I carry my own ‘sports drink’ with me that is a take on one of Brendan’s. It includes coconut water, spirulina, lemon juice and a squirt of agave. I have NOT found a fuel replacement though and just can’t choke down Gu’s or Moons or anything candy like. I am going to give honey a shot on my next long run after reading Megan’s post over on Running Shorts since I do like honey, hopefully that will work.

    Great post Matt!!

  9. I get the nutrition before and after a run but the during has always been a mystery to me. Thanks, Matt. I really needed this all in one place. Eight days to that first half.
    .-= Nicki´s last blog ..A Year Gone By =-.

  10. Saw your link over on the Fruit Not Fat website. Thanks for the exercise tips! I run 4-5 days a week and have a half-marathon coming up in one month.

  11. Loved the post. I don’t think you will succeed in getting me off meat, but the detail in your post, especially regarding liquids/water.
    Mike

  12. how long will the gel and the drink keep in the fridge?

  13. I enjoy your writings & am learning a lot as I am somewhat of a beginner & am striving to eat less meat/animal products etc. I would encourage you to leave out the bad language, it is not necessary to get your point across & in that way you won’t offend anyone.

  14. My question…how do you carry all this and run? I have a water belt that holds 2 10 oz bottles. It also can hold 1 pack of Clif Blocks. Clif Blocks do not contain enough sodium, after reading this post I checked.
    I am attempting an 11 mile run tomorrow. Last week I completed a 10 mile run on 20 ounces of water and 3 Clif blocks. Is that not enough? I felt good after. I would love to know your thoughts. I did eat breakfast that morning about 2 hours before I went.

    Thanks !!!!!

  15. Ryan Mesler says:

    good info, thanks!

  16. This post is excellent! I’d like to recommend a book which really offers some food for thought on the subject. It’s an amazing read with a lot of practical tips mixed into what is a great life story of an ultra runner. It’s called “Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Scott Jurek.
    http://www.amazon.com/Eat-Run-Ultramarathon-Greatness-ebook/dp/B005OCHOZS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351734914&sr=8-1&keywords=eat+and+run+kindle

    This book more than motivated me to get back into running again. It has helped change my outlook and beliefs on food and nutrition.

  17. I’ve been using home made energy bars (Thrive recipe) and an electrolyte mix (electrolyte powder mixed with water, no sweeteners, etc) and I’ve never had any issues with my energy levels on my long runs (up to 4h) or any stomach issues despite that the only thing I usually “eat” before is a big smoothie. I do need to get better at rehydrating afterwards (particularly adding electrolytes) but that’s another story.

  18. Matt,

    “Except for the longest events, skip the solids.”

    Define “longest.” Seriously. I’m training for my second marathon–my first as a vegan. I powered myself with Gu the first time around. for all the same reasons, I’m not using them in my training. Your homemade gel (with chia seeds) is working well. I was considering complementing that with dried fruit–specifically dates, figs, and/or apricots, which all have lots of carbs and are portable. (As an added bonus, apricots also have a ton of potassium!)

    I guess my question is this: I have 3 long training runs before the event (Nike Women’s in SF), so I still have time to experiment. Is it worth my time to test dried fruit for gastric distress, or would it generally be a bad idea not worth pursuing? Thanks for the feedback.

    Doug (aka The Meatless Marathoner)

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