We get asked lots of questions about nutrition from runners looking to learn what is best to eat and drink while they run. And, we hear plenty of comments like:
“I just get so tired during my long runs.”
“My friend told me that I need to be using GU.”
“I want to eat before my run, but my stomach can’t handle food before I run.”
To address these concerns, I want to explain how you can find answers to your questions and zero in on what works for you.
Why do we need nutrition when we run?
As we run, our body uses up all of its glycogen stores in the muscles and if we are going long, we need to replenish that in order to keep going. In addition, electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium) help the body to stay hydrated as we take in water during exercise. Some studies have also shown that electrolytes are needed to prevent cramping that can happen during prolonged exercise.
So how do I choose what to use? There are so many options!
A good place to start is with real food– it’s great because you can eat what tastes good and what is already familiar to you. Especially for marathons and ultramarathons you may be out long enough that you need to eat an actual meal. Some favorites can be peanut butter sandwiches, candy, and fruit. Of course, while there are many benefits to eating real food items they can often be tricky to pack and carry.
A huge benefit to other nutritional items available at our stores and at the aid stations on race day are that they are convenient. They come in packaging that makes them handy to carry and open on the go. Then, they are quick and easy to chew and digest.
If you are planning to run in a big race, try to find out what your race will be serving on course. That way, you won’t need to carry anything with you during your race. However, if you would prefer to rely on your own type of nutrition, the best thing to do is buy a few different things, taste test them, and try them out on your runs.
Here are a few of the options:
- Gels (GU Energy Gel, Hammer Gel, PowerGel, Honey Stinger Energy Gel) – Usually about 100 calories. Most gels recommend that you take one packet every 45 minutes during the run. These are easy to carry and most runners will report a “boost” of energy after taking in the gel. One of the biggest complaints is the consistency of the gel. Be sure to drink water with it in order to rinse the gel out of your mouth and help your stomach digest it.
- Gummies (Clif Shot Bloks, GU Chomps, Sport Beans, Honey Stinger Chews) – Around 100 calories as well. Because these are like pieces of candy, you can spread the calories across your run. You may not feel the ups and downs that some runners get with gels. My favorite thing about these is that they taste good. Some people tend to not like them because they find them hard to chew while running.
What about hydration? What drinks will help me perform my best?
As with food which can give you important calories to keep you going, it is also important to stay properly hydrated. Water helps regulate your body temperature and helps transport nutrients to give you energy and keep you healthy. So, as you take in any of the nutritional items listed above, it is important to be drinking a proper amount of liquid at the same time. This will help keep your system at its peak.
Water is a staple element and offers all you need to stay hydrated. However, there are many other options to enhance or replace water that offer further benefits especially in regard to taste, convenience, and added extras like calories, potassium, and other nutrients that provide energy and electrolytes to help you perform for a longer period of time.
Here are a few of the options:
- Sports Drinks (Gatorade, Powerade) – You can find these on any race course! But, when training, it can be hard to carry with you. Also, you may train with a certain concentration of drink, and then it is mixed differently on course. But, overall, sports drinks can offer you a boost from added sugar and sodium.
- Electrolyte Mixes (Nuun, GU Brew) – Electrolyte mixes come in powders or tablets that you can add to water. They come in pleasant, crisp flavors and carry electrical energy which help your muscles fire. Quick and easy to add to a water bottle, they can enhance your running effort without many calories.
- Meal Replacement/ Slow Release Drinks (UCan Superstarch)- This is a unique nutritional that is new to our stores, but some of our staff has been using it to train up for big events like ultramarathons. The superstarch is a slow, burning fuel that can keep the ups and downs from coming during your run. As a powder, you can mix it either as a drink or a gel.
So now you that you have a list of all these different things, all I can tell you is that you have to try to see what your body can handle. If you have a sensitive stomach, a nutritional gel can be a good thing to try before you run so you can get calories in before you go out to run. Think about what you can carry during your run, what flavors you like, what consistencies you think you can handle while you run. Try a gel before a 5 mile run to see how it tastes and feels. Eat a Shot Blok as a snack. Trade a nutritional with your running partner to see if you like what they carry.
And, be sure you start trying things out several weeks before a big race. You don’t want to find out during your goal race that the GU puts your insides in knots or that UCan makes you run for the bathroom. Practice with different things to see what formula works best for you. Also know that things can change. Your stomach may handle one type of thing on a shorter run, but not on a longer run.
Adding to the challenge, even after you find something you like, you may get sick of eating the same flavor over and over again.
Good luck with training and have fun trying new things!
By Jenn Bingham, Pacers Clarendon