July 14, 2011

Long Run Essentials: Eating and Drinking

A couple folks have asked related questions lately about what to eat/drink on a half marathon or a long training run.  To figure out what works best for race day, I try to be consistent with my food and drink from my 10+ mile training runs to the actual race day; I train as if every day is a race day. It takes away controllable variables on the big day. So therefore I’ll try to answer both questions together.

Keep in mind this really just applies to longer runs, in excess of 10 miles or so; for shorter training runs, I really don’t focus on too much other than making sure I carry enough water for the weather. Pre-race or mid-race gels and fuel in a run shorter than 70 minutes or so aren't necessary, and generally don't even have enough time to work.

Days Before You Run
You can read my previous blog post on some of my preparations for the National Half Marathon in the days and week prior. During training and gaining base mileage, I don’t get too caught up in counting or loading carbs, but I do try to get some extra carbs the night before a 10+ mile training run. Doesn’t have to be a pasta party every week, just quality carbs like those found in pasta, rice, pizza, etc. versus the dense carbs in veggies. Many athletes even carb-load before races with rice or pizza, so just keep carbs in your diet on a regular basis and long training runs shouldn’t be a problem.

In general, I just try to maintain my normal diet and get a moderate quantity of carbs throughout the week. Glucose (form of sugar) is important for the brain, nerves, and muscles to function during exercise, and most of it is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Since these glycogen stores also power your running, and carbs are the best source of glucose, it’s best to keep them in your standard diet even on short training days.

Before the Run (Training Day, Race Day)
Pre-run food not only gives you energy, but it also keeps your blood sugar stable; carbs provide the energy, but it’s proteins that help it last. But it’s important to watch the ratio of carbs-proteins; fat, protein, and fiber all break down slower and can cause stomach issues on the run. It’s up to your body (so experiment here), but most people take in carbs and protein 1-4 hours before their run. Some need more time to digest and avoid stomach issues; personally, I’m usually closer to the 1 hour mark. Some runners suggest 0.5-1.0g of carbs per pound of body weight, but to be honest, I’ve never measured or taken this seriously. A bagel with peanut butter and Nutella is enough for me, or a PB-and-honey sandwich; I’ve eaten one of the two before every personal record run.

Other good carb-to-protein ratio foods are oatmeal with some chocolate chips, toast with jam, bananas, fruit and nut mixes. And grab a cup of coffee if you want one, especially if you normally drink coffee to get yourself started; counteract the dehydration with some H2O, but caffeine is proven to boost performance in exercise.

Before a long evening run on weekdays, I try to take a high-carb low-fiber snack with me to the office. Something like fruit, Fig Newtons (the perfect carb-protein ratio), half a bagel, energy bar, maybe mix in a handful of gummi bears or jelly beans. A good trail mix is a staple of mine, but does have a bit more protein and fiber than suggested.

As for hydration, I finish 12-16 oz of water at least an hour before the run. By getting the water out of the way early, it allows electrolytes to normalize before running; hyponatremia from low sodium concentration (too much water) can be just as fatal as dehydration. But the most important part, finishing up your hydration with an hour to spare lets you TCOB beforehand and avoid portojohns at the starting line and on the road (or trail).

I do not take supplements or NSAIDS (ie ibuprofen) before races, it can cause kidney damage and increases risk of hyponatremia. And there’s really very little evidence that baby aspirin and other supplements are a cure-all, most add their own risks; if you’re training 30-50 miles a week, your body can handle a marathon without adding new variables like supplements and pills before you toe the line. The only supplements in my diet are fish oil pills and glucosamine, per a chiropractor's suggestion...check with your doctor before adding any supplement or medicine to any training regimen.

During the Run
On runs less than 10 miles (or 70-80 minutes), you can usually rely on your body’s normal glycogen stores to keep you going, so long as you aren’t on some carb-free diet and you have a bit of pre-run food to pick up energy. On significant half marathons, I’ve carried three Shot Bloks cubes (total of 100 cal, 24g carb, 12g sugar) or an Organic Honey Stinger gel for a quick shot of strategic energy…probably don’t need it, probably more mental than anything. But r longer than that, and you need to refuel carbs along the way.

On long runs, I generally replenish carbs at about 30-40g per hour, starting at about 45 minutes into the run and repeating. This is on the low side of the American College of Sports Medicine’s suggestion of 30-60g (100-250 cal) per hour. That's about 2-3 gels or 16-40 oz of sports drink; that’s why I opt for the gels or Bloks, good luck carrying (both in the belt and in the belly) 16-40 oz of Gatorade per hour. Also, a serving of Shot Bloks is easily customize intake by adding or removing one or two from your portion, or you can spread out your serving over several miles. They're good warm, they're good cold, and they're
95% organic...I can't even pronounce some of the ingredients on the competing gels/shots. Although train with them; I've found Bloks to be harder to chew and swallow while running through water stations, so as my pace has gotten faster I've switched to the Organic Honey Stinger gels since they're quicker to get down before grabbing a cup of water. I’ve seen some suggestions of up to 60-80g of carbs per hour, but that sounds like a lot; 2-3 gels an hour is already more than my usual intake...but it’s up to your personal preferences and experimentation (repeat after me: try it out, find what works, stay consistent).

I always use the same carb replenishment (there's that word "consistency" again!) and do not change on race day, even if they’re offering free gels and sports drink every couple miles. They could be have a  gels made of unicorn tears at mile 18 and I'd graciously decline. And on that point, always carry your own fuel, even if the event says it's stocking the aid stations with your preferred gels, foods, etc. First, you never know how your body will react to a new fuel; second, you never know when the race organizer will mess up, change fuels, or run out mid-race (both happen very frequently). I no longer use Gatorade, Powerade, or other liquid replenishment, not only because it takes more volume in my stomach, but because I don’t trust race volunteers to mix it right. Sports drinks depend on a specific concentration of carbs to be effective, between 4-8%. When you have volunteers mixing powder at 6am, you never know what you’re in for; I’ve seen big cups of watered-down Gatorade and I’ve seen cups with the consistency of syrup (Army Ten Miler one year was running low on water)…I’m not taking a chance.

As for water, I’ll take it where I can get it in a race, even fast-walking through some water stops to make sure I’m adequately hydrated on brutal days. On training runs, I’ll drink as needed, but try to at least drink every 2-3 miles (if it isn't a hot day, I'll force myself to wait for this split) to simulate race intake. But with heat advisories and Virginia humidity, I don’t toy too much with a water schedule on training runs…I drink as needed (if you're thirsty, you've waited too long), carry extra water, and stop to refill at available sources.

After the Run
The glycogen recovery window is 30-60 minutes, in which you want to repair muscle tissue and replace glycogen stores. You don’t have to eat right as you come in the door, but don’t wait too long either. In recovery, a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is best, and again, don’t skip your cup of coffee if you’re a java fan, combined with caffeine, carbs boost glycogen rebuilding significantly more.

Suggested foods include many of the suggested pre-race foods. I used to always crank out a fruit and yogurt smoothie, as it has a great ratio. Chocolate milk is actually the perfect recovery drink and works better than most carb-only drinks; it has a perfect 4:1 ratio. Also good to down some dark berries (blueberries, blackberries) or an extract, like 100% pomegranate juice, as these have phytochemicals (antioxidant vitamins) that help lessen soreness and rebuild the body. I’ve also really liked pure coconut juice in the past few weeks; I picked up a few bottles as a race freebie in June. Pure coconut juice has more electrolytes than sports drinks and double the potassium as a banana; easy way to rehydrate and get more than just water. Lately I’ve been celebrating the finish line with an omelet with cheese/spinach and a few pieces of toast…probably way too much protein, but whatever, I earned it, and it pairs with a beer (liquid carbs?).

Compression Gear
The science is still very much inconclusive on the actual impact of compression gear during running, and most still suggest the advantage of compression tights and socks is mainly mental during activity (hey, whatever works if you want the mental edge). But while the question marks remain during racing, science has shown compression does help your body recover. I have some CW-X compression tights that I picked up as a wind-breaker for a winter race, so after my most recent 13- and 14-miler, I wore the compression tights; didn't really notice a significant difference in recovery, but if I'm just lounging around watching TV, it couldn't hurt. What I do really like, and gives my feet a great feeling, is the 2XU recovery compression socks; designed just for recovery periods, they focus compression on your feet all the way up to your knee. Honesty, compression garments certainly aren't a requirement, but if you have some, may as well wear 'em.

It's Not a Religion
It’s all about maintaining an overall consistency for me, to make race day just another training run. But it’s not something I hold myself to 100%, especially when traveling, it can just get too hard. In general, just don’t eat crap in the days/hours before running hard, but again, this is not an infallible creed…I’ve run after pot-stickers and bad Chinese take-out (although my stomach didn't thank me), and my last 13-miler was run without pre-race food because the bagels were stale.

Yes, the quality of your training run is important, but most important is that you’re actually out there doing it. You don’t have to regiment every aspect of it…have fun, run a new route, run on a trail instead pavement. Heck, let yourself have a bad day, or have several. I had a few back-to-back bad sessions in June where I was physically or mentally not on my game, but I was out there, I finished, and I didn’t let it affect my next day of pavement pounding.

The Gear
I've tried almost everything out there, but keep seeing the same two hydration systems move to the top of my running drawer (three if you count the Salomon backpack for trails, but let's focus on road racing):
  • iFitness 12- or 16-oz Belt: This is the most comfortable and stays in place best in my experience. You can purchase hydration add-ons to get to four bottles. 6- or 8-oz BPA-free bottles.
  • Nathan Quick Draw Plus: This hand held is perfect for short runs in the summer or longer runs in the winter. I'll carry this on 20+ milers when there are spots to refill. Comfy strap, BPA free bottle.
  • Fuel Belt Helium 4-bottle: Though it wasn't in my favorite two, I added this since so many ask about it. Fuel Belt is the most popular system, you see them everywhere, and their four-bottle belts are the industry standard. You don't really need more than four bottles, just refill along your route; 6- and 8-bottle belts just get in the way of your arm swing. I stopped using Fuel Belts because they bounced a lot for me...but I may be too slim for their design.