We know we need to hydrate and fuel up before a race to perform well. But what about during a race? With all the options, information, and recommendations out there, it’s difficult to determine the right method.
No matter your fuel of choice, you should be having a modest pre-race meal comprised of carbohydrates and some protein, and of course, water. Once the race begins, you should be hydrating every 20 minutes or so and aim for a fuel boost around the 45–60-minute mark, and then every hour or so depending on how long your race will be.
In addition to good ol' food sources of simple carbs (e.g. raisins, pretzels, etc.) there are a plethora of options out there for mid-run fuel: sports drinks, gels, blocks, chews, Gu—what’s a runner to do?
While it isn’t necessary to fuel with carbohydrates on all training runs, it is important to practice using products to figure out what works best for you based on your stomach, pace, and goals. Some people find they don’t need any products, while others find they crash near the end of a half and are looking for an energy boost to get them through to the finish.
Energy gels and chews are designed to replenish carbohydrate stores that are depleted while running. They can be a great tool when racing a half or full marathon, especially if you find it hard to process a lot of fluid while running.
The amount of carbohydrates you need to replenish is dependent upon what works best for your body. Aim for 30–60g per hour to avoid the dreaded bonk, and test, test, test while you’re training for the race. Gels in general are around 100 calories and 22–24g of carbohydrates. If you run a half-marathon in roughly two hours, one gel is likely enough to carry you through.
It’s also possible to rely on what’s available at fuel stations throughout the race, whether that’s in the form of a sports drink, a gel, a chew, or sliced-up bananas. If you can, find out where fuel stations will be and what will be offered.
And remember: Always chase energy gels with water, which will help speed the digestion, and NOT a sports drink. A sports drink provides additional carbohydrates and may be a sugar overload for your system, creating unwanted GI distress.
Some runners find that the sports drinks available at fueling stations, in addition to water, serve their fueling needs. Others may do better with gels—say, once at mile 5 and again at mile 10, or perhaps once somewhere around mile 8–10, while some runners find that breakfast and only water throughout the race are sufficient. There is no right or wrong—only what works best for your body and pace. So start out eating lightly and experiment on training runs to determine your ideal regimen.
Dana Pitman is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery. She provides individual nutrition counseling and health coaching, and develops social media content for the official hospital channels. No stranger to an active lifestyle, Dana is an avid runner and keeps a steady rotation of classes including spin, HIIT, boxing, and pilates.