Roadrunner, roadrunner #4: Practice fuelling for longer races

Training for longer races has the added challenge of fuelling. Fortunately, fuelling is a skill you can practice in order to improve your marathon performance.

Why do runners need to fuel during a marathon?

In short, our bodies can’t store enough fuel to get us through 42.2 km of fast running. When running a marathon at an easy and comfortable pace, even the leanest runners have sufficient fat stores to fuel them for the duration of the event. However, as competitive runners we are training to run as fast as we can, and as we go faster, we use more of our carbohydrate stores rather than fat for fuel. Even with pre-race carbo-loading, we simply cannot store enough muscle glycogen to fuel us for a long duration of fast running and we run out of fuel before the race is over (also known as ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’). To avoid the dreaded bonk, we need to take in fuel during the race.

How to fuel for longer races

To fuel your marathon, aim to take in at least 40 grams of carbohydrates per hour. For reference, most gels have 20-25 g of carbs each, while sports drinks can have an even broader range depending on the type and concentration (pre-mixed Gatorade, for example, has 43 g per 710 ml bottle). Avoid low-carbohydrate drinks during longer races, as they will satisfy your need for electrolytes, but not your fuelling needs. With time and practice, you can adapt to handle more carbohydrates while running, the ideal being over 60 g per hour.

It is important to differentiate between hydration and fuelling needs. We need both fluids and fuel during a long race. However, the amount of fluids needed is highly dependent upon the weather conditions, while fuelling needs are less so. Practically speaking, on a warmer day a runner will need to take in more fluids than they will on a colder day. Iit is important to tailor your fuelling and hydration strategy to the conditions you will be racing in. For example, on a warmer day you will need to drink more, so you can use a more diluted solution for fuelling (such as a sports drink). On a cold day your hydration needs will be less, so a more concentrated form of carbohydrates may be needed (such as gels with some water).

Practice makes perfect

Long training runs and workouts are great opportunities to practice fuelling and hydration. Try different types of fuel to find out what works for you and tastes good, especially at the end of a long run or workout. Experiment with different amounts of fuel and fluid, as well as the timing of when you take them in. It is also important to practice taking in fuel when running at a similar intensity to what you will do on race day, so make sure you aren’t only fuelling on easy runs. Keep a fuel log to track your intake and how you felt. Towards the end of the training block you can use this information to formulate a fuelling plan for race day and test it in a workout within the last few weeks of training. Find out what is on course at your goal race and how far apart aid stations are. If what’s on course won’t satisfy your fuelling needs, plan to carry your own fuel.

Fuelling is an important piece of the puzzle when training for and racing the marathon. The adage of “proper preparation prevents poor performance” holds true, so treat fuelling as a crucial part of your marathon training!

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