Fueling for a Great Race

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What (Not) To Consume during a Race

by Lesley Hocking

Novice and serious runners alike can benefit from having a plan for proper race nutrition.  If overlooked, racing dehydrated could lead to dramatic drop-offs in performance, and anyone who has ever “bonked” on a run knows the importance of taking on enough calories.  However, not every race requires runners to stop and refuel.  If the race duration is short and moderate enough, no extra fuel is necessary.

Running veterans secretly chuckle when they line up for a 5k and hear concerned voices wondering whether there will be Gatorade out on the course.  Simply put, unless your 5k takes you longer than an hour, those calories are a waste of energy to consume.  The body can only convert food into usable energy so fast, and you’re going to be past the finish line long before those Gatorade calories can do any good.  Moreover, at race efforts of over twenty minutes per mile, the body doesn’t burn through glycogen very quickly.  You’re better off sticking to water, and making sure to dump some on your head if the weather is warm.

Even a 10k race is hardly long enough to warrant a refueling station.  As long as you intake adequate calories before the race (for example, by eating a balanced meal no more than three hours before the gun goes off), your body should have adequate glycogen stores to go the distance.  However, those with a finicky stomach or a quick-fire metabolism may want to consume 100-200 calories about 15-30 minutes before the race.  This is best with easily digestible fuel like Gu, Chomps, or Gatorade.

For those longer races where fueling is a factor, (generally races that last longer than an hour) follow these guidelines:

°  Your pre-race meal will only last about an hour before your body relies on stores, so consume between 150 and 250 calories per hour after the first hour.

°  Be sure to follow gels or sport beans with the recommended amount of water so that it can be absorbed by your digestive system.  This all counts toward hydration.

°  Every runner has a unique sweat rate, but one way to calculate yours is to weigh yourself nude before and after a 60-minute run.  For every ounce you lose, it equals about an once of water.  Note that if you run faster during the race, you’ll likely need to consume more water.

°  Find a food source that satisfies your palette.  If you prefer gummy bears to raspberry-flavored Gu, go for it.  Almost any simple sugar will do.  Just avoid foods with too much fiber.

°  Don’t mix brands.  Eat the same form of calories in practice that you’ll consume on race day, and don’t take Gatorade and Gu within 15 minutes of each other, as it can lead to cramps.

Race Distance Calorie Requirements Hydration Requirements
5k Don’t grab the Gu! Use water as your personal shower on a hot day.
10k Take 100 cals 15 mins before the race with water. Temperature dependent.  Sip a few ounces at half way.
Half Marathon One Gu before, one at mile 8, with water. Calculate your sweat rate, but on a cold day dehydration isn’t much of an issue.
Marathon Whatever your stomach can tolerate, up to 250 cals per hour. Drink early and often, even if it’s just a few sips at each water station, no matter how cool the weather.

Lesley Hocking is a USATF certified coach for www.NERunningServices.com.  She also teaches English at the high school level and logs 100 mile weeks during marathon training.  This article originally appeared in Issue 4: Nov/Dec 2011.

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