How to Plan Your Fueling and Long Run Nutrition

by Jason Fitzgerald

You can imagine the hundreds of emails I get every month from crazy runners. Just recently I saw this gem and had to share:

Sigh…

But then I got a question from Stacey, who saved me from wanting to  jump off a ledge. She asked how to plan her long run nutrition and fueling (in addition to adrenaline). Her question:

I’m training for my 1st marathon and don’t know when to start fueling on my long runs. My long run so far is only about 8 miles. I think I read somewhere to take in fuel every 45 min after an hour of running?  I ran a half marathon a few weeks ago and “hit the wall” at mile 11. Would this indicate that I need to fuel around mile 9?

Stacey actually asks three important questions:

  1. At what distance or length of time should I start fueling on my long runs?
  2. How often should I fuel during my long runs?
  3. When should I take in calories during a half marathon race?

Runners always have these questions because (unfortunately) there’s no clear, 100% correct answer. Every individual is different and long run nutrition is very personal. Some runners need calories in a 10k while others can run a half marathon with no fuel whatsoever.

Notice also how Stacey says, “I think I read somewhere…” which makes me nervous. We’ve seen before how training advice can be downright terrible. Be careful where you get your training and running nutrition tips!

How Should Stacey Fuel her Long Runs?

In my book, I explain why it can be valuable to run fasted long runs occasionally and also how to top off your sugar stores right before a race.

But marathon training is different: the goal with your most race-specific long runs is to mimic the demands of the race itself. That means the distance is long (20+ miles), marathon pace is included in the later miles of the run, and also your fueling is similar to what you’ll do on race day.

So I recorded a video for Stacey answering her specific questions (note the framed picture of the 2008 New York City Marathon start in the background!):

A few notes from the video:

  • Take in calories (gels, 4-6oz sports drink, or whatever your stomach is comfortable with) every 30 minutes during a marathon.
  • You can eat fewer gels during your long runs, but at least 1-2 LRs should mimic exactly how the marathon will be fueled.
  • Most runners should eat 2-3 gels during a half marathon, spaced evenly throughout the race.

Great question Stacey – thanks for submitting it!

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{ 22 comments }

Laura

Thank you for this post! This is exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out. I’ve been taking fuel every 45 minutes on my LR’s but will now begin taking in calories every 30 minutes. I haven’t tried gels, but I really like the Shot Bloks. Is it just me? – but just chewing them is tiring! 100 calories = 3 Bloks, that’s going to be a lot of chewing!

If Jason says to eat every 30 minutes, than that’s exactly what I’m going to do!
Thanks for posting.

Jason Fitzgerald

I never liked Bloks because of the chewing issue. I go with gels.

Trent

When I ran my first marathon I was so delirious by mile 23 I forgot I had two gels in my pocket. They would have helped. Don’t be like me. Have a plan and stick to it. If it’s 15 miles or less I don’t even drink water. That’s probably not good advice though.

Jason Fitzgerald

Hey Trent, I’d say it depends on the weather and how fast you are. Some runners are running 15 miles in less than 90 minutes so they can get away with no weather on a cool day. But some fluid replacement is probably a good idea for most people.

Tim Woodbury

Well put, Jason. Under-fueling is one of the biggest mistakes I see runners make. The current recommendation from the RRCA is 45-90 grams of carbohydrates every hour of exercise. Your recommendation of 100 calories per 30 minutes is spot on.

When I race, I’m a total grazer. I prefer chews to gels, personally. Since my stomach can take it, I try to eat one for every mile marker I pass. I’d rather not wait until I’m mostly empty, then fill up all at once – too many GI problems with that strategy.

Jason Fitzgerald

Right, it’s so important to find something that works for you personally. 90 grams seems like a lot of carbs – that would be about 3 gels per hour. Not sure most runners could keep that up for 3+ hours without it all ending up on the road!

Tim Woodbury

That was my thought, too. Honestly, I’m wondering if it was a typo. 90 grams is huge. I coach (and eat) on the low end of the 45-90. 3 GUs an hour – yuck.

Mandy

Good to know. Can you advise when to eat breakfast in the morning before a marathon? And when to stop drinking? I like to drink about 2 cups of coffee in the morning before my long runs but I’ve found I have to stop once or twice on the run to use the bathroom. I guess I can’t drink it anymore. Disappointing cause it gives me energy.

There is so much different info out there about how to do things. It has me going in circles.

Jason Fitzgerald

I’d say 2-4 hours before the start is a good timeframe for breakfast. And coffee is a great idea for racing – it’s a proven performance enhancer! You just need to time it correctly. I prefer 2 cups 1-2 hours before the gun so I have time to use the bathroom. All this reinforces the fact that you need to experiment with what works for you and treat your long runs as a race rehearsal!

Stacey

Yay!! My question was featured!! I really had no clue about fueling and read/heard so many different things. I’m still experimenting with what to eat. I like the Bloks too but totally agree with Laura/Jason about the chewing issue. Honey Stinger Chews are smaller and easier to chew, but you have to eat a lot of them.

I guess gels are next on my lst to try. Any recommendations out there? Thanks again for featuring my question.

Jason Fitzgerald

Glad to help Stacey! I’ve always used either Gu or Powerbar brand gels. Never had any problems with either of them.

John Parker

PowerGels and Gus have different taste and consistency. I prefer the taste of Gus but the consistency of PowerBar gels. They are thinner and more watery that Gu, so go down easier for me.

Lucy

Wow so I it takes me about 4.5 hours to finish a marathon, then I have to eat about 8 gels?? That’s a lot of gels! Would my stomach handle all of that?

I wouldn’t even attemp bloks then since I’d have to carry 4 packages of them!

Jason Fitzgerald

Maybe. It’s a general guideline and it depends on the person. But I had 5 gels during my marathon and one immediately before the gun (and I finished in 2:39). Fueling is important!

Greg Strosaker

As you state, fueling needs are very much related to the individual. In my last two marathons, I’ve taken no gels, relying strictly on Gatorade for calories. While it’s not easy to control your intake this way, it’s worked fine, as I didn’t bonk in either race (2:55 and 2:52 marathons).

Jason Fitzgerald

That’s pretty incredible you’ve only drank Gatorade and keep running faster and faster. Great case study on finding what works for you!

Paula

Thanks for the great website. Question: Do I drink electrolytes AND eat gels? Or do I get my electrolytes only from the gels? I like Nuun but I think I need the sugar in Gatorade. What do you recommend for drinking if I do use the gels? Thanks again.

Jason Fitzgerald

You’re getting enough electrolytes in gels unless you’re doing ultramarathons in the heat, so I’d take them with water. If you ingest too many electrolytes, what can happen is your body needs more water to process them so it draws it from your muscles or blood stream (dehydrating you). I’d stick with gels and water or Gatorade, depending on the race, weather, and your particular needs. Experiment with what you’re planning during your long run before the race, too!

Diane

Does the body become more accustomed to fuel needs over time? My longest distance is only 10k (in about 1:05) and I find I need to eat something at 45 mins or I don’t quite make it to the end. Can I expect this to change as I extend my distance?

Thanks for a great post!

Jason Fitzgerald

You bet! Keep at it and you’ll adjust.

Sam Butler

Is it just me or does anyone else seem to get naseous from eating the gels? I can do the shot blocks, protein bars, wafers, etc. But the last two races where I ate the gels, I felt really bad after eating them.

Tony

Jason,
I appreciate you post here. I have only been running for about 15 months and I have ran a half and full marathon. This article was spot on, I think it’s important to read and gain information, but the results are based on each individual runner. Thanks again
Tony

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