Fueling the Long Run

imagesThis year I set some very large running goals.  To accomplish these goals I had to increase my weekly mileage and focus on becoming accustomed to longer long runs.  With this increase in distance and time spent on running I have also decided it was time to really figure out my nutrition strategy for long runs,  the added distance and time has forced me to seriously examine the nutritional elements of my training regiment.
Before I get too far along into this post let me make sure you understand I am not a nutritional doctor or an exercise specialist of any kind.  I have never been a doctor and I have never played one on TV.  All that I expound here is my opinion nad is gathered from my own personal research and in no way reflects that I know what I am talking about.
During the week day, on my shorter runs in the morning I found my best strategy is to go light.  I start off with a protein shake and some almonds or mixed nuts,cutting  out the morning bagel and rarely eat a muffin.  An hour later I am on my run in and I usually take no additional supplements.  Most of these runs are over in an hour to an hour and a half and rarely do I hit the edge of needing more energy. This works great as my goal in these runs is to become more efficient at using what I have already in the tank before hand.  Speed workouts push this a bit, but that is my goal on my weekday morning runs, gain efficiency with little additional fuel.
The weekend long run has seen the biggest change.  Initially I was afraid of eating too much and gaining extra weight from eating too much on this run.  I suffered in early long runs and while I finished I often felt tired and carb crazy after a ten mile or more running effort.  As I approached this years plan I realized I needed to focus my long runs on running and fueling and not worry about weight gain and fat burning.  The goal of  a long run is to efficiently run a distance and build the body’s adaptation to that distance and/or time of running.  I realized that if I was going to efficiently use my training long run to prepare me for my longest race of the year I needed to stop worrying about taking in too much nutrition, instead I needed to make sure my body was efficient and working at its maximum potential.  I needed to figure out how to properly fuel.
When exercising the body uses carbohydrates to create glycogen as fuel.  This is the optimal source of fuel for the body and it is extremely efficient at using this as a fuel source.  When the body runs out of glycogen during exercise it reverts to the next food source which is the bodies fat stores.  The body is very inefficient using this source of fuel and slows all the bodies functions down.  Marathon and ultramarathon runners refer this point to hitting the wall, a sudden decrease in energy caused from the bodies shift in burning fat instead of carbohydrates.  The other bad thing about hitting this point is that the body starts to use the protein stores in the muscles used for repair to help burn the fat fuel, thus reducing the body’s ability to create new muscles.  This process is often called Ketosis and a distinct ammonia smell is an easy indicator.  Bad thing is that the excess carbohydrates are converted to fats if the body does not use them.  But in a long run I do not care about this, running long and efficient is my motivator.

Thus while burning more fat is great, the last thing I want or need to do during a long run is hit the point where my body is using fat instead of carbohydrates.  To get the maximum benefit out of my long run I need to have fuel and keep the body working as efficient as possible.  In my early training I have experienced this shift numerous times and I know my bodies signs that tell me things are going south in the fuel department and that my day is over:

  1. First sign of this switch is an early warning and rears its head in a sudden feeling of hopelessness and despair.  While I sometimes have to push myself on a run, I rarely think that quitting is an option.  This first sign is sorta a slow depression that starts to hit.  I know when I hit it I just feel like I need to quit and the run becomes hard and less enjoyable.  Little hard to explain, but for me its a noticeable shift in mood.
  2. Hunger pains deep in the belly.
  3. Light headedness
  4. Lethargy. The last two symptoms usually come pretty quick and very close to each other.  I will feel my stomach lurch and something feels wrong.  Then I start feeling light-headed and suddenly I am unable to motivate my legs to move.  My whole body just quits.

Once I hit the point where the body quits on me, my day is pretty much done by this point, there is no more fight left and I just need to refuel and recover.  If I am on a long run this is the point where I have a very slow agonizing walk back to my car or home.
As I asserted earlier, my goal in my long run is to gain as much benefit as possible from my run and thus I needed to figure out how to prevent getting to step one.  I knew that once I hit step one, depression and hopelessness, I could bounce back  a  bit by popping a gel and slowing down.  If it too far along things were done.  But I wanted to run where the entire run was properly fueled.  So it was time to experiment .
At first I tried the often advised gel per hour trick, thinking 30 grams would be enough.  As I ran past the second hour I started to struggle.  So the next approach I took I added in shot blocks.  This worked a little bit better but I still felt exhausted and craving carbs after my runs.  I also felt I had to fight the fueling and I was not getting the most out of my run.  Then I finally hit a sweet spot, I started to keep something going at all times, I started to slowly suck on a shot block, when that was done after half an hour I took a gel.  This amounted to two gels an hour and a little over 60 grams of carbs.  Unlike previous experiments, I suddenly had more energy and my long run took on new levels.  I felt like I had stores of raw power longer into my runs, and struggled less to have the energy to continue to run.
My fuelling strategy that I have found works for long runs looks like this:

  1. I usually start off with a breakfast of a protein shake and a solid carb or some nuts.  I then follow this with a gel right before I start my run.
  2. I immediately take an energy chew and suck on it while I run.  This helps keep my mouth watering so I need to drink less while I run.
  3. After half an hour, around mile 2 I take a gel and swig some extra water.
  4. I follow this pattern up to eight miles, taking two gels an hour, when I grab a quick lunch.  Usually lunch is some nuts or dried fruits.  I have also used tortillas and covered them in honey.  It really depends on what I am feeling in the mood to eat.  Options are always good.
  5. I continue this strategy and listen to my body.  I can tell when I am starting to get too carb loaded and I can back off, but I usually stick to this regimen.

This looks like a vast amount of food and it is.  But since I started to employ this strategy on my longer runs greater than fourteen miles I have found my legs and body have more energy and it is easier to push the run and keep up my pace longer.  When I finish my runs now I no longer crave carbs though, just protein.  This is a huge shift for me.   I used to finish a run and I would want a burger and fries.  Now I just want my celebratory burger.
Experimenting with my long run fuelling strategy I have found a combination that works for me and ensures that I can run longer and further.  I ensure my muscles have the proper energy needed to push them and keep them working.  When I do my long runs I make sure to leave the calorie counting at home and the fat loss strategies behind.  It’s important to realize the goals and purpose off each run and to realize that those goals will not always be the same.  With a sound nutrition plan for my long run days I know that I will be able to benefit from my training and when I participate in my first 50k trail race in November I will be ready for the challenge. Til next time.

2 comments on “Fueling the Long Run

  1. Imarunner2012

    Smart idea, testing things out on the long run to see what works. I’ll have to try the energy chew. I guess it gives you a slow trickle of carbs.
    Lately I’ve been taking a gel right before a race. I figure the carbs will be in my system in 10-15 minutes and that is about the time I will need them. This seems to be working for me.
    During marathons my stomach will growl and sometimes ache because I am so hungry. I guess at that point my body has switched over to burning fat.

    1. Chatter Post author

      The biggest sign for me is the mood switch and at the worst the loss of energy and sluggishness. My run this weekend was sixteen miles and felt perfect, I was feeling tired but full of energy for the entire run.
      I usually a start a rave with a feel just to get things going. Good luck.


Leave a Reply