There are a ton of theories on fuel intake during a race, everyone believes their own thing, and everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong. We offered folks a great after-run recovery shake recently. But for mid-race eating ideas we turned to MacRunners Kelly McGauley and Dave Barrett, who both have done their fair share of eating on the run.
Dave: If a race is a 10K or under, as long as you eat a sensible meal when you normally would prior, you don’t need food on the course, and (this’ll surprise you) you don’t even need water on the course. Your body is such-and-such percent water and is a highly evolved machine that’s been fueled up as much as it needs. Anything anyone hands you on the course of a race that short is a placebo. I truly believe this.
Kelly: Dave’s right on the money here. 10k or less and I’m more concerned with eating too much than too little. So long as you stay well enough hydrated and don’t eat or drink anything with the potential to upset your stomach within an hour or two before (for me, that’s anything from apples to ice cream), you should be good to go. Absolutely no need for on-the-course fuel. If it’s super hot, and you feel like you need some water along the way, go for it! But I think even on the toughest day, you can probably power through six miles without.
Dave: For 15Ks & up, okay, now’s the time your body’s gonna need some help. For a half marathon, I always do the same thing: I eat 2 of the larger Clif bars for breakfast [1 right when I wake up, and 1 as I’m walking to the start to drop off my baggage] and that’s it. I’ll afford myself a cup of water at every 5K of the race, and then possibly Gatorade once I hit double-digit miles, knowing full well that it’s bullsh*t, and I’m wasting time sucking on something sweet because I’m in pain-ish.
Kelly: I’m on a slightly different page for this one—but everyone’s different! The morning before a half (or 15k, or races of similar lengths), I’ll eat a regular breakfast an hour or two before the start. It’s not always the same, but I always try to work in some combination of carbs (oatmeal or an english muffin), some protein (nut butter or an egg), and some sugar (honey or jelly), and down at least a bottle of water and a cup of coffee or two. Then, I’m good to go.
I try to hold out on water till mile 7 or so, but after that I’m “allowed” 2-3 cups. It’s more about battling through any pain or fatigue that’s telling me water is a totally appropriate excuse to slow down or walk than anything else. To say I’m not big on Gatorade is an understatement—it tends to make me feel pretty sick, so even though my brain sometimes encourages me to take it, I do everything in my power to resist.
Dave: As for the marathon, I’ll do the same thing as for a half, w/ 1 large exception: I’ll station friends along the course w/ food for me to eat. I hate-hate-hate running w/ anything unnecessary that might weigh me down, bang against my thigh in an inside shorts pocket, etc.
Kelly: Ahh, marathoning, what a crazy fueling-planning beast you are. I’ve found two reliable options that work for me, and I should note that this applies to pretty much any training runs 16 miles or longer. Typical pre-long-run breakfast & water and coffee keeps me happy till mile 14 or so, where I’m usually overcome with a deeply horrible feeling that’s really hunger masquerading as complete and utter despair. To take care of this, I start slowly munching on one of two options: A) a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole wheat (read: NOT added fiber) bread or B) a Clif bar, preferably of the chocolate chip peanut crunch variety (and preferably preferably, frozen). Lately, I’ve been cahoosing option B for convenience; no prep, and for a long city run I can just buy one from any Duane Reade on the go. I carry either of these easily in my Flip Belt, and after I whip them out it usually takes me about two miles to finish my munching. Even if I don’t feel particularly hungry, I make myself finish the whole thing. Which works out, because by then (mile 16-17), I’m feeling plenty thirsty enough to drink a cup or two of water . . . which I’m bad at doing otherwise.
Dave: I think people really overdo it w/ supplements, powders, shot this, goo that . . . unless you’re a high-performance athlete or are running in 90-degree heat or over a jagged-mountain course sans discernible paths, I don’t think you need any of that stuff during a race. Before or after? Sure. If I had to choose between being underfed & having to power thru the end miles of a race (which you’re gonna have to do anyway) as opposed to having an upset stomach or tidal wave of bright red sugary sh*t trying to capsize the contents of my tummy, I’d go for a little hunger 10 times out of 10.
Kelly: I think the takeaway here from both of us is the repeated runner mantra of “you do you.” If gu is what works for you, go for it! I have runner friends who swear by it. I like eating real food, and I don’t mind chewing for a few miles. Find what works for you, and get into a routine. Especially for longer races or marathons, it’s all about going in with a tried and true plan to eliminate the element of surprise—you’re guaranteed to have enough of those.