Friday, March 2, 2018

Gut Training

I’m often surprised how many runners, even at the sub-elite level, don’t practice their race-day nutritional plan. I recently talked to a woman (a sub-3 hour marathoner) who had fallen apart in the later stages of a marathon; she didn’t realize until after the race that the drinks she diligently took at each aid station had no carbs. When I talked to Trent Stellingwerff, a physiologist at the Canadian Sport Institute, for an article a while back, he said, “So many athletes show up to the race and then find out what drinks there are. That’s just insane, that’s just bad preparation. Get on the websites, find out what’s going to be there and practice with it for a couple of months.”

Most physiologists would suggest to not only practice, but to push your stomach's limit so you're taking as much carbohydrate as possible. The Breaking2 project tried to get their athletes to practice consuming between 60 and 90 g of carbs per hour, although it doesn’t seem like the athletes successfully tolerated that much. In a podcast, Stellingwerff talked about testing his athletes to find their puke point, which is exactly what it sounds like: forcing down as many carbs as possible until they come back up. There's some new evidence that your GI system can be trained to tolerate more, so you can (and should) train your stomach to handle race day fuel just like you train your legs to handle race day pace. You can find your individual limit in practice so you don't discover your puke point mid-race. (60 grams of carbs an hour seems to be the upper limit for most people; gels generally have about 20 g and 12 ounces of Gatorade has 22 g.) 

Below is what I drank and ate before, during, and after a recent marathon pace workout. Pace makes a huge difference; I have no trouble scarfing gels at an easy jog, but it’s always more of a digestive challenge when trying to run fast, which means that's exactly the time to practice it.  And, of course, the ‘after’ matters a lot in training, too, because you need to be sure you’re giving your body what it needs to recover and get ready for the next effort.

Note: This is what works for me, after fiddling with it over the years. Do whatever works for you, not what your friends or Shalane Flanagan or the makers of Gatorade want you to do. I’m just trying to give one example and (more importantly!) to convince you to practice your own fueling.


I eat a plain bagel and a half, with peanut butter and banana, about ninety minutes before the run. I used to just eat one bagel, but then decided I could probably tolerate some more so I went for it. For most long runs, I often just have oatmeal (still with nut butter and a banana) but for the marathon pace runs I really try to eat what I would on race day, which is as many carbs as possible. I also have some water and a cup of tea (I don’t like coffee).


One thing I can’t emphasize enough is to practice with whatever you’ll take on the course. Unless you plan to bring your own fluids, look up what the race is serving (even down the flavor) and practice with it. This year I’m being anal enough to practice with Gatorade Endurance (not just regular, store-bought Gatorade which is my general go-to) because that’s what Pittsburgh serves. If the race serves low or no-carb drinks (as more and more races are doing these days), you’ll need to supplement with more gels or food along the course. (Usually those races up the amount of food served—pretzels, candy, fruit—but you should practice eating those foods at pace too!) I try to sip every 2-3 miles, depending on where water stops will be.

I’ve also been experimenting with two Clif gels, each with 100 mg of caffeine. (More on caffeine and running here.) I tried that once in the lead up to Richmond and had a disastrous run, with a muscle cramp coming on soon after the second gel. I blamed the caffeine (whether fairly or not) and went back to less caffeine, more spread out. (At Richmond, I took a 35 mg caff gel at the start--purely for the caffeine, I hadn't even used any carbs yet--the 100 mg caff gel at mile 10, and another 25 mg caff gel at mile 18.) Determined to get that extra boost, I tried again this season (taking them about 8 miles apart), to no ill effect, so I’ll keep trying that strategy.

I admit I do one thing wrong: I don’t carry both sports drink and water, so I sip sports drink when I take my gels. You should take gels with water; having them with sports drinks can overload your system and lead to trouble. I sometimes put a water bottle on my porch and plan a route to go by there at the same time I'll take a gel but more often than not I just go with the Gatorade I carry. Maybe it’s toughening my stomach that much more (??)... but this strategy is not advised by the experts.


I drink chocolate milk basically as soon as I get in the door. (If I don’t finish the run at home, I bring Horizon Organic Chocolate Milk with me and drink it before driving back. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so it’s easy to bring along to the gym, a race, etc.) The studies on chocolate milk are numerous and I’ve never really needed much convincing: it’s delicious and easy. Also water, lots of water.


This is the only one that will be significantly different on race day. Post-marathon I’ll have a big juicy burger, fries, possibly a milkshake, and definitely a beer.

But during training, I try to have a healthier mix of carbs and protein; on this day it was French toast, made with whole wheat bread and covered with blueberries and maple syrup. If I don’t have it right away, later in the day I’ll often have a smoothie (with Greek yogurt, milk and fruit) to make sure I get enough calcium. I’m still nursing, which means a lot of my calcium goes to Baby, so I need to be sure I’m getting enough to keep those bones strong.

I also drink tart cherry juice. It helps reduce inflammation and may improve sleep. If you want to try it, be sure to get 100% tart cherry juice (i.e. not juice made with sweet cherries or “watered” down with other juices). Some people say it takes some getting used to (it is tart, not sweet) but I don’t mind it. Trader Joe’s brand is the best I’ve tried.

What are your favorite ways to fuel and re-fuel?

Dream big, 

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