I’ve had several conversations with PT Girl about eating and drinking while running. Believe me, I understand why people don’t want to do it. When I first got one of the water belts I felt pretty goofy and it chafed in a bunch of new places. But here are the three things I think you should consume while training and why. Believe me, it will make you faster on longer distances.
First though, I know everyone is different and below is what I do. I think everyone should do what works for them. But hopefully by seeing what I do, you’ll get some ideas and invest the time to figure out what will work for you and assist at making you faster.
The first and most important is water. If you become dehydrated, you will feel like crap, you will be slow and eventually things will start shutting down. Think about doing Ironman for 12 hours in +30°C (+86°F). If you don’t drink a lot of water, you won’t finish. As it is, you will likely loose 5-10 pounds during the race and most of that will be water.
For me, what works is a water bottle with a strap that lets me hold it in my hand. Something like this but I replaced the bottle with one that works for me and has a wide opening for filling up quickly and easily. It doesn’t matter what you use, but you need to be comfortable with it and train with it.
Again personally, I find I can run or ride for 2 hours without drinking. But if I’m in a race, I’ll likely take a bottle just because I know it makes me faster. Anything over 2 hours, whether running or riding, I try to drink at least one bottle (750ml) per hour.
But again, that’s going to depend on how much I’m sweating, which depends on clothes, temperature, humidity and altitude and of course how hung over I am. Among other things, hills, shade, rain, speed, and probably how much I’m talking. Of course how much you need will be dependent on these and other things. But drink early and drink often. It is absolutely critical for anything long distance training.
It is possible to drink too much. Drinking too much at an aide station will result in water sloshing around in your stomach and you might cramp. The second time I did Ironman, I drank as if it was hot and it wasn’t. I think I had to stop and pee 3 times. Not a big deal you would think, but I was 30 seconds over my goal time. Not too bad after 12 hours, but believe me, I wish I had drank less!
But I still believe drinking too much is way better than not drinking enough. I took over 30 minutes off my previous IM time, so I was pretty happy and a big part of that was being more hydrated. Okay, fairly happy.
I was going to put sugar next, but salt is probably more important for me. Might not be for you. Without enough salt, muscles cramp and which will dramatically impact your time. I went on a very hilly 120km ride one time and was cramping most of the way. I got through it, but it was very uncomfortable. I know others who have done similar things. Even my last (third) IM I could feel my quads starting to cramp near the end of the ride. But I upped the salt a little and didn’t cramp on the run.
I say salt, but it is more complicated than that. You need electrolytes. This is essential a combination of different minerals that is included in your sweat. There are lots of products on the market but I use Endurolytes by Hammer. I have also used other products, but these are simple and always work for me.
As with water, I generally think I can get away with 2 hours without needing to take any. But often I’ll take one if I’m going for a 1+ hour swim. If I’m riding for 2 hours and then running for 1, I’ll take one before I start on the run. For IM, I’ve found that this works: one in the morning before the race, one when I get out of the swim, one every hour on the ride and then one per hour on the run.
As with water, how much you need is tied to how much you are sweating. While it’s possible to take too much, generally it’s better to take more rather than less. I talked to a doctor once about taking too much and she said an upset stomach would likely be the only immediate cause for concern. Of course you don’t want to take too much of anything over a long period of time. But you don’t want your calves cramping while swimming or when you’re running up a hill either.
But for long distances, this is as absolutely necessary as water. Unless you don’t sweat.
The hardest of all these is food. Generally I find I can go 3 hours without food of any kind, but even then it is slowing me down. Any longer and I know I’m just going to get slower and slower.
But what to eat? And how much?
Generally, the main thing about eating is to get calories into your body in a way that it can process them. There are hundreds of products out there that will help you do this, but here are some general guidelines:
Not all calories are created equal!
You’ve probably heard about fructose and glucose, cane sugar and starch. All of these can provide your body with calories, but your body processes them in different ways and at different speeds.
Carbo-loading pasta dinners and typical before big races. Pasta, potatoes and other starchy foods are a good way to get calories into your body, but it takes time for your body to process those starches. Personally, I avoid starchy foods the night before a race. I find my body hasn’t had time to process them. Two nights before works for me and that’s what I do. But during a race, or a long training session, generally your body isn’t going to be able to process those starches fast enough for them to benefit your body during the race.
Most sugar you see on a regular basis is glucose and/or fructose. While these sugars can provide your body with instant calories, you need to be very careful with them. If the concentration of sugar in what you are eating or drinking is too high, your body will draw water away from other places to allow your stomach to process them. The result is you feel like crap and you are going to be affected like you are getting dehydrated even if you are drinking.
I hate to put down products, but you’ll find many distance athletes will avoid Gatorade even when it’s free, provided by the race. The reason is that the concentration of whatever sugar they use is too high and it makes them feel like crap. If I am in a situation where I need Gatorade (or just about all of the equivalent drinks) I will take as much water as I take Gatorade – cutting the concentration in half. That said, I know people who run long distance and happily drink the free Gatorade the whole time. Which kind are you? You need to know!
Another good example is gels. All gels are, by their nature, super concentrated. I use gels when I’m on long rides and even sometimes on long runs. If I’m doing a half IM or full, I use gels. But it is EXTREMELY important to make sure you are taking enough water when you use them. Otherwise you will (probably, some people have stomaches of steel) feel like crap.
What works best for me is adding maltodextrin to my water. Maltodextrin is a sugar like glucose or fructose, but your body is able to digest it in higher concentrations. So you get more bang for your buck. Using a conservative concentration, I can get 400 calories in a 750ml water bottle. I call it potato water – 400 calories is like eating a POUND of potatoes. Very hard to get that many calories in anything else. So don’t drink this unless you are going distances or if you need to gain weight.
Maltodextrin is also completely tasteless. That’s right, it doesn’t taste sweet. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people doing long distances is the idea of drinking MORE Gatorade after 6 or 8 or 15 hours. Because water with maltodextrin has no taste, you don’t need to worry about getting sick of it. Finding maltodextrin will likely be easy – I get a huge tub of it from a local nutrition/vitamin store for $14. Lasts me multiple seasons.
How much? If I’m trying to run a fast half marathon, I’ll take a bottle of “potato water”. If I’m going to be training more than 3 hours, I’ll have some kind of food, but usually I don’t do potato water unless I’m doing over 6. Which doesn’t happen too often.
For IM, I had some before the race, a bottle in my swim/bike transition, 3 on my bike at the start, 3 at the aide station half way through, one in my bike/run transition, one on the run on the way out and one on the run on the way back. So 9 or 10, because I don’t finish them all. Ya, around 4,000 calories. Plus probably 5-8 gels at 100 calories per. And no, that isn’t enough – according to my heart rate monitor, I burned about 5,400 calories one year and that wasn’t counting the swim.
Food and getting calories is the most personal part of all this. You need to find what works for you. And the only way you can do that is to make sure you’re trying things during your training. If you don’t, odds are you won’t have nearly as good a race as you could have because something won’t be working well.
Funny story to give you an idea. Third Ironman I did all of the above. But very little solid food. I was having a very tough time getting through the last of the run despite all the people there to cheer me on (PT Girl, Dr. Jones and others). I was probably 3-4k from the end and grabbed a slice of orange from an aide station. I didn’t know if it would help or hurt, but wanted to give it a try. I bit into it and suddenly was AMAZINGLY hungry! I desperately had to have solid food! I knew there would be food at the end so I pushed and went faster, just to get some of that solid food. And man, that was some of the best food I’ve ever had!
So please, get out there and try eating while training. I’m a convert and once you find what works for you, you’ll be a convert too.