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Would you like to dial in your race day nutrition and create a plan for yourself? Here are the steps to take in order to get your fueling on point and get the most out of your body during your race:
1. Set your carbohydrate per hour goal
Set a goal for how many grams of carbohydrates per hour you want to be taking in. This can be based on experience and what you’ve been training with or what you’d ideally like to do. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend 20-40 g carbohydrates per hour for marathons and shorter and 40-60 g carbohydrates per hour for ultra marathons. If – but only if – your stomach can handle it, you can push your grams of carbohydrates per hour even higher, up to 90-120 g per hour, but know that this typically takes a lot of practice and a strong stomach.
2. Choose your source
Gels, sports beverage or real food – there are indeed so many choices out there and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options. Start by experimenting with different fueling types on your long runs and see what works for you – because everyone will have their own preference! For longer ultras, you’ll generally want to use a combination of all three.
3. Train your Stomach
Start training your stomach to get used to taking in your goal amount of carbohydrates per hour. This will take some trial and error, but don’t give up – and don’t wait until you’re a few weeks out from a big race before you start fueling on your long runs. Instead, start months in advance, especially if you’re inexperienced. Keeping a food log can be a good idea to keep track of what worked and what didn’t, as it can be hard to remember over time.
4. Create a Race Day Fueling Plan
With your carbohydrate per hour and your fuel source(s) determined and practiced, create a fueling schedule for race day. Plan out hour by hour where you’ll be getting your carbohydrates from, and when you’ll be taking them in. For example, if you’ll be relying solely on energy gels that have 20 g of carbs each, and your carbohydrate goal is 40 per hour, plan on taking one every half hour. Add up how many that will most likely mean for the entirety of your race based on finishing time expectations, and plan how many you’ll carry with you from the start vs. be handed or grab along the way.
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Example Fueling Plans
40 g carbohydrate per hour goal
1 gel (20 g carbohydrates) every half hour
500 ml water per hour
60 g carbohydrate per hour goal
500 ml sports drink (40 g carbohydrates) every hour
1 gel (20 g carbohydrates) every hour
Light snacking at aid stations in the second half of the race (for example banana, chips, candy, etc.)
Additional water at aid stations as needed
Gels vs. Sports Beverage
At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of personal preference. They’re essentially the same thing – only that sports beverage already has the water mixed in, whereas you would consume gels on their own and drink water separately. The benefit of sports beverage is that you only have to think about taking in one thing, which gives you everything you need, as well as the fact that you don’t have to deal with the mess and trash of opening individually wrapped gels during a race. But the golden rule is this: whatever gets you the most energy into your body is your best fuel. In other words, choose what actually tastes good to you and that you’ve noticed you can tolerate for the longest time. Towards the end of a longer ultra, it’s common for runners to more or less gag at the mere thought of taking in another sip or slurp or chunk or whatever of what they’ve been solely consuming the past hours. If you can find a flavor/flavors that you actually enjoy for hours on end, then bingo.
Real Food as Racing Fuel
Real food can be a nice change of pace over the supersweet gels and sports beverages, and it can be nice to add some actual substance to your stomach and reduce the feeling of sports beverage sloshing around in there – although we have to tread these waters carefully, as too much to digest can wrec serious GI havoc. Small quantities is the way to go to avoid that, and also to steer clear of foods high in fat, protein and fiber, as these can be even harder to digest. Potato chips, mashed potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, salty broth, fresh and dried fruit and all sorts of candy are all common sights at aid and stations as well as in drop bags.
Start Right Away
A common mistake among beginner runners is that they wait until they feel hungry or tired before they start taking in nutrition. Don’t do this – instead plan on starting to take in nutrition almost from the start, or at least from about 20-30 min into the race. Once you start noticing signs of tiredness, it could very well be too late. Always try to be one step ahead.
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