Fuelling on the run

As the summer has neared its end and the never-ending heatwave has begun to subside, many runners will be starting to think about training for a longer event. Whether it is for an autumnal half-marathon or for something even longer in the spring it’s a good time to reassess how you are going to fuel it all. Because for many runners their primary focus is firmly set on the bare bones of their training plan and the necessary kit they’re going to need to get them through the upcoming weeks and months. And this is fine because at first you may be flying through the training and feeling slightly complacent about what’s ahead of you. But in reality, every runner knows in the back of their mind what is coming up. As you ratchet up the mileage in your legs you will inevitably have to face the prospect of doing some rather daunting long runs.

Long runs are normally a routine part of any training plan for running a longer event and doing them can ultimately help you smash it. But just knowing that doesn’t help you escape the fact that essentially, you will have to spend a ridiculous amount of time on very tired feet just trying to get to the end of it. Although some people embrace their long runs and even look forward to them, most see each as a necessary evil they will have to face one by one. You may plan to do this armed with the right kit, trainers and a podcast or two (or three) to listen to as you clock off the kms. But it’s just as important to think about what you are bringing to fuel and hydrate yourself to go the distance.

With the recent hot weather, you may find that you are already in the habit of taking some water with you when you go for a run especially if it is for more than an hour. But when it comes to even longer runs that are >90min, it’s important to also bring something that will provide you with energy. Fundamentally, as you run for longer you will need to get in some carbohydrates to start replacing the glycogen stored in your muscles that you have used up as energy. You will also need to replace the fluids lost in all that sweat you have been liberally producing with your efforts. If you get this wrong then you can look forward to experiencing low blood sugar and dehydration until you join one of the many to hit the proverbial wall. And that does not feel very good.

But you may already know this and are familiar with the basic necessity of having to carry some sort of energy and a drink on longer runs. Although that is not quite the same thing as knowing exactly what to bring. Which explains why the vast majority of runners automatically reach for any of the vast number of competing ranges of brightly coloured gels and sports drinks trending on the market. Afterall, isn’t that what they’re for? Every race seems to proudly promote them and doles them out freely at water stations. The better supported races even go one better by tucking handfuls of them into goodie bags…Only for the remains of the empty gel packets and bottles to be seen littered on popular running trails for weeks afterwar. But to be fair, the vast majority of gels and sports drinks do a very good job of hydrating and providing sufficient energy and electrolytes to runners.

And clearly, many people find these products work absolutely brilliantly for them and it is an absolute no-brainer to the question of what to use on a long run. However, it is also true that try as you might, not everyone enjoys the flavours or can tolerate them without some undesired effects. Gels, in particular, are renowned for causing gastrointestinal (GI) issues in some unfortunate runners and can cause anything from a bit of gas and stomach upset to experiencing the onset of full-on diarrhorea. Clearly, that does not make for a good run.

Fortunately, there are some alternative foods and drinks in your kitchen that can do the same job of supporting you nutritionally on your longer runs and as a bonus, they are also far less expensive. Starting with some possible sources of energy in the form of carbohydrates that you can pack easily for a long run, I have found that the easiest snacks to carry and eat on longer runs are some simple pieces of dried fruit. They not only taste great but they are absolutely packed full of simple sugars that are easily digested to give you some quick energy. Simply pop a piece in your mouth and eat it like a boiled sweet by sucking it until it disintegrates. One massive advantage of taking pieces of dried fruit with you on a long run is that it is easier to eat them as required. With gels you do not have much choice other than to down one in a sugary spike of energy unless you want to try carrying around a leaky open packet to sip. But eating pieces of dried fruit gradually means that it is far easier to keep your intake of energy on a steady rate and to adjust it to however you are feeling on the day.

I think natural dried bananas – but not the fried banana chip type – are my favourite choice of energy in the shape of dried fruit to take on long runs. They are a great source of carbohydrates and also contain potassium, one of the electrolytes lost in our sweat. They also have the added bonus of being extremely light and pancake flat which makes them very easy to wrap and tuck into a pocket. Dates are also another very good choice for longer runs and are even higher in simple carbohydrates than dried banana. However, make sure you pack ones that are already pitted and not too sticky or you can find yourself in a bit of a state. Another good choice is dried mango because like the others, it is high in sugar but it is also relatively lower in fibre for a dried fruit. But I recommend slicing it into smaller bite-size pieces in advance to avoid trying to have a massive chew-off whilst running.

For the majority of runners training for an event up to the distance of a marathon they will find that taking in dried fruit or a gel with a drink will be enough to support them nutritionally. However, others find that the longer they are on the road and the farther that they run, the more that they can cope with and need to eat something slightly more substantial. And as long as you stick to something that is relatively low in fibre and you eat a little at a time then you should be able to get in some more calories while avoiding any potential GI issues. In this case, half of a basic jam or syrup sandwich or a small slice of malt loaf are great choices and will provide you with just the right kind of energy to keep you going that bit further.

Of course, as with any of these suggestions or even if you choose to stick to commercial products you should always trial things out to discover what works best for you. Everybody is different and what suits some runners will definitely not suit others. The most important thing to find out is what works for you on your runs because no one else is going to finish it for you. And once you know it then stick with it.

But let’s not forget about hydration which was mentioned all too briefly earlier. When it comes to what drink to take with you on a run you will likely guess that I will say that water is always the best choice but that is only because it is. Water is pretty perfect in that it simply does the job of keeping you hydrated without causing any GI issues and it is even kind to your teeth. However, for those longer runs that are >90min even I will admit that water, on its own, is not enough. You also need an easily absorbable isotonic drink that contains some carbohydrates to give you another energy source and some electrolytes, especially if you are running for >2hrs. Adding electrolytes in the form of mineral salts in a drink will increase your thirst and help to encourage you to drink a sufficient amount of fluids to avoid dehydration. It’s important to say that some runners still choose to take a bottle of water with them in addition to an isotonic drink whereas others don’t. It’s entirely individual and you will soon find out what suits you best.

There are many choices of branded isotonic sports drinks that serve the dual purpose of containing carbohydrates and electrolytes. But just like the gels, not everyone likes the flavours or gets on with them. They can also be quite expensive.

However, you can easily make your own home version of an isotonic sports drink at very little cost by mixing the following ingredients to make 1L:

500ml fruit juice: 500ml water: ¼ tsp salt
200ml fruit squash: 800ml water: ¼ tsp salt

Again the key to successful rehydrating for long runs is to trial out everything and to keep using what works for you which may not be the same as someone else.

With your fuelling and hydration now sorted all you have to do is to get out the door…But before I forget, one last important word of advice. Once you have done all the training and made it through the long runs and the start line date is finally approaching remember this golden rule. On your race day, NEVER EVER change how you plan to fuel and hydrate yourself because you will only be inviting disaster. Stick to what you know and bypass the water station freebies unless they are what you are already using. It will always be true that one runner’s elixir for crossing the finish line in triumph will be another runner’s GI nightmare and a DNF.

While you consider all this here is some food for thought in a recipe for Runner’s malt loaf. I can guarantee that you will enjoy a slice whether you do it while running or not.

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