While training for my first marathon, one valuable piece of advice did not resonate with me as much as I wished it would have. Somewhere around mile 20 of that first epic journey in the tradition of Phidippides, I felt completely empty & depleted, physically. I described the sensation as “my body feeling like a fishing net, with air just passing through it.” With a stomach full of Sport Beans and water, a handful of Wheat Thins from the plate of a generous stranger were an unexpected form of salvation that may have saved my final miles. I had a similar feeling during one of my longer training runs, but didn’t think much of it. Like most folks taking on this challenge for the first time, I was regularly running further than I’d ever run before with each long run, so I just chalked it up to “part of the experience.” I would learn, however, through two years and 2,000+ more miles of experience that followed, that “running on empty” was a status one can generally avoid.
That skimmed-over piece of advice, which I believe can be found somewhere in the pages of Hal Higdon’s Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, was to “teach yourself” how to eat on the run, specifically something solid beyond gels or blocks or whatever variety of non-liquid electrolyte replacement one might use. It sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why it didn’t strike a chord with me. “I know how to eat,” I thought; “I don’t need to teach myself how to eat.” How naïve!
In the time and distance that has passed since that life-changing day, I have worked tirelessly on teaching myself how to eat on the run. I would be foolish to say I’ve figured it all out. As with so many aspects of running, eating on the run is something that improves with experience. I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, how my body responds, what energizes the run, when to eat, how much, etc., and I can tell you without hesitation that it has made an immense difference in the quality of my longer runs and races.
While training for the Ocean Drive Marathon in March of this year, I came up with what I now call the “2 and 5” system to help guide what and when I take on food and electrolyte replacement. It was born out of my desire to find a more concrete and easy-to-remember in-race nutrition schedule than trying to remember how much time had elapsed between each instance, as time seems to be the guiding principle in all of the approaches I’ve found. The simple explanation of how my system works is that I take on electrolytes at mile 2, solids at mile 5, and repeat that pattern throughout the rest of the run. So for a marathon this would mean electrolytes at miles 2, 7, 12, 17, 22, and 26, and solids at miles 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25. I have yet to actually take on anything at miles 25 or 26, knowing that it won’t really make a difference at such a late stage.
By now you may have noticed one obvious drawback to this approach, which is that it requires you to carry everything you need with you during the race. It sounds like a chore, but with the right gear and lots of practice during your long runs, it’s really not so bad. Plus, you shed the extra gear weight throughout the race, so you feel relatively less weighed-down at the end, which I kind of enjoy. When it comes down to it, I would much rather carry my own fuel anyway. This allows you more options, and assures that you what you use in the race is what you trained with. It also helps avoid the disaster of getting to a point on the course where you think there will be food or gels only to find they’ve run out, or they were not where the course map said they would be; I’ve seen this happen before and know too many people who have suffered on account of it. Of course, you can investigate the race beforehand and find out what they’ll have on-course, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid the problem I just mentioned.
So, what should you eat? How much should you eat at each nutrition point? Is there anything you should avoid eating? How am I going to carry all of this stuff with me on the run? The best answer I can give you here is that you have to try different things and find out what works for you. Everyone’s needs are different, and each body processes certain foods differently from the next. The same goes for what gear will work for you. A good rule of thumb is to stick to simple, easy-to-digest food items. Too much fiber can be tricky, so be aware of how much your food is packing. I like having a little protein in what I eat on the run, as I certainly feel the energy boost in later stages of a long distance. I generally try to get between 150-250 calories for each solid food, and 50-100 calories of electrolyte replacement per each respective instance. Do I have suggestions for food and gear? Of course! See below.
Eating on the run may not be for everybody. I know folks who have tried it and no matter what they eat they have problems with GI discomfort or other issues. But, like I said, I wish I had taken this bit of advice while training for my first marathon. I think it’s particularly important for those of us who are going to be on the course for more than three to three-and-a-half hours, which really is most of us Regular Joe Runners out there. By no means do I claim to have mastered the human biology, but one of the big challenges of the marathon we face as runners is hitting that “wall” – the space between where our glycogen stores have depleted and our body starts to process fat as energy. From my experience, this system has allowed me to bridge that gap by allowing your body to start processing the food at an early stage and get some of that energy to your weary muscles later on. I also feel like it’s helped with recovery, as I feel less depleted overall once I cross the finish line. Am I saying you won’t hit a wall of some sort? Absolutely not. Am I claiming you won’t feel like you got hit by a Mack truck when it’s all said and done? No way. But this approach has made that wall less like the one in China, and has significantly reduced the speed at which the Mack truck is traveling when I come face-to-face with its front grill.
Give “2 and 5” a shot. Let me know how it works out. Try different things. Mix it up. Maybe there’s something I haven’t tried that would be stellar. I like to try different things, even when I’ve found something that works, so I have multiple options if I end up in a pinch. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. I developed this system without reading of anything similar. While I’m sure there may be something else like it out there, I don’t know anyone else who has tried such a structured approach, so I really am curious to know how this works for other people.
This may go without saying, but please be environmentally conscious with this approach. There’s no excuse for littering. If you can carry food with you, you can carry your trash as well. Recycle whenever possible, and try to re-use any plastic baggies or similar items. We all enjoy running outdoors, which makes it our responsibility to preserves those spaces and keep them clean for other runners and future generations (and everyone else, really).
Here are some of the products I’ve used and what the experience was like for me.
On the Twos (Electrolyte Replacement)
Gu Chomps are my current main “go-to” in the electrolyte replacement department. Their packaging makes them fairly easy to carry, and they’re not difficult to open, even in colder temps when your fingers get a bit stiff. I typically take two Chomps at each “2,” and let them sit in my cheeks like a Chipmunk, which helps stimulate salivation and break them down easier than going into a full-tilt chew. The extra saliva is also a bonus for anyone like me that hates that dry-mouth feeling that hits you when you’re logging big miles. They come in four flavors. My favorite, so far, is Cranberry Apple. I’m also a fan of Blueberry Pomegranate and Strawberry. The only one I’ve had that I don’t much care for is the Orange flavor.
Clif Shot Bloks
My experience with Shot Bloks has been pretty favorable, and I mix them in when I want a change from Chomps. I take the same basic “Chipmunk” approach. My only real beef here is with the packaging, which lines 6 Bloks tightly against one another in a straight line, not in a small bag like the Chomps. I have had pretty good success with taking them out of the packaging and putting them in small plastic sandwich baggies, but that just adds an extra step to the process that can sometimes be annoying. The upside is that they come in a wide variety of flavors. One of my personal favorites is Cola. They’re also a little softer than the Chomps, so they break down quicker, which is nice if you just want to get it over with.
PowerBar Gel Blasts
Gel Blasts worked well for me when I first used them, and they were actually my go-to before Chomps, but they discontinued my favorite flavor, cola (thus my affinity for the same from Shot Blocks), and I have not gone back to them since. However, I just checked out the PowerBar website, and they will send you a free sample if you give them your information and let them send you other stuff. I figured “why not?” So I can give an update once I give em a run. Get your free sample here.
Jelly Belly Sport Beans
Yes! Jelly Belly jelly beans to eat while running! Bliss, right? Sport Beans were my first deviation from the ever-popular gels, and for a long time I thought I would never go to anything else. They have their pluses and minuses, and overall are quite good, but I now have found other products that make me think, “I’ll never go to anything else,” just because they have more of what I’m looking for. They’re certainly a product I would still go to if I was short of my current go-to. Beans come in a pretty wide range of flavors – maybe not as wide as gels or Shot Bloks, but I would venture to say there’s something for everyone.
The packaging is pretty convenient, and while they’ve added a nice feature recently with a “resealable zipper” at the top, I actually find that zipper somewhat difficult to open, and I know others who have had the same issue. Maybe they’ve fixed this in the several months since I last carried them on the run. If you do go with Beans, and they’re packages as described, be sure to remove the extra “security” seal piece above the zipper before you head out for the run. My main issue with the Sport Beans is that you really have to gnaw on them pretty good before you can swallow them down. This can be more of a chore than it sounds like when you’re out there on the course. They also tend to be very temperature-sensitive, so they get soft, sticky, and clump together in the heat, and are extra-dense and even harder to chew in the cold.
Gels (Gu brand and other varieties)
I flat-out do not like gels of any size, shape, brand, color, variety, etc. I never have liked gels from the first time I used them, and I’ve tried a wide range of this kind of product. I don’t like the sticky feeling in your mouth, or the way they slide down your throat, or the way the flavor seems to linger forever. I don’t like how messy they can be when you’re holding an open package, which makes it particularly difficult to hold on to an empty while waiting for a trash can. I also feel like they slosh around in your stomach more than other products. Now, granted, I haven’t used gels since incorporating solid foods, so that last issue might not be a big deal if I tried them again, but the chances of that are slim-to-none. I do feel like they give you a little energy boost, but to me it seemed like nothing more than a sugar-high type rush. I know several people who share my disdain for gels, but I also know plenty who love them. To each is own. I also know a lot of people who use them by default, because they’re such a popular product. I believe their popularity may be attributable to the fact that they’ve been around longer than most of the others. Whatever the case, gels are simply not my flavor.
In general, I’ve moved away from sports drinks, like Gatorade or Powerade, in favor of natural replacement fluids such as coconut water. I still go this route from time to time, and when I do, Gatorade is my go-to. However, I’ve always had problems with replacement fluids when taking them before or during exercise – problems in the G.I. sense – so I definitely do not go this route during races. I know quite a few people who had similar issues without connecting it to Gatorade, but stopped going that route once I told them about my experience. The only time in recent memory that I’ve used sports drinks during a race was at the Philly Marathon in 2009. I had a rough go with lots of cramping, and was probably a bit dehydrated. I was reduced to walking for long stretches, and Gatorade was definitely a welcomed sight at that point.
On the Fives (Solid Food)
Whichever route you go for solid foods, it’s almost impossible to do without some water on-hand, so keep that in mind. I carry water with me, so if you do not, you might need to tweak when you eat based on where the water stations are.
Clif Bars are my solid-food staple at this point. They’re the perfect blend of nutrients for my money, taste pretty good, come in a wide range of flavors, are conveniently packaged, and easy to eat/digest. Yes, I know, they’re processed. I know some people take issue with this, but the bottom line is they’ve worked for me. My favorite flavor when it comes to running, of the dozen or so I’ve tried, is Maple Nut. I like the taste and, most importantly, Maple Nut is the “easiest to eat” in my book. It seems to be a bit moister than the other options, so it just chews pretty smoothly. I eat at least a half of a bar at each 5, and sometimes go for the whole thing, depending on how I’m feeling.
Bagels are still a solid go-to for me. I usually go with an 8-grain or whole wheat, for a little more nutrient richness. I cut up a whole bagel into 8 parts and place 2/8 each in a small sandwich bag, which become my portioin-per-5. While all eating requires some water, bagels require more than most foods. I usually just pour some water on the bagel before tossing it in my mouth, and let it get a little soggy first. It sounds gross, but it helps break down the bagel pretty quickly, and it’s really not bad at all. It still tastes like a bagel. It also seems to taste even better because of how desperate you are for food while going the distance.
Trail mix is a new addition to my food rotation, and seems to be going pretty well. I go with a variety that does not have chocolate, to avoid a melty mess, and make sure it’s something with a good balance of protein and carb-rich fruits. My most recent long run had me munching on a “Tropical Mix,” which included dried apricots, almonds, cashews, banana chips, & pineapple. There’s no precise formula for how much I eat; just a handful or so each time.
I’ve only gone this route once, because I was in a pinch. I started my run quite early, and the bagel shop was not open before I headed out. So I ventured to a local 24/7 convenience store to see what I could find, and pretzel sticks were the flavor of the day. They did the trick, and definitely required a good bit of water, but I probably would not go back to them again unless I had no other trusted option.
I’ve seen several people carry bananas and eat them at different stages of distance events. They’re a popular item for races to offer participants. Only once have I carried a banana with me on a run, and I downed it within the first couple miles. I had to carry it in my hand, and I really don’t know how else one would go about it without a really good pocket. I’m not a fan of bananas when they get too mushy, which will happen over a long run, whether held in pocket or in hand.
There are so many pieces of gear out there designed to help you carry food and water. I have tried only a small percentage of these items, and have found what works for me. I intend to try a couple other products soon, and will post if I find something worthwhile. I also have a couple ideas for gear-carrying products myself, so someday you may be sporting one of my designs – who knows!
Shorts with Elasticized “Cyclist Jersey” Style Pockets
I found a pair of non-name brand shorts at an expo a couple years back that feature three pockets on the back side. The pockets resemble those on the back of a cyclist jersey, only smaller. I’ve been able to carry most of what I need in these pockets, with very few problems of which to speak. Once or twice and item has fallen out of a pocket, but that’s why you train with the gear you race in. I had that issue solved by race day. I have no idea who makes the shorts I have, but these products by Race Ready seem pretty similar. The pair I picked up at the expo ran me about $25. The ones Race Ready makes will cost you about another $10, but I’d still say it’s a worthy purchase.
I live my SPIbelt. It does not hold everything you need, but if you use it properly, it works great as an extra pocket that you hardly notice. I often buckle up with my SPIbelt on top of the pocket shorts and carry a couple back-up packs of Chomps or Shot Bloks. On long, solo runs, I will use it to carry my phone. My version is not waterproof, so I need to use plastic baggies to protect any stay-dry items. They do make a waterproof version now, but I’ve yet to use one myself. The bottom line here is that it was $20 well spent.
Water Bottles & Rubberbands
Before I found my pocketed shorts, and also before I carried solid food during a run, I went down a pretty primitive route. I would literally throw a couple rubberbands around my water bottle and carry packs of Sport Beans under the bands. For my first marathon, I carried a water bottle in each hand and strapped 3 packs of Sport Beans on each. I can’t imagine ever going back to this approach, but it worked for the time being.
I’ve had limited experience with other methods, such as safety pins and a Fuel Belt, but not enough to really speak to their merits. Here’s a post I found, which is actually on a website geared toward cyclists, that details a couple other alternatives, as well as a couple I already mentioned: http://coachlevi.com/running/how-to-carry-food-water-when-running/