“I have a marathon this Sunday. What energy gels should I buy?”
“What should I eat before the 50km this Saturday?”
I get these questions all the time. Unfortunately, it’s a bit late for the inquirers, and they’re probably not maximizing what their bodies can truly do.
Getting the best performance out of yourself is more than the energy gels, sports drinks, or energy bars you bring to a race. It’s about how you fuel and recover after training and what you put in your body every single day.
Race-day fueling begins way WAY before you toe the line. Below is a complete guide to fueling, from lifestyle to recovery to race day.
Keep it simple with real food
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
– best-selling author, journalist and Harvard University Professor, Michael Pollen
Do that, and your body will be primed for any physical excursion. It’s really this easy.
The current nutrition industry is all about complexity. Sometimes nuances in training nutrition are necessary, but oftentimes not really. One reason gurus and brands make things more complicated than they need to be is so that they can sell you and at a higher price. It’s difficult to cash in simplicity and rudimentary. Come up with some fancy and confusing way to package a basic concept, and people will pay for it.
The amazing thing about real food is that they are naturally engineered to have the proper ratio of both macro- and micro-nutrients and in the best forms for absorption. Mother Nature did the heavy lifting; we just have to take advantage of Earth’s finest.
The foundation of your fuel strategy should be eating solid meals packed with nutrients from natural sources. Not powders, gels, pills, and processed drinks.
Do the right things often
The reason we fall for the more complicated, marketing-driven options is perhaps a way for us to avoid the truth (get ready for some personal takes).
What matters in nutrition and training is consistently doing the right things.
Don’t skip workouts.
Not thinking about it, reading about it, or talking about it.
Show up and do it. Day in and day out.
There is no magic bullet.
This is the truth. Our lives are complicated enough with work, family, and social obligations. Don’t waste precious time and head space chasing the latest nutritional gimmicks. Real foods. Lots of veggies. Don’t binge eat. Simple as that.
Build good habits – one item at a time
A healthy eating habit isn’t built in one day. Here’s how I did it.
I started by first doing just one thing: A cup of warm lemon water in the morning. Years ago, I came across an article about lemon’s wonderful benefits. And how drinking warm lemon water on an empty stomach properly primes the body for the day. It’s cleansing, it’s alkali, and it provides many nutrients.
“That doesn’t sound too complicated. Let’s try it,” I decided.
After two weeks, drinking lemon water became something that I do, a part of my morning ritual. Sometimes I couldn’t make the daily beverage because I forgot to buy lemons or had to rush out the door. I didn’t stress out about it, though. I just made sure I picked it back up the next day.
I then read another article about the benefits of nuts. So I bought a big bag of almonds and ate a handful daily. Another super easy thing to do. Over the years, I picked up more healthy habits, always one at a time. Build momentum because progress is addictive.
I eat excellent 90% of the time. I have a surplus of “healthy deposits,” so it isn’t the end of the world when I make the occasional withdrawal. Life is already full of stress. There’s no need to shame yourself when you eat some junk food. And don’t overwhelm yourself by adding or subtracting 10 new things all at once.
Recovery = gains
Yes. Post workout requires fuel as well. Replenishing your body with protein, carbohydrates, and fats after training is crucial to recovery. This isn’t news. Exercising “tears up” muscles and depletes macro- and micro-nutrients. It’s recovery by repairing muscle tissues and reloading nutrients that help you adapt and improve after rigorous activities. Lousy recovery means no fitness gain.
The truth about protein
Consuming protein is an essential part of recovery. However, there is too much conflicting and, quite frankly, wrong advice on how to eat protein and what protein does, especially for endurance athletes.
First, let’s debunk this right away: Eating protein or protein supplements alone will not make you too big. Not unless you are lifting heavy weights as well. Protein does not equal big muscles. What protein does do is help you effectively recover between workouts. Less muscle soreness and fatigue mean a more productive training cycle because you are always ready to tackle the next session in top form.
The 45-minute rule
The first 45 minutes after training is the best time to restore your protein and carbohydrate levels. During this period, follow the 3:1 (carbohydrate : protein) ratio and consume at least 10-20g of proteins depending on the intensity and length of your workout or race.
For daily protein intake, here’s the general guideline:
Consume 1g of carbohydrates for each 0.9kg of body weight and 0.3g of protein per 1kg of body weight. For example: if you weigh 65kg, your daily intake is 58g of carbohydrates and 19g of protein daily.
- 65 x 0.9 = 58g carbohydrate
- 65 x 0.3 = 19g protein.
Pre-race – eat what you normally eat but earlier
I’m a proponent of sticking to your usual repertoire or at least don’t do anything that you haven’t “practiced” before. Don’t overload on pasta the night before in an attempt to “carb-up,” and don’t eat something that you’ve never tried for breakfast.
Oatmeal, honey, whole grain toast and bagel, sweet potatoes, and fruits are all excellent clean options for pre-race. I also recommend finishing your breakfast at least two hours before start time to allow complete digestion and top off your glycogen level.
Energy gel guideline
In my opinion, whether an energy gel upsets your stomach has less to do with the brand or ingredients (they are all essentially concentrated sugar water) and more to do with how and when you consume it.
There are three systems that “fight” for your blood: muscles, digestion, and cooling. That’s why your legs feel heavier after a meal, it’s harder to refuel and run on hot summer days, or your stomach often rebels when you’re physically pushed to the limit.
Here are a few rules to get you started with refining your race-day fueling.
- Practice makes perfect. Don’t try anything you haven’t already tried in training.
- No one likes to eat gels outside of a race, but please pick a couple of workouts to train your stomach. For example, if your goal race is a marathon, a 30km long-distance run or a 20+km progression are good simulations of race effort.
- Although many energy gels market themselves with buzz words like “instant boost” or “fast-reacting,” it takes time. Your body’s various mechanisms need time to break down the nutrients into “energy.” Some athletes say they feel a boost within 5 minutes, and some say it takes up to 15-20 minutes.
- There’s a limit to how much glycogen your liver and muscles can store. So fueling regularly during a race is crucial to maintain your glycogen level. Most energy gels provide between 20-30g of carbohydrates. A fit runner can store between 90-120 minutes worth of glycogen going at marathon to near lactic threshold pace.
- Consume 1g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per hour. For example, a 60kg athlete should take in 60g of carbohydrates each hour, about 2-3 energy gels.
- However, if you are running an ultramarathon, where your effort is easy-to-moderate, you may not need to refuel as often. Every athlete is different, so once again, train your stomach and individualize your strategy.
- Another common cause of stomach discomfort is taking energy gels without water. Remember to drink 250-300 ml of water per packet.
- Last but definitely not least is packaging. An energy gel should fit in various pockets, belts, packs, and vests. Grabbing the sachet, tearing it open, and sucking down the gel should be seamless.