6 Tips for Beginners for Fuelling on the Run

Q I’m training for my first marathon and I’m having a tough time figuring out the run nutrition. Coming from a 5K background, eating while running just doesn’t feel right. I’m having a tough time getting anything down during my runs and I know as the kilometres get longer I am going to need it. Any suggestions? – DAN


A Taking nutrition on the run can be more complicated than it sounds, in large part, because the digestive process becomes compromised when we run. In order to support the energy needs of running, the body is designed to divert blood flow away from internal organs, like our gastrointestinal tract, and re-direct it to the large exercising muscles. The large muscles of the body need to be well supplied with oxygen-enriched blood to sustain the activity. The more intense the run, the greater percentage of blood flow is diverted away from the GI tract, which means that digestion can become difficult. Some lucky runners seem to have “iron” stomachs and can tolerate any and everything regardless of pace or distance. For the rest of us, the key is finding the right product(s) that work best, and then figuring out the right amount and timing. Essentially, it comes down to trial and error.

Since you are having a difficult time getting any product down, try a minimal approach. Begin experimenting by consuming as little as possible. Rather than eating an entire packet of a product, try consuming only a portion of it. Try just one mouthful and be sure to wash it down with water. If you experience no negative side effects, you can gradually increase the amounts ingested.

Also, take the product early in the run and more frequently, before your digestive system shuts down completely. Try taking some nutrition around kilometre 5 or 6 rather than waiting until kilometre 10 or 12 or an hour or more into the run. By fuelling early, you may be able to keep your digestive system working better during the entire run. In addition, practice taking nutrition even on short runs to help train your body to accept nutrition while running.

Another consideration is this, because you are making the transition from being a 5K runner to a distance runner, be sure you are not doing your long runs too fast. A slower run pace may help you get down some run nutrition. Training at 5K race pace would make it difficult to digest nutrition, while a more relaxed long-run pace makes getting nutrition down possible.

Here are some more tips:

  • Take smaller amounts of the product more frequently and early on in the run – one mouthful or 1/2 to 1/3 of the package beginning around kilometre 5 or 6.
  • Wash run nutrition down with only water, don’t mix run nutrition with a sports drink. A sports drink is like a dilute supplement, containing about 15 grams of carbohydrate per 235mL of liquid, whereas a gel is more concentrated, about 28-30 grams of carbohydrate in 30mL. Together, they can be too much carbohydrate for the GI system and cause GI distress.
  • Experiment with different products and brands. There are so many different types of run nutrition products on the market that you are likely to find at least one product you can tolerate. Sample them all and see if you can find one you “like” the most, or maybe dislike the least.
  • Try alternative foods. Raisins and other dried fruits are good substitutes because they are similar to run nutrition products in the amount of carbohydrates they contain. Honey or sugar cubes may work better for you than a gel. Hard candy, animal crackers, peanut or pretzel M & M’s, and gummy bears are also good substitutes. Mini peanut butter crackers are another suggestion; they combine carbs, fat, salt and even some protein. Be aware that sports drinks and gels provide carbohydrates and electrolytes, so if you choose to use an alternative snack, you may need to take an electrolyte supplement.
  • Bring something savoury. The sweet taste of some run products and sports drink can grow old by the end of the marathon so carrying a savoury snack can help you keep ingesting nutrition. Crackers, pretzels or peanut butter crackers help balance out the sweet.
  • Keep in mind there is no one right way to do this, everyone’s needs are different. Experiment now and work on knowing your needs and what your GI system can tolerate and you will come up with a plan that works best for you.

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