Optimizing Your Fuel

This article is inspired by a recent race day fueling blunder in hopes that you don’t make the mistakes that I did on race day. I made a lot of them. Here is my story, and this is what I’ve learned.

I raced the Salida, CO Run Through Time trail marathon not long ago. I didn’t pack myself a lunch at work the day before race day, so I ate some desk-drawer ramen and instant potatoes for lunch (don’t ask), and then as I drove up after work, I picked up a pizza, eating most of it. In the morning, I had one bag of instant oatmeal and a banana when I woke up at 6:30. I decided that for this marathon, I would just focus on redlining it, eating fast, and suffer until the finish line. Being the first race of the year, I wasn’t putting much pressure on myself or running with a strategy. I normally eat PBJ, watermelon, bagels, salted potatoes, and caramel waffles in my races. This time, I figured I could save a couple of minutes (this is a mountain trail race. Acouple of minutes is negligible.) by just loading myself down with gels and a handheld full of a sports drink that I haven’t used in years. Why? Again; because I thought I could shave time off from aid stations, which everybody else has to use at some point.

My race ended at mile 19, where I went from 2nd place to lying on the ground, incessantly puking for an hour and a half, pale, numb face, numb extremities, and dizzy as could be, ultimately DNFing.

How can you have a much better day?

1. Have a strategy

My strategy was essentially “hold on for the ride.” Don’t do that. Think ahead into the day and anticipate what your body will need and potentially crave as the miles go on. I know for me, I need solid foods and something sweet earlier in the day. Later in the day I am typically somebody that goes for fruits and salty carbs. I also know that I usually switch to purely water for fluid later in the day and get my electrolytes from food or salt tablets.

Check to see if your race has drop bags. As gross as V8 is day-to-day, V8 and oreos are a top craving of mine as the race goes on. Do what you can to get access to the foods you want.

2. Stick with what works well

Race day is not the place to throw a wrench into your digestive system.

2b. Don’t know what works well? Practice. This article describes some easy strategies to fine tune your fueling and find what works best.

3. Fuel early

If you start the race at a calorie deficit, it can be realllllllyyyy hard to get yourself caught back up. You are burning reserves from the start, then have to start processing new calories while working hard. Going in to a race hungry is also cause to over consume during the race to make up for the deficit. Then, you’ve got a belly full of food sloshing around. Go in to the race comfortably full, but give about 30-45 minutes for food to settle before the start.

4. The day(s) before is just as important.

I essentially ate junk all day before. This was stupid. Be smart. Stick with your normal nutrition. For me, that probably would have meant a beet and berry smoothie with granola for breakfast, a colorful salad at lunch, and veggie pasta with homemade sauce at night. None of that happened.

5. Eat consistently through the race

I’ve found that setting an interval timer as a reminder to eat is the method that works best for me. I try to get in at least a few bites every 20-30 minutes, and roughly 200 calories an hour while racing.

You could also use milage as a reminder, or every X number of songs.

6. Electrolytes are critical

Sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are the main ones. You’ll need these for your muscles to fire, and to prevent cramping, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting, among other things. Some common aid station foods to achieve these may be pretzels, fruits, potatoes, bananas, or broth.

7. Carry extra electrolytes

When stuff hit the fan, I knew if I were to stand any chance of getting back in the game that I needed electrolytes now. I always have them in my running vest while training and for ultramarathons, but had actually taken them out of my handheld bottle pocket, thinking that I could get by with what aid stations were offering. This may have been the case, but when the last aid stations are 8 miles between and you are puking right in the middle of them, thats no fun.

My usual electrolyte bag has some electrolyte pills, raw salt single-use packets, sugar packets, and some mix-in sport drink tablets. I can tell you that as soon as I got sugar and salt back in my system, I felt like a new person. This emergency electrolyte bag could very well have saved the day.

What tips would you add?