Sports science sometimes reminds me of social media – it’s an ever-evolving beast that feels impossible to keep up with. As new research studies become available, things that we’ve been told for years that were the “best way to do it” can change overnight. Nutrition during exercise is just part of the game.
About six years ago, I was told by a sports nutritionist that 200 calories per hour is all your body can digest. I stuck with that rule, but found that I would sometimes “bonk,” so I started consuming a bit more than that and found I felt much better. I told myself maybe I was just a weird exception to the rule? A few years later, new research came out that in fact our bodies can digest much more than 200 calories per hour. Yay, I’m not weird! Also tempted to say “told you so,” but it’s hard to tell the experts that ;)
One thing that I’ve found really helpful in learning just how much fuel my body needs, and how often, is wearing a continuous glucose monitor. I work with SuperSapiens. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s tried a glucose monitor has different main takeaways. Wearing the monitor during training taught me to fuel workouts better, but wearing it during races was my game changer. I used to consume a gel every half hour during races. For some people, that’s a lot. The glucose monitor was still showing me massive dips in my glucose, and therefore energy levels, towards the back end of those half hour marks, and in longer races, gradual depletion as the race wore on. This is how I discovered high-calorie drink mix! I use Scratch Labs, and I also like SIS Nutrition (everyone has a different brand they like, these are just mine. Try some out and discover what works for you).
Now my fueling plan during races follows these general guidelines:
A gel every half hour (I use a mix of different brands. I like SIS, Honey Stinger, and maple gels)
About 200 calories of drink mix per 700ml bottle. I’ll drink half a bottle every 30 minutes, and I make sure to drink a few swigs on the 15-minute mark between when I take my gels
So about 300 calories per hour, and I’m taking in some form of glucose every 15 minutes! I give some examples of what I ate during recent races below.
For a 4-hour race, that’s right, I carry 8 gels! Drinking half a bottle every 30 minutes helps my glucose levels to stay optimized, and it also keeps me on top of staying hydrated. This keeps my glucose levels in the optimized zone all race long. Generally, I’ll feel good the whole race and avoid hitting a fatigue wall. Of course, your muscles will still get tired at some point, but I won’t feel “bonky,” sleepy or out of it. I also feel a whole lot better post-race, and the next day. For sure there are points when I have to force myself to eat, especially towards the end of a race. I think if a race were longer than six hours I would have to start consuming some more solid food, like rice, bananas, or goodies they provide at the aid stations of ultra-marathons. From experience, the combination of natural gels (honey, maple syrup), and manufactured gels will keep my tummy from getting angry.
Recently, I ran an FKT (fastest known time) effort on a route in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, called the Rocky Peak Ridge/Giant traverse. It was about 2.5 hours long with 1600m of climbing. Above is a photo of all the empty gels that came out of my pack afterwards.
During, I consumed:
1 package of SIS drink mix
1 Honey Stinger mango orange gel
1 Sun River Honey gel (check this company out, it’s a new favourite of mine!)
2 caffeinated Honey Stinger strawberry kiwi gels
Below is a screenshot of my glucose during the run. I think I could have done even better if I had taken a gel 5-10 minutes before I started, because you can see it's a bit low when I began the effort. The performance zone is above the blue area!
As another example, this past weekend I ran in the World Mountain Running Championships! The race I participated in was VERY fast, only 14km with ~675m of climbing, and I ran it in about 1h12mins. I took one gel on the start line, about 6 minutes before the start gun went off. I took another gel at the 6km mark, to help fuel me through the rest of the race. Keep in mind the glucose will take 10-15 minutes to kick in, so staying on top of fueling is important. Take fuel in before you really need it, because once you dig yourself in to that hole it’s very hard to come out of!
Third example: two weekends ago I ran Hochkonig Skyrace in Austria. It was 4.5 hours long, with 3000m of both climbing and descending. Yikes, this could have been cramp city, and was for a lot of people! I used:
2 packages of Maurten drink mix (it’s all I had, I find it really sweet and prefer other brands. I also find it makes my stomach feel too full, like it has a gloopy brick in it). I put one in a 700ml bottle, which I used throughout the first half of the race. I poured the powder in to another bottle, which I had in my running pack, and filled at an aid station halfway through the race (didn’t need to carry all that liquid for the whole race!)
I also put ½ Nuun tab in each bottle. They have a good amount of sodium, and it was a hot day, so this helped replenish the salt I was sweating out
8 gels. Definitely had to choke down the last few… I could feel I needed the glucose, but gels taste pretty nasty after so many! If this race were any longer I would have started grabbing bananas at aid stations
Each person is different. I find this is what works for me, after years of trying different products and fueling strategies. Find what works for you! Try things during training, and during “race simulations” before the big day. Find what nutrition brands and products you like.
Racing is a whole lot more fun when you’re not in the pain cave! I hope this was a helpful guideline, and inspires people to properly fuel their races! Good luck with your goals, friends!