Fuel: the when’s, what’s, and why’s

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I have probably written umpteen blogs about fueling but it seems there is always room for more on this important topic.  I find that this is one of those things you just can’t hear enough about so I thought I’d give another quick overview.

It’s important when we exercise to replenish our body with what we are using, glycogen and electrolytes. Glycogen is your energy store.  If you run out of glycogen, you run out of energy.  Where do you get glycogen?  From carbs (sugars).  Electrolytes help to balance you out.  If you’re low on electrolytes, you’ll cramp, maybe feel lightheaded, and possibly do even more serious damage.  Where do you get electrolytes?  You can find this in electrolyte pills, sports drinks, gels, and so on.

Our bodies have enough glycogen storage for about 60 minutes of exercise.  This isn’t to say you couldn’t go longer without running out of gas but why would you?  I’ve used the analogy of a car in the past.  You are the car and glycogen is your gas.  If you are getting low on gas, you typically get fuel and keep on going.  If you push it and end up running out of gas, what a pain!  You end up on the side of the road until someone can come help you.

So, to avoid sitting on the side of the road, we must fuel.   You should start taking in carbs between 30 and 60 minutes into your workout or race and then continue fueling throughout.  The general rule of thumb is to fuel every 4 miles or 45 minutes, whichever method you prefer.  The ideal is 100 to 250 calories (or 25 to 60 grams of carbs) per hour, after the first hour of running.  I know this seems like a large variance but it’s because you’ll have to play around with it and figure out what works best for you.  A 150 lb runner may find that he needs less than a 200 lb runner but maybe not.  It’s always good to start with the rule of thumb and then tweak it to your exact needs.

Sports gels, chews, and drinks are typically the easiest things for runners to use for fuel but you can certainly try more “natural” foods such as fig newtons.  Just be sure you’re getting the right amount of whatever it is you’re using.  If one bag of chews is 1 serving, you need to eat the entire bag in that serving.  Do not ration your portions.  Pay attention to the carbs and calories.  If you find that you cannot seem to get enough calories and carbs in the form of gels or chews that you need, you can certainly look at using a sports drink as well.  The only issue with this is that many of the gels and chews specifically say to wash down with water.  This is to help avoid any GI distress but overloading your body with sugars at once.  This is where a fuel belt with several bottles comes in handy- you can have a sports drink in a couple and water in a couple.

Water is not fuel.  Water does not have anything in it so even if you’re trying to replenish yourself from all the sweating you’re doing, you’re not replacing the electrolytes (sodium, potassium) that you have sweated out.  Not to say you can’t run with water, but this certainly shouldn’t be all that you show up to a run with.

People often worry about “all the calories” they’re consuming if they follow this fueling plan.  You cannot think about it like this.  You must think about fueling as a necessity.  Let’s say you run 11 miles and it takes you 2 hours.  I would suggest taking a gel (Hammer which i use has 90 cal, 21 carbs) at 45 minutes and another at 1:30 hours, at a minimum.  This is only 180 calories and 42 carbs in 2 hours and you’ve burned approximately 1100 calories. Depending on what your stomach is able to handle, how much you’re sweating, amongst some other factors, you could also consider having a sports drink which would add some more calories and carbs.

Now, keep in mind, fueling doesn’t only happen DURING the run.  To fuel, you are eating before, during, and after your long runs.  When you wake up at 5 am for a 20 mile run, you have essentially fasted since dinner the night before.  In order to start out on the right foot, be sure and eat something when you wake up.  Play around with different things to see what works for you but be sure you’re getting some carbohydrates before you head out.  And, i cannot stress enough the importance of fueling after a run.  **If you do not refuel within 30 minutes of completing your run, you are missing the window of opportunity to properly replenish your muscles.  It is vital to your recovery that you have a protein and carb within 30 minutes of your run.  To ensure that this happens, pack a little cooler with you on your runs with your chocolate milk (proven to be one of the best recovery items) or peanut butter sandwich and have this while you’re stretching, before hopping in your car and heading home.

So, to recap:

* FUEL with sports gels, drinks, chews, or other carbs for ALL runs that are 60+ minutes

* START fueling 45 minutes or 4 miles into your run and continue throughout

* PRACTICE fueling with different brands of gels, drinks, and / or food

* EAT before your long runs (how much depends on how long before the run you eat)

* RE-FUEL within 30 minutes after your long runs

* WATER does not count as “fuel”

Never hesitate to ask questions about fueling!

One thought on “Fuel: the when’s, what’s, and why’s

  1. always a great topic!
    I like to mix it up with several different things so I don’t get COMPLETELY SICK of any one kind of fuel. I eat at the walk break of every fifth interval. That way I can just watch the interval counter on my watch and eat at every one that ends in a 5 or a zero. Idiot proof (and i NEED that). It works out to eating once every 48.5 minutes I think. Sometimes sport beans. Sometimes cliff shots. On runs that are 20+ miles I always pack a half of a PB&J to eat around the tenth mile–it always seems like a life saver at the time (and everyone around you is SO jealous usually. ha! REAL food!) I also like to take a S-Cap every hour. I use a camelbak which is how I have room to store all this crap in the first place…
    ~T

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