With the bulk of the racing season just around the corner (the Rogue 30-K is Sunday, 3M Half is January 25th and the Austin Marathon is February 15th), it is high time to begin developing a nutrition game plan for those races.
Certainly, carbohydrate-loading should be part of your pre-race plan—especially for the Austin Marathon. If you’ve never run a marathon before, the principle behind carbohydrate loading is simple: In the final two or three days before the marathon, you load as much fuel—the carbs–into your muscles as possible to delay glycogen depletion as long as possible during the race.
When your muscles deplete, you run out of energy and encounter The Wall. Not good. The carb-loading principle is analogous to your car: You fill it up, drive for a long way but sooner or later it will run out of fuel. When it does, it stops.
Try as hard as you might, you can only pack in just so much carbohydrates before a marathon to fuel your muscles. Usually, you’ll have enough for a 2 ½-3-hour run. So you’ll probably have enough carbs to fuel your muscles for the half marathon, but the marathon is an entirely different story.
Since most of us mortals can’t finish a marathon faster than three hours, we will need to add more fuel. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, help because there are carbohydrates in their solution but usually it isn’t enough to get you through the race.
Back to the car analogy: You prevent your car from running out of gas by refueling somewhere along the way. In the marathon, you can do similarly by providing additional fuel for your muscles along the marathon course. (If you are planning to run Rogue or the 3M Half Marathon in two hours or longer, you should also consider refueling along the way.)
The most efficient, practical way for adding fuel to your muscles during the race is to use energy gels. These are commercially available products that come in 1-2 ½-ounce packages that contain between 20-28 grams of valuable carbohydrates and electrolytes in an average 100-133 calorie serving.
They are quite simply instant energy. Gels are essentially sugars and carbs (with some potassium and other electrolytes) that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream so the muscles can function longer. (Some gels also come with small amounts of caffeine as well.)
Gels are very similar in content to the more familiar energy bars. In fact, the major energy-bar companies such as ClifBar and PowerBar also make their own energy gels. The differences between using a bar or a gel during the marathon is gels are more convenient and easier to carry with you and once you suck a gel down, it works faster to provide energy than an energy bar.
Clif also makes a product called Clif Shot Bloks which is a semi-solid gel like a gummy bear which is very easy to chew. The Shot Bloks are made of the same ingredients as Clif Shot gels and there are six Bloks to a package. Three Bloks equal one energy gel packet of about 100 calories. Many marathoners find the Bloks more palatable and easier to take than the thicker gels.
How much gel you need to take in a marathon depends on a lot of factors, but you should probably consider taking between 30 and 60 grams of gel per hour. Most gel packets contain 20-30 grams of carbs so runners generally take one gel every 30-40 minutes during a marathon.
When you use an energy gel during a long run or marathon, you simply rip the pack open and squeeze it into your mouth in two or three gulps. But the gels are so thick and have such a high concentration of carbs you’ll probably want to wash them down with several good slugs of water to help with digestion and speed the absorption. (Don’t use a sports drink to wash them down; gels are so similar in content to sports drinks that if you wash them down with a cup of Gatorade, it’s just too much.)
Once the gel pack is consumed, the carbs found in the gels are quickly absorbed into the blood and supply the body with much needed calories and other nutrients that raises blood sugar levels, thus delaying muscular fatigue. The gels are usually digested quickly.
During a marathon, runners tend to time their energy gels at the aid stations for two reasons: Water’s available and since the aid stations are near mile markers, it’s easy to calculate when you need to take your next gel.
But if you plan to use gels during Austin and have never used gels before, now is the time to start practicing and testing them on some of your final long runs. The tastes and consistency of the gels vary so greatly you will have to find the brands and flavors that work best (and taste best) for you.
Experimenting with several brands and flavors on your last couple of long runs is the only reliable way to determine the ones that you find most palatable. The tastes range from chocolate to various berries, to apple to just plain.
Another thing to look for is ease of use. The Clif Shot Bloks are very easy to use. You just pop one or two in your mouth and chew them while running.
But the energy gel packets can be a little trickier to open—especially while running. Choose the ones that you find easiest to rip open and you can squeeze the gel out quickly and efficiently without dripping too much. (It gets much more difficult when running and even more difficult if you’re wearing gloves.)
Carrying the gels during the marathon or on a long run is also key. There are all sorts of strategies for carrying them. But the least cumbersome, best solution is to wear running shorts that have pouches in the back or side specifically designed to carry several gel packets. Some shorts have shorts with pockets in the back, but they usually aren’t big enough to carry more than one or two packets.
Some marathoners use a clothes pin or paper clips to attach the gel packs to their shorts or utilize a water belt which also has pockets for gels. Another strategy during a marathon is to have someone in your support crew hand them to you at prearranged spots along the course. But this is tricky because of the possibility of missing your crew member.
Some of the most popular brands of energy gels are Clif Shots, PowerGel, Carb-Boom, Honey Stinger, Gu, Hammer Gel and UltraGel. Each brand has a wide variety of flavors to suit just about every palet. They all have about 100 calories (20-25 grams of carbs). Most energy packages provide about 1.3 ounces of gel.
But again, start practicing with the gels now. The Rogue race this Sunday is ideal. Don’t wait until marathon Sunday to use your first gel.