Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Live and learn: lessons about fueling


A couple of years ago, I stopped to get gas for the car on my way to work. When I was done, I pulled out of the gas station onto the busy road I take to work. I hit the gas pedal and rrrrrrrrr...my car died in the middle of the road. WTH? I turned around to look at the gas station and saw 5 cars at the pumps, with their hoods up. Crap! I knew exactly what happened. It was raining, pouring actually. Had been all night. I didn't buy gas, I bought water. This was confirmed, $2000 and 2 weeks later, after I picked up my car from the shop. The mechanic said I had about 80% water in my tank.

Cars don't run on water. And yes, the gas station reimbursed me for my repairs. And no, I don't buy gas there anymore.

Anyways, there's a lesson here. Besides not putting water in your gas tank.


I thought about this on my tough, tough run Sunday morning. Because I felt like my car from a few years ago. Run, run, run....and then rrrrrrrrr....I ran out of gas. I finished my run but when I looked at my splits, between mile 5 and mile 6, the fall in the numbers were stunning. I almost didn't believe them. Except that I knew what happened. I didn't fuel well for this run. I wasn't running on a dream, That Tom Petty song came on my iPod, but even he couldn't salvage this run. I was running on empty. Isn't that a Jackson Browne song? I don't think that one will make the playlist.

Most of the time, if I'm running 8 miles or less, I don't eat before I run. Sunday, that didn't work out so well for me. By mile 3, I was hungry, and by mile 5, I was flagging. My splits for the final 3 miles dropped off dramatically. I was running on fumes. Water wasn't going to get me through this run. I needed fuel. And I didn't listen to my body. Or my gut, which told me to eat before I went out.


Live and learn.

There's actually some science behind running hungry, though. Your body has limited stores of fuel, called muscle glycogen, which can be mobilized for fuel on the run. How long can you go without fuel before your performance will be affected? One study showed that runners can go up to 2 hours on muscle glycogen before they "bonk" or hit the wall. Can you train your body to efficiently utilize stored glycogen for fuel when needed? One study of cyclists in New Zealand showed that occasional fasting prior to a workout does help the body "learn" to efficiently utilize these glycogen stores when needed. However, this method was more effective in men than women. Other sources also advocate training on empty, to help the body adapt to better using stored carbs and fat.

Note that I said for both: ONE STUDY. There isn't a lot of research on this topic, but there's a whole lot of so-called "experts" telling runners how to fuel. One study does not make it so, and as I always say, you have to go with what your body tells you. I should have listened to that voice in my head that told me to eat before I went out. Haven't I mentioned how much I trust my gut instinct?

Live and learn.

So what happened to me Sunday? According to this article on Runners Connect, runners should initially run their long runs in a "glycogen depleted state". In other words, don't fuel before you go out. Fuel after about 45 minutes into the run. Towards the end of your training cycle, you will want to fuel prior to those long runs. So even if I didn't eat before I went out, I should have brought fuel with me for later into the run.

And there's my answer. As I've said, I don't always need to fuel, but I'm at the end of a long training cycle, and I should have eaten before I went out. Looking at my splits, there's no doubt that I hit the wall at mile 6. (Kicking self now. Hard.)

Hit the wall at mile 6? How pathetic is that?


Live and learn.

So how should runners fuel for a long run? What about carbo-loading? Should we be eating plate after plate of pasta the week before a marathon?


Experts are starting to rethink the whole "carbo-load" theory. There's thought that carb loading mobilizes insulin, which can impair performance and promote fat storage. Most experts now advocate a diet of 50% carbs, 30% protein, and 20% fat for endurance athletes. That's a big change from the past, where runners were told they needed 70% carbs.

There may also be a difference in fueling recommendations for women. In her book, Older Faster Stronger, Margaret Webb addresses carb loading and women athletes, noting that women metabolize carbs differently than men, and that women need a diet higher in proteins than men. Personally, I have found this to be true. I no longer carb load before a race. I've increased my dietary protein, and have found much better endurance since I started doing this. Oh, and I take in protein when I finish. Usually in the form of chocolate milk or protein shake. No matter how you do it, this helps with recovery.

I did it all wrong on Sunday.

Truth be told, the night before a race, I eat cheese pizza. With a side of red wine. Last 3 races were PRs. Coincidence? I think not.


One other interesting thing I learned is that the taper prior to a marathon actually helps with glycogen stores. This is because during the taper, the runner is running less, therefore burning less carbs, and increasing glycogen stores without any change in diet. And also reducing insulin production. Wow! Loved this! So besides resting your muscles for a fresh race day, you're also helping your fueling! Who knew?

Live and learn.

Finally, how about fueling during an endurance event? What is the best fuel? What is the best way to fuel?

Soccer's Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munich drinking a beer during the world cup. My recovery drink of choice.
Oh man. I could probably write a book on this one. Remember, I have GI issues, and fueling is probably as big, if not a bigger issue to me than training for the actual event. After all, who has time for diarrhea when you're running an endurance event?

The most important thing to remember is that you will be depleting your carb stores, and you need to replenish them. Which form you take those carbs is a matter of personal preference (altho the fueling companies may beg to differ). Here's some of my rules for fueling:
  • you need to figure this out before you race. The best thing to do is trial different fuels and forms of fuels on your training runs. Trust me on this one. The cardinal rule of running is nothing new on race day, and you don't want to be figuring this out during your marathon (or half marathon). 
  • you should plan on drinking before you get thirsty. Usually, runners need about 20-24 ounces of water every hour. If it's hot, you will need to drink more. When I ran Chicago last year, it was about 60 degrees, and I drank 24 ounces every hour. Still, I cramped at the finish line, couldn't walk, and ended up in the medical tent until I chugged a gatorade. I felt better and headed out to have my beer after that. Should I have had more water? Hard to say. I felt great the whole race. Never hit the wall. The muscle cramping may have had nothing to do with my hydration or fueling. I could just chalk it up to fatigue. Subject for another blog post.
Me and my trusty handheld.
Here's some advice:
  • you need to take in 45 grams of carbs every hour--not all at once, unless you want to visit the portapotty. How you take in the carbs is up to you. I've experimented with all forms of carbs over the years. I have a really sensitive GI tract, and I have settled on fueling with Tailwind Nutrition, which is a fuel/powder I add to 24 ounces of water every hour while I'm racing. I carry a handheld, which is annoying but for me, is least annoying option, as opposed to fuel belt or camelback. Tailwind was designed for ultramarathoners. Since I've had so many issues with fueling and diarrhea (TMI), before I started using Tailwind, I talked to the people there about my concerns prior to trying their product. They could not have been nicer or more helpful. I've had a great deal of success with this fuel. I drink a bottle before I run. About 45 minutes into an event, I begin sipping again, and sip throughout the race, attempting to take in 24 ounces/200 calories per hour. I don't need to stop at aid stations, which is really a plus to carrying my own fuel.
This totally justifies my dislike of gels. Thank you Matthew Inman! From The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons I run Long Distances. Shameless plug: Our book club book for June!
One thing I don't like about various other forms of fuel is that they are so sweet! I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Some of the products I've tried literally made my teeth hurt! Prior to using Tailwind, I used gels. I found that Clif gels worked well for me. But I still had to make portapotty stops, and that was distressing to me. I never mastered gelling or drinking water on the run, and so when I raced, I had to stop to gel and drink. I always planned on walking through water stops every 45 minutes. This strategy worked pretty well until one cold race last spring. I had a heck of a time getting the gel out of the pack, and then trying to choke it down--ugh! it was this disgusting gelatinous mass in my mouth. I almost threw up. After that, I was determined to reevaluate my fueling strategy. 

But people swear by gels, and I've had friends arguing which flavor of GU is the best--Salted Caramel seems really popular--so all I can say is try everything out and do what works for you.

If you do gels, make sure you take them with water. 8 ounces. Every.damn.time. Always. Otherwise you're going to have trouble. Trust me on this one.

I've also tried Clif Shok Bloks, which taste good, not too sweet, but are really hard for me to chew. Besides, I've had a lot of dental work (I'm old) and I'm deathly afraid of pulling off one of my crowns during a race. Imagine DNF-ing for that reason. That would suck. I've also tried Honey Stinger waffles, which so many people like, but they're messy and fall apart trying to get them out of the package. Plus they are SO sweet.


Practice fueling. Don't do what other people tell you. Do what works for you. Trust your instincts. Nothing new on race day.

Run happy and well fueled. Save that carb loading for your post race celebratory beer. Because there's no better way to recover.


56 comments :

  1. The fact that you started this post with your no gas story is sheer genius! Love the intro - hate that you actually had to go through that horrific experience, but love that you could work it into this amazing post!

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    1. There are lessons everywhere in life, aren't there?

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  2. Cheez-its and a giant Polaner???? YES PLEASE. Fueling is an art--and it can always be improved!

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  3. My PT and I were just talking about this the other day. I think I can blame improper nutrition for my body breaking down like it is. I'm really going to start doing better with that! -M

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    1. After last weekend, I realized how much I need to watch what I eat!

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  4. I think wine is the perfect fuel for any workout! ;-) Your gas story made me sad, but at least they reimbursed you. I'd still be ticked at the time I lost on that.

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  5. Love this info. It's all stuff I know, but still need to hear it over and over, again and again. I used two gels for my half on Sunday, looking back I probably didn't have enough water to neutralize them. I did grab water at every station, but a sip or two is not enough. And my tummy was most angry with me the rest of the day and evening. Time to try something different. The gels just do not make me happy anymore :-( I'm going to give the Tailwind a try :-)

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    1. I'm telling you, it was a game changer for me!

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  6. Its also important to remember that the fuel that works for one person's body may not work for yours. Its so important to test out fuels during training runs, and to never try something new on race day.

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  7. This is all such great information!!! I will be running my first marathon in Oct and really paying attention to fueling. Pinned this post to reference for later :)

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  8. I love your pizza and wine theory, Wendy! I've never had a drink the night before a race; maybe I need to change my strategy - hahaha!

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    1. I don't know how I stumbled upon that one, but I've had great success with it!

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  9. Super big bummer on the gasoline/water issue! Yikes! I'm fairly bulletproof when it comes to the way I fuel. I'm a pizza on race-eve girl too. Where I ran into trouble is when the Caveman convinced me I don't eat enough on race morning so I added to my breakfast....and was miserable throughout my race. Don't tamper with what works, right?

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    1. Exactly! Although at our age, things are always changing...

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  10. I don't seem to have any "must avoids" prior to long runs or race day. Thank goodness my stomach is fairly predictable. I personally can't do the big carb meal before a race anyway. But I CAN do beer :)

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  11. I can't believe that gas station story! Crazy!! I always eat 1 1/2 -2 hours before long runs, but shorter runs I usually do first thing in the morning on empty. I do find that I run much stronger when I eat first, but I don't have time to eat and digest on weekdays before work.

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    1. I'm ok on an hour or less run without food. After that I really start to fade.

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  12. Great tips! I find that if I run too late in the morning, say even an hour later than I usually do, I can bonk pretty hard and usually have to go to a convenience store for some skittles. It also depends on how much dinner I had the night before. I really need to figure out how to overcome the late mile leg cramps before the Chicago Marathon this year!

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    1. Isn't that just crazy? And I'm with you on the leg cramps. What's that from?

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  13. I am in forever search of my perfect long run fuel as my stomach is changing over the years....or I am gettting better listening to it. I wish there was a magic fix for us each!

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    1. I'm really happy with mine--I hope it continues to work for me.

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  14. I think as a runner, we are always learning what works and what doesn't work for our bodies. Great tips!

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    1. And just when we think we have it figured out, something changes!

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  15. Great post! I have my own set of GI issues, so I have been very hesitant to fuel while running. Gu, gels all have bad effects on me, but I can tolerate sport beans. I was just starting to experiment a little in marathon training and then I got injured. I agree Cliff is the better choice, but I found I like plain old almonds too.
    I am the same - I don't really need to eat to do a 8 mile run. Longer distances beyond that depend on what kind of choices I made the few days prior.

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    1. I'm the same as you. But almonds wouldn't work for me...they take too long to digest.

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  16. My advice - do what suits you and not what suits others. I've found it takes time and trying lots of different things before you get it right (I'm still learning).
    One thing I know for sure though - glass of vino night before a race does no harm!!

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  17. I n ever fuel before I go for a run but I am typically only running no more than 6 miles. If I were going longer I would definitely have to change my ways.

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  18. Ha! I love that first meme! Great post, so much info!
    The benefit to running often, and racing often is the opportunity to try out different methods to see what works.
    I think it's good to occasionally experience running on empty, it becomes quite the mental game at that point, which also needs it's own practice!

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  19. I definitely agree that you have to do what works for YOU and not what works for someone else- I cannot have any type of sports drink or anything before/during a run (I don't care for them anyways, but just saying), but I can have specifically Nuun. And foods are very particular for me as well.

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    1. I find it fascinating to hear what other people do for fuel. I hate having this sensitive GI tract, altho the more people I talk to, the more I find out that I'm not at all alone.

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  20. I hear ya on the GI issues.. fueling has always been an issue for me too. And I've found that I run so early in the AM (even my long runs) that my body doesn't adjust well to race time. But I think a lot of my runs that were just bleh had to do with lack of fuel.

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    1. I have that same timing issue. Although it has gotten way better since I've done the crossfit. I don't know what it's done for me, but I'm liking it!

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  21. Everyone certainly has different fueling needs. I've heard you talk about that book before I'd like to read it.

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    1. It's our book club book for June. Light and funny!

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  22. I don't bother with the fasted aerobic training in -season. I may try it a little in the off-season but I don't seem to get in as good of sessions. I'm not training for ultra-endurance events, anyway. In a Half Ironman I need to be mindful of in-race fueling and I've found I have to take most calories in liquid form otherwise I can't eat well on the bike. Skratch labs seems to work well for me although I've also tried Osmo. Sometimes I can do GU, other times I prefer food like pretzels or PB&J or orange slices. Depends on the aid station offerings. (Which is why I love trail races and century rides - they have the best aid stations!)

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    1. I hear that about trail races and ultras! I haven't tried Skratch labs. So far, I'm happy with Tailwind. During training, I eat normally but avoid my trigger foods.

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  23. Wow, tons of info. I almost bonked at mile 8 of a 10 mile race this past weekend. I had my standard toast with almond butter beforehand, but I ate 2 hours before the race. I had brought a honey stinger waffle but forgot it in the car. Around mile 7 mile stomach started growling. I knew I was going to bonk. Luckily my friend had a gel with her that I was able to have and felt much better. I've been reading about Tailwind. I actually have a bag of it and have tried it a few times and I thought it was SO sweet, I couldn't stand it! Interesting that you don't think it's sweet! Maybe I need to try a new flavor?

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    1. I drink the "naked" version. No flavor. It is a little sweet, but less so than gels.

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  24. Wow, you did a lot of research for that post! If I'm going to run more than an hour, I need to eat a little something before and then again at the one hour mark to keep running longer.....for me, an hour is just a little over 6 miles.

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    1. If I'm going to provide info, I like to back it up with research! It's the medical provider in me...

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  25. I've been running for 15+ years and I'm still struggling with the nutrition aspect. I am finally making some headway and it feels so good!

    That's a crazy story re: the gas! Wow!

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    1. I've noticed that my fueling needs have really changed over the years too.

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  26. What a great post on fueling!
    I've read quite a bit about fasted training, but I agree, some fuel needs to be taken in. My opinion is the best fueling strategy is the one that works for you :)

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  27. It took me forever to tweak my fueling for training cycles. But, once I found exactly what worked for me it was huge! The difference surprised me.

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  28. (I would totally run toward a pan of brownies right now.)

    Anyway, back to the point! I'm really glad that the gas station reimbursed you (so sorry that you had to go through that!)

    I remember once a upon a time, when I was in a major hurry and skipped breakfast so I could still get to the gym before class...it was probably one of the worst workouts of my life, haha. ;_; Fueling really does make so much of a difference!

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