Nutrition Issues

One of the issues I have with running marathons (aside from things like; it hurts, I’m not very quick, and they’re quite expensive to enter) is the whole ‘nutrition’ thing. This is a bigger deal than you might think as a non-runner, and a bigger deal than I thought when I first started running. Opinions on nutrition vary massively, and I am sure there are people out there with much more accurate and scientific views than mine, so take all this with a slight pinch of salt, but here is a rough view of the problem.

Your body can store roughly 2000 calories as glycogen, which is the immediately accessible energy you need if you are running a long distance race. Fat is pretty much no good for this. 2000 calories will get you about 20 miles or so and when that’s gone you’ll hit what is sometimes referred to as ‘the wall’, a sudden loss of energy and resulting loss in pace. So, you can see that for most shorter races (10ks, half marathons, etc) simply ‘running out of energy’ is not actually a likely issue, and therefore nutrition is not particularly important. As soon as you start running races over 18-20 miles, and definitely up to a full marathon, however, it suddenly becomes vital to work out how to bridge that roughly 6-mile gap between the energy your body can store and the energy you need to finish the race.

A good deal of that comes from training, of course. A smart training programme can condition your body to do a number of useful things including storing more glycogen and burning fat more efficiently during the race. Even this, however, is unlikely to fully solve the problem, especially if you want to do anything really long like an ultra-marathon or an Ironman. And so it is that we get to the whole field of ‘nutrition’

My nutrition box for the New York Marathon.

In a way it’s simple. Consume 100 calories of glycogen every half-hour or so during the race and you’ll be nice and topped-up by the time you hit the 20-mile mark and, with any luck, won’t run into any walls. Simple as that. And yes, to an extent that’s true, and so it is that the market is swamped with all sorts of hugely appetising ways that the discerning runner can cram 100 calories down his neck, on the move, without causing severe stomach upsets. The most popular of these is probably the ‘carbohydrate gel’ which is, depending on the brand, a kind of sickly-sweet flavoured paste that you carry in a little foil sachet and then squeeze into your mouth at opportune moments. My ‘favourite’ is currently Gu, which makes a massive variety covering all kinds of flavours. That might seem frivolous and pointless for such a utilitarian foodstuff but it’s actually not, for reasons which touch on my own ‘nutrition issues’.

My sports nutrition cupboard at home. PG Tips are not nutrition. 

The problem, you see, is that no matter how delicious the strawberry gel might seem the first time you have it, by the time you slurp your 6th one at around mile 22, already nauseous from exertion, stomach churning from three hours of bouncing around, it’s going to seem pretty unappetising. In fact I’ve never yet eaten a carbo-gel of any flavour later than about three hours into a race. The mere prospect of them has always made me so nauseous that I’ve simply preferred to keep going without, and I suspect this probably doesn’t help my race times very much. I’ve tried carrying a variety of flavours, I’ve tried other brands, I’ve even tried ones that aren’t so bloody sickly (Gu, to their credit, do useful flavours like ‘espresso’ and sour lime, but it doesn’t seem to help me) but I can’t find anything that, when eaten or even looked at too hard in the final stages of a race, doesn’t make me want to vomit.

There are other options. In those last few miles you tend to crave solid food, I find, and so the option of solid sweets does exist. Gu and other manufacturers make these which are, to all intents and purposes basically glorified wine gums or jelly beans. In fact, Jelly Belly, who presumably noticed that their sugar-rich, relatively tasty product was popular with runners, now specifically make a ‘sports’ version which comes in small resealable packets, in useful flavours, at double the price.

These are, without a doubt, more appetising than the gels later in the race, though they have problems of their own (try running an 8-minute mile, chewing a wine gum, and breathing rhythmically, all at the same time. Go on, try it.) They’re still sickly as hell and don’t really satisfy the cravings for proper food, though. The problem, of course, is that the things you want to eat are a) not going to remain in your stomach for very long when running or b) impossible to carry while running or c) both. It’s nice when the race organisers hand out bananas or, even better, mini-pretzels (at Ironman, where the salt-content was much-needed) but they aren’t exactly something you want to try and stuff in your nutrition-belt for 26 miles.

So, I’m still stuck for an ideal solution, and I suspect I’m going to need to find one for Marathon des Sables, where the need to maintain calorie-intake and the weight/convenience issue is going to be even more acute. Any tips much appreciated.

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