Marathon Fueling

Even when I was a professional track and field athlete, I always took a very simple approach to fueling for workouts and competitions. I ate things that were healthy and easy for me to get down. I’d find what worked for me and would listen to my body. I don’t have a sensitive stomach and used to swear I could put back a burger and fries 30 minutes before competing.

But the whole marathon thing is totally foreign to me. While I never get too scientific when it comes to fueling, I figured it would be a good idea to get some help from the sports physiologist I worked with as a professional athlete, Trent Stellingwerff. Basically, he tells me what would probably work best for me (he knows me well as we’ve worked together for 8 years), I try it, and we adapt small pieces of it if something doesn’t feel quite right. 

This is our basic plan (and it’s super simple):

My long runs are usually on the weekend, depending on my schedule. I do them in the morning, mostly because I’m nervous as hell and just want to get it over with. Otherwise, I’d spend the majority of the day anxious because I know how frickin’ bad it’s going to hurt.

Fueling: Pre-Run

As I said, I don’t typically get stomach issues, so I usually eat whatever I’m feeling that day for breakfast. It usually includes coffee and either two pieces of toast with almond or peanut butter, sliced banana and honey drizzled on top, or overnight oats with chia, banana, almond milk, cinnamon, nuts and honey. I’ll eat about an hour before I start my run. I don’t typically drink much water in the morning because I don’t like when I can feel it sloshing around in my belly. Instead, I try to hydrate the night before.

Fueling: Running

If my run is going to take me longer than an hour (more than 7.5 miles), then I always bring a sports drink (like Gatorade or Powerade) and gels (like Gu or Honey Stinger) with me. My fueling is super simple: 5 oz of sports drink, to replenish electrolytes and get in some sugar, every 20 minutes, and an energy gel, for energy-dense carbohydrates, every 60 minutes. So, if it took me 4 hours to run the marathon, I would consume 3-4 gels and just under 2 liters of sports drink.

So far this has been working for me and I haven’t been getting stomach issues. Some days I’m thirstier and want to drink more, and some days I have to force myself to drink. But I typically try to stick with the plan. If I have to run on a really hot day, I will probably have to alter the plan a bit and drink more. In that case, I’ll just listen to my body and consume what I feel like I can handle.

I was told that on the marathon course, there will be cookies and candy and all kinds of junk to eat. I don’t understand how people can chew and run. I once tucked a fruit leather into the band of my shorts and tried eating it on a run and almost choked. Needless to say, I will not be eating the cinnamon buns given out during the race.

Fueling: Post-Run

This is where I’m noticing distance running is different than sprinting. About an hour after I finish, my stomach gets uneasy and no food sounds appetizing. If I don’t eat something right after running, I have to force myself to eat, and it’s usually something bland like noodles with butter or a fruit smoothie with some spinach and a bit of protein powder. It won’t be until around dinner that I’ll start to feel normal again.

I’m also INSANELY thirsty! It makes sense because I’ve just run 2 or 3 hours, drinking a bit of Gatorade every 20 minutes, but I’ll literally spend the rest of the day downing water bottle after water bottle. It’s nuts!! 

Do either of these things happen to anyone else??

If any of you are runners, I’d love to know your routines/fueling plans or tips and tricks you find helpful. One thing someone told me once was to plan a treat for the end of your run that you can look forward to. So now I carry a Jolly Rancher with me when I run and suck on it the last 3 miles when the pain really starts kicking my ass.

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10 thoughts on “Marathon Fueling”

  • It is funny that I tend to only get GI issues on race day – issues that really put a damper on my race plan. BUT – I believe that has more to do with race nerves more than anything. I also cut out anything that is going to aggravate my GI tract, mostly seeds, corn and whole grain anything. I’ve finally figured out that seeds and me do not get along during race week ;-). I also tend to demolish a whole bowl full of popcorn right after a big race because I tend to not eat it at all during a training cycle.

    Make sure you take in enough food during a race like a marathon – but take the gels you have eaten during long runs and make sure to grab an orange slice – they taste amazing during a race! Also do a race day simulation where you plan on running maybe a medium long run at the same time as your marathon start time and eat what you would eat/wear what you plan on wearing.

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    • Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for the tips! These are great! Someone else told me about salted potato chips right after the race/long training run. Popcorns sounds amazing too because I’m a popcorn lover!
      -Bri

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  • I’m training for my first half and I’m having trouble with hydration and recovery. My mile times just seem to get worse and worse as my muscles stay tight and sore for days. Do you have any tips?

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    • Hi Christy,
      I’m definitely no expert on marathon/half marathon training or distance running in general because I’m just starting myself. For the last week, my training runs have been AWFUL. I’ve felt the same way as you’re describing: sore, tired, no energy, slow times… When I was training for the heptathlon, this was a sign of training too hard or over-training. So I’m going to back off for a week and see how I feel. I guarantee I’ll feel better after taking some time off. So maybe try going easier on yourself and taking a little break to let yourself fully recover?
      Hope this helps!
      -Bri

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  • I’ve had the same problem post-run, when I’d run more than 15 km or so- unless I ate right away, I’d feel nauseous and have NO desire to eat anything if I waited too long. It was like my body was saying “what the heck did you just do to me?” And needed to focus all its energy on recovering, rather than trying to digest something new.

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    • Hi Laure,
      I know it’s so crazy! A follower of mine gave me the suggestions of eating a small bag of salted potato chips right after a run to get extra salt and carbohydrates. So I’m going to try it and see if it helps. Maybe it’ll help you too!
      – Bri

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  • If you’ve never tried it check out SIS gel products. They are formulated for osmolity and are able to make their way through your stomach lining easier than the thicker gels. This also doesn’t divert blood from your muscles to your stomach for the purpose of breaking down the sugars. If you want a good explanation, check out Dr Lim’s experiments here which shows these principals in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NNRpxBTpk8

    Otherwise, it looks like you have a great marathon plan! Good luck in Chicago 🙂

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    • Thanks for the information, Chris. I will definitely research this a bit more if I ever decide to do another marathon again 🙂 Thanks for the good luck… I’ll need it.
      – Bri

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  • Hi Bri! Love following your marathon journey! I am an Ottawa based runner and will be completing my 16th marathon in Chicago next week. I wanted to leave you a message to say CONGRATS on all your accomplishments so far and a huge good luck with your taper and race!! I also wanted to let you know I experience the same issue with the post-long run/hard workout fuelling — I need to eat something within 30 minutes, or I feel queasy and the food that I eventually eat doesn’t settle well. Normally, this means I make a protein shake and a piece of Ezekiel toast.

    Thanks for sharing your journey!

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    • Thanks for the message! Good luck to you in Chicago as well. If you end up running into me while we’re there, please say hi! Sometime actually told me to eat a small bag of salted potato chips right after long runs and that seems to make a difference. So maybe give that a try? I did a long run in Ottawa this summer along the river (first time I’ve been to Ottawa) and it was my favorite long run! Such a beautiful city.
      Maybe see you in Chicago!
      – Bri

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