How to be your best on the run with a sound nutrition plan

If you run more than a few miles, then developing a sound sports nutrition plan will have many benefits. Unfortunately, many runners do all the hard work of training, spend money on expensive gear (shoes, watches, dry-fit clothing, etc.), but when it comes to nutrition they just use water, Gatorade and maybe energy bars or fruit. If that describes you, we have some great news … you can perform better!

The first thing to recognize is that running truly is an endurance sport that places tremendous strain on your entire body, and if you don’t have a well thought out nutrition plan not only will it impact your performance, but it can also increase your risk of injury. We recommend reading our “nutrition keys to success” to learn how hydration, energy, electrolytes, oxygen and blood sugar relates to running.

nutrition keys to success

train the way you race

If you haven’t made a habit of consuming calories during your training, start now! One of the golden rules of running is to not change things on race day. Whether you’re running a 10K, half marathon, full marathon or ultra, you’ll perform better if you’re taking in calories (energy) during the race. So learn how to do it in your training! Like anything, your body needs time to get acclimated to processing calories during the run. In addition, with the added energy you’ll be able to train longer at a higher intensity level, thus improving your fitness level … and ultimately your performance on race day.

gels, bars, drinks or chews?

Right off the bat you should avoid energy bars, chews, fruit and any other solid foods for that matter that contain fats, fibers and/or protein as explained in the oxygen discussion of the nutrition keys to success.

That leaves water, sports drinks and energy gels. So which of these should you use?

The problem with runners using sports drinks is that it’s a LOT of weight to carry with you! One of the big advantages of energy gels is that they are kind of like a sports drink without the water weight, but you need to take water to ensure that they are properly absorbed (see discusson). In most races this is not an issue as there are typically plenty of water stops along the course. In some more rugged trail and ultra events you may need to carry your own water and it’s always wise to familiarize yourself with what type of aid will be at the event. Most events will typically have Gatorade or some other sports drink in addition to water at the aid stations, and you’ll want to avoid these drinks that are typically very high in sugar (Gatorade is 100% simple sugar). For more information on the problems associated high sugar drinks refer to the discussions on energy and blood sugar in the nutrition keys for success.

For these reasons, energy gels have become the preferred “during event” nutrition for runners. So which energy gel should you use? Obviously we are going to recommend e-Gel, but for very good reasons. Compared to other energy gels, e-Gel is very low in simple sugar but loaded with complex carbs, which is a good thing. It’s also a thinner consistency then most other gels so it’s easier to get down without chocking on it. But one of the most important differences between e-Gel and the competitors is that it has all of the electrolytes you need right in the gel. Since you need to take water with your energy gel this is a big deal, because if you’re using another energy gel you’ll have to figure out how to replenish your electrolytes that are critical for maintaining hydration and avoiding cramping and injuries.

how much, how often?

It’s important to understand that water is the transport vehicle that carries the energy gel into your cellular system. Another way of looking at it is that the water dilutes the gel down to a concentration that is equal to the concentration of your cellular fluids (referred to as “isotonic”), at which point the solution can be absorbed via osmosis.

Each pack of e-Gel requires approximately 14 ounces of water to bring it down to the “isotonic” level, so the amount of gel that you consume is largely dependent on how good you are about drinking water during your training and races. However, as explained in our hydration discussion, your body can only absorb approximately 32 ounces of fluid per hour. You can consume as much as you want, but your body will dispose of (via urine) the excess water that it is unable to absorb. That being said, if you are consuming near the maximum amount of water (32 oz/hour) you could take an e-Gel about every 25 minutes. Most people will take 1 to 2 per hour based on water consumption, level of intensity, etc. What ever you do, we strongly recommend that you do lots of testing with your nutrition plan during your training to figure out what works best for your body. Like most things, what works best for you is probably slightly different than what works best for your training partners. Over time you will get it dialed in and you’ll be rewarded on race day … hopefully with a PR!

make sure to use water…

Most people know by now that if you’re using an energy gel (and this applies to ALL energy gels), you need to take water to properly absorb the gel as discussed above. If you try to take a sports drink like Gatorade or any other drink with calories, it will not dilute the gel down to the isotonic level. This is a recipe for disaster. Not only will the absorption be delayed, but your body will try to take care of it on it’s own by drawing cellular fluids back into the gastrointestinal (GI) track (via reverse osmosis) so that it can dilute down the gel. This can lead to temporary dehydration, severe GI discomfort, cramping and possibly make you sick. If you’ve ever experienced stomach discomfort or worse with energy gels it’s probably because you didn’t use enough water or you used something other than water to wash it down. Use water!

using other energy gels…

Obviously there’s a wide selection of energy gels out there and many of them are good products used successfully by lots of runners. To help you understand the differences and how they stack up, we have compiled detailed comparisons of the most commonly used products:

energy gel comparisons