How to Fuel a Marathon and Lessons from my Father in Law

As miles increase, so does the tiredness and levels of exhaustion not previously experienced often accompany the final stages of the longest training runs. These distances are unusual, even for experienced marathon runners, as it is unlikely that you would choose to regularly run these kinds of distances as a non-professional runner whilst also having a life beyond your running.

Critical at this stage is the need for the additional support and development that can be found through sports massage, regular stretching and foam rolling, nutrition, and additional core strength training. As I’m now in my seventh year of undertaking this madness, I’ve managed to glean a few perspectives that might be useful for other runners training for marathons or half marathons, but could also prove useful for any runner building up their distance to their target race.

Here I’m going to focus on some perspectives on nutrition. Not a scientific, or academically / professionally qualified perspective on nutrition, but one based on my own experience of marathon training. I provide it here to help focus in these final weeks but also as an opportunity to try out some of my tips in the final training sessions so that come ‘race day’ you’ve finely tuned your race day routine so that it is familiar to you and your body so that nothing new can put you off your stride.

I’ve already written about a range of marathon tips you can find elsewhere on my blog that provide some irreverent ideas you should try to put in practice to make sure your race goes as smoothly as possible – click here to go straight there.

For specific health related nutrition advice, you should seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist, sports scientist, or expert in the nutritional needs of long distance runners. Most of the major marathons provide sections on their website that give insight from the race medical director and you should seek this information out. From a practical point of view it’s important that your race day approach has become a race day routine before the actual day, so you avoid doing anything new that could derail your efforts.

Believe me, I have followed a few runners for whom a voiding has become a nasal challenge best avoided because they have taken on something new which their stomach has taken exception to.

In terms of nutrition, it’s important to appreciate that you are likely to need to take fuel on board during the race to maintain performance, but practically to just keep you going. This can involve gels, shot blocks, other ready-made snacks, or homemade variants of the former (there are plenty of variants available online through running websites).

All organised races will provide some form of these during the race. If you intend taking these on board it is worth checking through the race website which manufacturer is supporting your particular race. Use these on training runs to identify what effect they may, or may not, have on your body and most importantly whether you like the taste of what is likely to be provided. That mango and loganberry flavoured gel may sound nice in theory, but its actual effects need to be investigated before it becomes a surprise on race day that will fade much less quickly than the memory of the multiple emails you’ll get from the race photographer offering you gallery filling numbers of photos of your ill-advised gurning as you pass yet another photographer. Your race fee covers these expenses and they also provide a great alternative to you having to carry your own supply during the race. So whatever you plan to use, test it during training and see how it affects you.

I plan out how frequently I will take gels etc and usually aim for something after the first 10k and then alternate between gels, shot blocks, and dried fruit / nuts every 8-10k, or more frequently if I feel I need it, and more importantly can stomach it – I’ve found on occasions that even my most favourite refueller turns from elixir to papier mache at later points in the run.

Again, you’re looking here to mix the energy giving from sugar or sugar based supplements to some additional protein and/or fats that provide some further fuel to support your running and your focus during those hard later sections of the run. It will also aid your recovery if you can stay ‘topped up’ rather than running on empty. If deciding to take your own think about how you are going to carry it all and test that approach in your training run, something zippable like a running pouch or bum bag is safest as I’ve seen many a lost gel as a result of them being looped over a belt.

Another issue to think through is your hydration approach. Irrespective of the weather on race day you will need to take on fluids to again maintain and support your performance. Dehydration can destroy your race, but so can drinking too much. Again it is pertinent to find out what fluids (water and sports drinks) will be available and where on race day, and as I have found to my chagrin how they are to be provided to you. This can include providing bottles for you to grab as you pass water stations. However, as race organisers seek to improve the ‘efficiency’ of the event this has led to water being provided in pouches and even cups which have then caused further challenges to your race plans as you get used to these approaches. For instance the pouches required a ‘suck and squeeze’ (please resist the smutty gag here) approach that often led to a jet of water being directed unerringly and chokingly down the throat until the technique was perfected 20+ miles in. I haven’t yet had the joy of the cups but remember a complex explanation of how they could be manipulated/folded to best release their contents where intended rather than all over the face of the thirsty runner.

Alternatively you can carry your own supplies in a Camelbak so you carry up to 2 litres in a heavy duty specially designed rucksack containing a water bladder for the entire duration of the race. This is clearly useful when trudging the streets whilst training – where no matter how in need you may look, a random pedestrian who you’ve never met before, is unlikely to extend their arm as you approach, brandishing a helpfully pre-opened bottle of water for you to swig a mere mouthful from before discarding, practically full, to lie at the side of the road.

Yet in a race, if you’ve sussed out how the water will be made available to you, it may be best to leave the Camelbak for the training runs and revel in the lightness of step your rucksack free stance allows.

The key is how much should you drink. For me, it has always been little and often. I train with a Camelbak but come race day I substitute this for a small hand held runners bottle which I fill with water provided at drinks stations. This approach means much less chance of choking on jets of pouch water, though running, filling and lid screwing does take a little practice. However, again make sure you read the medical advice on the race website because they will have hydration advice that will help you come race day.

A recent addition has been the use of espresso shots (caffeine) during races. I have purchased two plastic test tubes with screw lids – though I’ve been informed these are also sample bottles – from a large online retailer. These are filled with a double espresso and provide a caffeine ‘cannon’ at key points in the race that smack me out of focusing completely on my internal dialogue whilst ignoring my careful race plans. I find that taking a first ‘shot’ at around 20-25k and another at around 32-35k really helps bring me back to reality, whacking me through the back of the head (metaphorically of course). Of course coffee and caffeine can have a wide range of effects on people and it may not work for you, but I have found it especially useful helping me to pick up pace when I’ve needed it most. Though it can mean the pace pick up is too great and you spend the final 3-4k regretting your Clooney/Black fuelled blast mid race as you stumble with overly tired legs/stumps those final yards to the finish. However, used wisely they can be another useful addition to your race arsenal if you have practiced its use in training.

So what can I offer on nutrition?

Well practice it as part of your training routine, do your research on what nutrition options are available for your race, appreciate that you will need to refuel and hydrate during the race and plan it as much as your pacing. Get it wrong and you can forget about the pacing and that target time you’ve been working so hard towards. And make it an expected part of your race routine that is familiar to you because you’ve learnt your salutary lesson/s before race day.

And talking of salutary lessons, I’m reminded of how during a recent visit to my in-laws I was mentioning how challenging I found burpees, and how I dismally failed at those I needed to do as part of a recent boot camp experience.

What’s a burpee?” pipes up my 73 year old father in law.

I’ll show you Grandad” says my 8 year old daughter and demonstrates perfectly in the way the flexibility of an 8 year old allows.

Ahh” says father in law, and then he smashes out 5 consecutive burpees in the time it takes me to get down to start my first.

Follow that….


About Simon Tanner

Eight time marathon runner, having run Brighton x6 and London x2, finally got a London ballot place after 7 consecutive attempts. I try to write about things I'm going through / have gone through in training to help others attain their running goals, whatever the distance.
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