Fueling for a long run is a challenge that we all face from time to time. I am not sure there is anything worse than getting out on a long run or ride and starting to feel slower because your blood sugar is dropping. You know the feeling — your whole body gets tired and you start slowing down and there seems like there is nothing that you can do about it. I rode 60 miles on Saturday and killed the out section, but of course I had to turn around and come home. Miles 55 to 60 were pretty tough because I had not brought enough fuel for three hours. I ate before the ride and thought that I could get by with two bottles instead of three. That small mistake made me push really hard for those last five miles and if I had to run off that ride, it would have been tough. Bonking is not fun. Ever.
I did write a basic overview last year of nutrition strategies and how to avoid a bonk, but I want to talk specifically about how to fuel up during your long workouts.
When running, the number of calories you burn are dependent on the distance you cover and your weight. Your speed or time have nothing to do with it. Of course, the faster you run the more calories you will burn each hour. Runner’s World has a great calorie calculator on their site (click on the link) that asks you to input your weight and the distance run. Personally, I weigh 185 lbs. right now and according to the calculator, I burn about 140 calories per mile when I run. I use a Garmin Edge 500 and according to my months of tracking the data, I burn a little less than 800 calories per hour when I am biking. If I run my typical 7.1 mph, I am burning just under 1,000 calories per hour when I am on a long run.
There is no way that my body could absorb that many calories in an hour to replenish the energy expenditures required for a run or a ride. Every body is different, and bodies can absorb anywhere between 250-325 calories per hour. When I am in the middle of the season, mine can get up to about 300 calories. So that leaves me with a significant deficit. Fueling up before your run or ride is the only way you can hope to get through a workout of two or more hours. There are lots of great ideas out there related to pre and post-workout fueling, and we will talk about those another day. Today I want to review the strategies of the people I know.
Eat Up People
I swear I have tried about everything during workouts of 3+ hours with varying results. I also have friends who have some interesting strategies to intake their 300 calories per hour during a long workout.
George Gel Eater — This is the person who is usually responsible for the foil packets that line your favorite route. I am sure they have good intentions and want to come back and pick up their garbage after their run or ride, but time just gets away from them. Gels are convenient, compact, and pack a punch. The challenge that I have with them is they do require water to wash them down and decrease their osmolality (basically its concentration) to a level that will allow them to be absorbed. The problem I faced when I used gels during long workouts was I had a tough time getting the balance of gel to water right. I constantly felt bloated and like the gel was just stuck in my stomach. If you can’t absorb the calories consumed, then they are doing you no good. That and for a five hour ride I had to take 10 with me.
Peter PowerBar — I have a buddy who tried to fuel most of his long rides with PowerBars. While I love a PowerBar in the middle of a ride, using these as your only source of calories can be dangerous for the same reasons as gels. It is tricky to get the bar to water concentration right. And then what happens if you forget to eat your bar. I personally prefer a ProBar, but they have 350+ calories each. My personal preference is to consume nutrition every 30 minutes, so opening a ProBar and eating half can be tricky. If you like solid food in your stomach, some type of bar may be the best approach for you. During a run, I don’t love solids, but during a ride I crave them after three hours. The best solution for me is a ProBar.
Liquid Mike — Yeah, I had to make the list. This is my blog and this is certainly a vanity piece. Regardless, I feel using liquid nutrition is the easiest way to consume calories during a long workout. My brain doesn’t always work at 100% capacity during a long workout, so having my nutrition premade takes the guesswork out of calorie consumption. I mix Infinit with water so that each water bottle contains 275 calories and I target drinking one bottle per hour. I have tried using powdered Gatoraide, HEED, Perpetuem, and just about every other powdered drink out there with various results. I didn’t love Gatoraide and HEED and Perpetuem were alright. My buddy Jason from the fitness blog Cook, Train, Eat, Race sent me some Herbalife24 Prolong. The Infinit I use and the Prolong both use carbs and protein for their calorie sources and include electrolytes to help in absorption. I am scheduled to test the Herbalife24 Prolong this week on some shorter rides of 30 miles. I have been using Infinit for several years and absolutely trust the quality and results I get out of that product.
Freaky Frank — This is that guy in your circle of friends who tries some of the weirdest things out there. Now, I admit that I have fallen into this category. When I did LOTOJA in 2011 I had cut, boiled, and salted red potatoes that I ate by the pound. That was a 12 hours in the saddle day, so I had to eat something solid. I also made a modified California style roll that had scrambled eggs and ham rolled in rice and Nori. I didn’t love the taste of the Nori while riding, so that hit the cutting room floor. When I am riding an organized century with my buddies, I really like to raid the sandwich trays and roll lunchmeat and cheese up together and I eat those until I can’t eat anymore. When we stop at convenience stores to refill on water, I will usually buy a packet of lunchmeat and just eat it plain. For some reason it always sounds good.
Why This Discussion Matters
I love talking training and the strategies we all use to reach peak performance. I would really like you to leave a comment related to nutrition during your long runs and rides. I think we all have something to contribute to this discussion and I would really appreciate your comments and ideas. There are always beginner triathletes, runners, and cyclists who lurk here, so share your strategies that work and those that do not as well.