“What’s your fueling strategy?” a question endurance athletes are often faced with, and most of the time have a pretty reputable answer. Yet for some, the solution to this caloric dilemma remains unknown causing stress and continued GI distress. For those unfortunate enough to know the hardship that is throwing up in the darkest hours of a hundred mile race or depressingly relinquishing control of their bowels a mere twenty miles into a fifty-mile race, I too feel your pain.
Every (running) body requires unique nutritional needs. While this is both over and under stated depending on which social circles you circulate between, it’s important to underscore that there are baseline guides for how much we need to replenish while running, and the way we take in those calories looks different on different people. This is a brilliant write-up on the science of fueling that I highly recommend skimming through. It’s been widely accepted that the science promotes taking in on average 200-300 calories per hour, along with somewhere in the ball park of 10-12oz of water.
On paper, this seems “simple”. An energy gel every thirty minutes or a few sips of saturated sports drink within the hour to keep your body moving forward towards whatever finish line. Easy enough. But what happens to those of us who are plagued by a weird inability to adhere to this, “norm”?
I often feel embarrassed when talking about my experiences because it has a (trail) record of never being consistent. Some days it seems like my legs and my body are working in perfect harmony, steel legs and iron gut type of conjunction. Others days it feels like my belly has a different agenda, bloated and sour, unwilling to settle. As a woman with a hankering for trail exploration and a love for exhausted legs on a Saturday afternoon, how am I supposed to cope with the reality that pretty much nothing seems to work?
Listen to your cravings. This has never been something I’ve been great at, but for those of us who don’t have the luxury of adhering to formulaic fueling strategies, honoring my cravings seems to be the closest form of perfecting my own fueling strategy.
How does this work? Simply ask yourself, what might I want on today’s run? Keeping in mind that sources of energy like fat and protein are a bit slower to digest, hone in on foods that are easier on the gut but also taste good too. For me that means salty. From salty I move on to easy to store, tasty snacks that have a convenient serving size distinction to make sure I’m getting in enough. Que, potato chips or pretzels. A wonderful marriage of those two are Glutinos pretzels as they substitute potato starch for wheat to make it gluten free. It tastes like a potato chip/pretzel hybrid. I’m not gluten free, but I genuinely prefer the taste of these pretzels to conventional ones, and find that they actually sit well with me on the run. Check.
Pack delicacies. A hidden peanut butter cup stashed in the depths of your pack, a single serving of gummy bears or sour patch kids, a handful of M&M’s; anyway to top off your energy stores and give you something to look forward to while keeping calories high and providing a micro dose of sweet tasting motivation. In addition to prepping food-food that you know you’ll have a craving for, it’s never a bad idea to alternate the sources of calories. Try using a hydration drink mix to give your jaw and or tummy a break from chewing while still getting down calories. If you suffer from nausea, sometimes it just means finding various solutions.
It feels as though there is a widely contested debate between whether it’s better to eat “food” or eat “sports nutrition” in endurance activities. Being that I am not a scientist and speaking only from past experiences, I can honestly admit that both work and both have their downfalls. When I’m really grooving, sometimes an energy gel every thirty minutes works perfectly. When I’m out on a long run adventure, pretzels are my salty jam. Sometimes those things work, and sometimes they don’t. But if I can impress any one strategy on learning how to figure out what works, it would be to quit listening to everyone else’s opinions and simply try it for yourself. Test out various nutrition brands, test out various snacks (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cold pizza in your running pack) and take stock of how you felt after both.
The bottom line of endurance running is that you need energy to do it. It’s so simple and so complex. The more you eat, the better you’ll feel. Cast aside those far-fetched articles that professional athletes push around “training fasted” or “running at a deficit.” Please do not watch YouTube videos of Killian Jornet running 104 miles across rocky ridge-lines on two sandwiches and seven sports gels; you are not Killian Jornet. When you feel cranky on a run, eat. When you feel tired, eat. When your body starts to feel sore, eat. When you start counting the half-miles, eat.
Eat enough and you’ll summit mountains. Eat enough and you’ll cross 100-mile finish lines. Eat enough and you’ll remember that you started running to unleash this amazing bodily accomplishment that comes with summiting peaks you never thought possible or exploring back-countries you never thought you would.
When you eat enough both on and off the trail, food suddenly isn’t the most all-consuming thing in the world. Food is meant to be enjoyed, not fixated over. But as soon as you start eating enough, you’ll stop scrutinizing every calorie and measuring the nutrition density of a banana versus apple and you’ll start living life a little more fully. And that’s why “perfecting your fueling strategy,” is sometimes just code for getting your shit together around simply eating enough.