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Less Is More: The Blogfather’s Approach to Nutrition

Posted by Filed Under: Nutrition

Article Summary: This is part one of debate on long run/marathon fueling strategies. In part one, Mark Iocchelli put forward the case for a minimalist approach to fueling (less is more). In part two, Steve Runner takes the opposite view – that fueling on the run is the advisable strategy. In part three, Lee Miller discusses how the body metabolizes food for energy.

In one corner, we have the Running Blogfather—a seven-time marathon veteran and passionate builder of the Running Blog Family. In the other corner, we have Steve Runner, a 15-marathon veteran and the golden voice behind Phedippidations—arguably one of the best and most-loved running podcasts on the net. When it comes to the long run and marathon fueling, these two have opposing views. Let’s see them duke it out for your vote of which approach is right!

The Blogfather Approach to Fueling

Running BlogfatherI used to be like Steve, but I eventually saw the light and weaned myself from weenie fueling strategies. My basic approach for long run and marathon fueling is:

  1. Prior to Long Runs: I eat a pasta meal two to three hours before the run.
  2. During Long Runs: I don’t eat anything. No gels, no bars, no Gatorade. I drink water.
  3. Prior to Marathons: Like most people, I carbo-load the day before, and eat “normally” two to three hours prior to the marathon. I also hydrate really well with water and Gatorade for the three hours prior to the race.
  4. During Marathons: See #2 above and add the fact that I drink a gulp or two of water at each water station—more on a hot day.

Why No Fuel During Runs?

I’ll get to specifics in a moment, but please permit me to share a bit of my running philosophy first. As I’ve aged matured, I’ve found myself getting cranky rejecting more and more of the advice I’ve gotten from Runner’s World Magazine traditional sources of running information. I used to buy into all the “stuff.” I thought I needed the best shoes, the latest trends and, yes, even the best fuels. Over time, I gradually ditched all those dependencies and became a “minimalist” runner—someone who believes that less is more. Someone who believes that most of the stuff runners buy have little value except to the corporations selling it (there goes all CRN’s future advertisers!).

So, what do my minimalist ways say about fueling?

  1. Take It “Old School”: I’m passionate about getting to the finish line “au naturelle.” I want the challenge of finishing with the fuel I’ve got stored in my body. I like the idea that me and the guy Steve’s podcast is named after don’t stop for gels.
  2. Be Purposeful: I believe the long run serves a few purposes. First, it builds endurance. Second, it depletes our glycogen stores so that our body stores more for the next long run. Third, it teaches our body to burn fat once we’ve depleted those glycogen stores. Guess what happens if you feed your body a gel during a long run? It doesn’t learn how to switch to fat!
  3. fatman1.jpgLet Real Heroes Do the Hero Work: My heroes are glycogen & fat. This dynamic duo has a relationship. Glycogen fights fatigue to the 20-22 mile mark—and tags fat to stave off fatigue’s partner: total exhaustion. We want to get good at burning fat! What happens when you use a fake gel or bar hero? They get between the critical tag that happens between glycogen and fat and the battle gets messy. You see, those fakers are just not the long-lasting, stable source of fuel that fat is. Using them leads to…
  4. Yo-Yo Ma Ma!: You’re body is running out of glycogen, it’s getting ready to switch to fat and then a gel gets thrown into the mix. Now what? You’re blood sugar levels spike and then DROP. Now you’re worse off than you were before you took the gel. I guess you shoulda just let fat take over.
  5. A Marathon Is No Place for Change: So now maybe you’re thinking this all makes pretty good sense but there’s no way you won’t eat something during a marathon. My advice? If it got you to 20 miles, it’ll get you to 26.2—especially when you consider the fact that the taper will supply you with more glycogen than you had on any of your long runs.

Prove It Mr. Smarty Pants

It would be easy for me to just tell you to do this and not back it up wouldn’t it? Ok, I will! First, let me enlist some professional help from famed running coach Greg McMillan (from the article where I first heard about low/no fueling):

Any carbohydrates ingested will be used by the body for fuel, and we don’t want this. We want to deny the body carbohydrates in these runs so that the muscles will become better at sparing the carbohydrate stores, more efficient at burning fat and used to running with lowered blood glucose levels. Now, many people think I’m crazy when I say this, but it works. It takes time to get adjusted to it if you have always been carbing up before and during your long runs, but with time and practice you can do it.

And here’s my own testimonial:

    Fueling: I ran six marathons. I finished at almost exactly four hours at each of them except one. My personal best was a 3:42 and was run on what is called “the flattest course in Canada.”
    No-Fueling: I ran a 3:38 (a new PB) on May 20th on the hardest, hilliest course I’ve ever run a marathon on. Of course, I also changed form/technique, shoes and how I trained for that marathon too—but those are discussions for another day.

Words of Caution

Even though I believe strongly in the no-fueling approach, it would be irresponsible for me to tell you to immediately stop fueling on long runs. If you currently fuel on long runs, please adopt this approach very gradually so your body can adapt.

Bonus Round!

The last and, for some of you, best enticement I might be able to give to do long runs sans-fuel is this: You will lose more weight. That 100 or so calories you ingest in a gel is 100 calories you could have burned from that bulge around your middle. I know people who eat three or four gels during one long run (I used to be one of them).

You do the math.

About Mark Iocchelli

Also known as the "Running Blogfather", I'm a 40-something marathoner who has beaten stress fractures and terrible shin splints. Now I'm running double the mileage with no pain - and I'm getting faster. I love to talk about running form and Arthur Lydiard. I also enjoy taking photographs, have a beautiful (and very patient!) wife, and am the proud father of two crazy kids. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about the site.



16 Comments
  1. Melisa (Irish Blue) on June 19th at 7:54 am

    While training for my half marathon, I used sports beans and Gatorade during my first long run. I had such a bad stomach ache, that I ended up doing the other runs with just water or water/propel. I ran the half faster than I expected on several water stops, but only one Gatorade stop.

    Now I’m training for a marathon and struggling with this whole fueling thing, primarily because I’m also hypoglycemic.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll have to experiment with fueling early on in my training to see what works best for me.

  2. Run to Win on June 19th at 9:18 am

    Do you refuel during your marathons?

    At Complete Running, Mark Iocchelli and Steve “Runner” Walker are debating about whether or not you should refuel during a marathon or whether you should just stick to water. Both make some good points, but I definately side with Steve on …

  3. Adeel on June 19th at 5:21 pm

    Mark, the McMillan article also says:

    Also unlike the long, slow run, you want to eat carbs before and during this run. P lease note that I just said I DO recommend carbohydrates before and during the fast finish long runs. This point has been overlooked by many runners. In fact, you want to mimic the exact nutrition plan that you will do during the marathon. It’s likely that you’ll have sports drinks every two miles. You may also be carrying energy with you so practice your plan.

    On long runs with any intensity (such as a 42-kilometre race), you definitely need to be taking in some sugar. There are benefits to not taking in calories while training, but I can’t see how not taking in sugar helps in a race.

    The goal isn’t to run the race as naturally as possible, but to run the race as fast as possible.

    I had about a cup of Gatorade every four kilometres in my marathon. That probably works out to no more than 200 calories, I’m guessing, but it still did help.

  4. Mark Iocchelli on June 19th at 5:25 pm

    Adeel,

    I don’t think I said not to take anything in before the run? Did I?

  5. Adeel on June 19th at 5:36 pm

    You didn’t, but that still leaves taking in calories during the run.

  6. Mark Iocchelli on June 19th at 5:43 pm

    Well, I also mentioned my goal was to do it as fast as I could naturally. Your point was that it’s not about doing it naturally – it’s about doing it as fast as you can. So, our goals are not exactly the same.

    My other point was that I did not want to do anything differently during the marathon than I did in training.

    I am still intrigued with the idea of training my body to cover the distance AND do it as fast as I can.

    Color me crazy.

  7. Adeel on June 19th at 6:08 pm

    Don’t worry Mark, I already have.

    Since I have your attention and you didn’t reply to my email, when and where is your next marathon?

  8. aj on June 19th at 7:04 pm

    :)!!!! me too me too!! after switching over from team in training to my multiSport group i realized how ridiculously over-Gu’d i was. it was unreal.

    no WONDER i was gaining weight during training, i was taking in far too many calories *during* the run.

    since then i’ve slowly weened myself off and plan on running my next half on water/gatorade alone.

    au’natral is where its AT!

  9. Jessica on June 19th at 7:38 pm

    Hmm… I can sorta see the side of not taking in Gatorade, calories, etc. I think that can work for marathon and shorter distances (if you are a sub-4-hour marathoner). The danger with slower marathons and longer distances is, of course, hyponotremia. Adding something like Nuun to you water in longer runs and races can be very valuable. It has no calories but does have electrolytes and can help prevent any imbalance from taking place.

  10. Jon (was) in Michigan on June 19th at 8:24 pm

    I have always felt that less fueling during the long runs trains your body to store more. That said, I’m not sure that taking in nothing but water during the marathon is a good thing. Glycogen aside, the one thing you are losing is sodium and potassium, particularly during the hot weather marathons. I’m pretty sure that will stop you in your tracks, especially since you cannot store sodium to any great extent. If your marathon is during a colder season, you may be ok. Folks headed to Disney should definately be taking in something with electrolytes, particularly if they are out there for extended times.

  11. Mark Iocchelli on June 19th at 9:43 pm

    Those are good points, Jon and Jessica.

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