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
- Prior to Long Runs: I eat a pasta meal two to three hours before the run.
- During Long Runs: I don’t eat anything. No gels, no bars, no Gatorade. I drink water.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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!
- Let 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…
- 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.
- 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.
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.