Don’t Sweat It: Marathon Fueling Made Simple

All Photos: Scott Draper

If you were to randomly survey 10 marathoners about their biggest concerns heading into a goal race, it’s a good bet that at least half of them would list bonking or dehydration as their top worries. It makes sense—26.2 miles is a long way to run and a long time for your body to be working at an elevated level.

Executing an effective fueling and hydration strategy is a crucial element in races lasting more than two hours, both because you can easily get dehydrated during that time and you will burn through your glycogen (or energy) stores if you aren’t re-
fueling. For that reason, running a marathon is much different than running a half marathon.It is very important to have a fueling strategy heading into a marathon, but putting an emphasis on specific amounts of fluid and a precise number of calories can overcomplicate things—partially because there isn’t an exact science to fueling for a marathon. Also, there are many variables that can alter your body chemistry on race day—what you ate for breakfast, how hydrated you were to start the race, along with the race-day temperature and humidity level.

Lee Troop, a three-time Australian Olympian and high-performance coach for the Boulder Track Club, says that the last thing you want to worry about on race day is whether or not you ingested a specific number of calories or amount of fluid. The most crucial thing during a race is that you are taking in fluids at every aid station.

“It’s an important consideration,” Troop says of fueling and hydration during a marathon. “But we don’t want to overcomplicate it. Throughout the race, it’s mainly just hydration and topping off the tank.”

Proper nutrition and hydration for the marathon can be confusing concepts because there’s an overwhelming amount of information available out there about things like nutrient timing, simple and complex carbohydrates, and high- and low-glycemic foods. Not to mention a myriad of complex formulas for determining how much to eat and drink, plus an endless grocery list of food suggestions and fueling strategies aimed at helping you achieve optimal energy levels. It’s a lot to digest.

The truth is, every runner has different and specific nutritional needs for optimal performance. The best ways to find out what works for you are by experimenting through trial and error, and making fueling practice a regular part of your marathon-specific workouts. Simulating race-pace scenarios in practice is the best way to do that, says Ben Rosario, head coach of the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite training group.

“What’s getting you to the finish line is being efficient at marathon pace and getting economical at that rhythm—not how many carbs you get in during the race,” Rosario says.

Over the following pages, Rosario and Troop shed some light on three tried-and-true approaches for developing an effective marathon fueling and hydration strategy. Apply them to your own training, so that when you step to the starting line of your next big race, your biggest concerns don’t revolve around how much you should eat and drink.

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