Practicing your nutrition and hydration strategy is just as important as getting in the miles.
The main focus for many runners training for a marathon is logging mileage, especially long runs. Runners understand that the success or failure of a marathon race will predominantly be determined by how well they’ve trained. However, many runners often overlook that nailing your nutrition and hydration during the race itself is a significant component to success and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Learning how to drink water without choking while maintaining race pace is definitely an acquired skill. And, unless you’re Allen Iverson, we all need to practice if we want to be our best when it counts.
In this article, we’re going to explain why it’s critical that you spend the time to practice your race day nutrition strategy and also outline some specific, actionable steps you can take to ensure that you’re ready on race day.
The Importance Of Practicing Nutrition
While learning how to eat and drink on the run without choking or having to stop is certainly a primary objective, it’s not the only reason practice is important. It’s also important to teach your body what it feels like to run with a full stomach, take in more fuel and process it efficiently. Also, it’s worth your while to make sure your chosen fuel and beverage sits well in your stomach after 20 miles of hard running.
Training Your Gut
Running with a sloshing or full stomach isn’t something most runners want to inflict on themselves voluntarily. To prevent this from happening on race day, especially if it’s hot and you need to drink more fluids than you normally would, you need to slowly adapt your body to running with a full stomach. With the strategies we’ll outline in the next section, you should slowly be able to teach your stomach to take on more fluids and fuel with less discomfort. If you practice enough, your stomach will be able to handle your fluid and gel intake without issue.
Learn To Take In More
One of the main problems with eating and drinking on the run is that it is difficult for your body to process the nutrition you consume. As you run longer and faster, your body becomes increasingly distressed. As your effort continues to increase, your body diverts energy from non-essential functions like digestion and sends it to your muscles and brain to keep you going at the pace you’re running. Therefore, when you consume those energy gels late in race, it takes much longer for them to get processed into the blood stream where they can then be used by the muscles for energy.
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How To Practice Taking Fluids
Step 1: Decide On Your Fuel Source
The first step is deciding when, how and what you’ll be taking for fuel and fluids during the marathon. Once you’ve got your strategy down, you can practice it more effectively.
Generally speaking, you should be hydrating with 6-8 ounces of water or sports drink every 20 to 30 minutes and taking an energy supplement every 45 to 60 minutes. For more specifics on energy gels, look here.
Based on your specific strategy, you now need to decide how you’ll be eating and drinking. Will you use the cups on the course, bring a bottle with you, or have someone hand you something along the route? This is an important step because learning to drink from a cup while running is an entirely different skill than learning to be comfortable while carrying a water bottle.
Likewise, determining how you will take fluids and fuel will help you decide which products you will be using. If you plan on using the official aid stations, take a look at the race’s website and practice using same flavor gels and sports drinks that they’ll offer on race day. If you’re going to carry your own, make sure you’re carrying flavors that you can tolerate regardless of what mile you take them.
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Step 2: Practice In Race Conditions
Similar to how you should train your body to burn fat as a fuel source, you want to train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running hard. This means that taking fluids and gels while running at an easy pace is not the most effective strategy — it’s not specific to what you’re doing in the race. You need to practice eating and drinking when your body is under duress, like during a marathon-paced run, tempo run, or in the latter stages of your long run. This will specifically train your body to become more efficient at processing nutrition while running hard, which is exactly what you want to accomplish on race day.
Many runners make the mistake of trying to change too many variables at once when they are practicing their nutrition strategy. Think of yourself as a scientist. If you bonked on your last long run, or your combination of fuel and fluids didn’t sit well with your stomach, only change one thing at a time. Like a good scientist, manipulating too many variables at once won’t allow you to understand the actual cause of the problem. Yes, this will require some time, but you should have a 12- to 16-week training block to figure it out!
Step 3: Practice Makes Perfect
You should practice your race day nutrition and hydration strategy as often as logistically possible during your workouts and long runs, especially in the last eight weeks leading up to your race. More importantly, you should schedule at least one, preferably two, “marathon simulation long runs” where you implement the same nutrition and hydration strategy as race day. If you nail it the first time, or if you’re an experienced marathoner and seem to have your strategy down, that’s great. However, leave yourself another chance to practice just in case it doesn’t go well. Even marathon veterans should have one marathon simulation run each training segment, just to make sure everything is still working.
Here’s a practice tip: If you’re going to use the aid stations available on the course and plan on running through the water stops, I suggest heading to the store and picking up some paper cups so you can practice beforehand. Take them to the track or plan a short route around your neighborhood. Fill the cups with water and set them up on a table. Or, if you have young kids who love to “help” you run, you can have them hold the cups for you. Practice running at a little faster than marathon pace, grabbing a cup, and taking a drink. Repeat as part of your workout or easy run. Yes, it’s boring, but you’ll be a pro at drinking from a cup while running at race pace.
I guarantee that the first couple of times you run through your makeshift water stop, most of the water will end up on the ground or up your nose. Here’s a hint: Grab the cup and pinch it “closed” at the top. This will make one end more of a funnel and also prevent the water from splashing out as easily. Also, remember that you don’t have to get all the water down in five seconds. Take your time while drinking and remember to breathe.
As your marathon training begins to get more focused as race day approaches, don’t forget to take the time to plan and practice your nutrition strategy. The marathon is a grueling event and you want to make sure you don’t get caught off guard on race day.