Training: how do you eat while you run?

After an earlier post, in which I was discussing eating during a very long run, one of our readers asked: “how can you carry all that food. I run with 60 ounces of water now. I can’t imagine bringing all that food with me.”

The logistics of eating on the run have two elements to them. One is food choice and the other are the realities of getting access to food. I’ll handle these two issues separately, looking first at how you can actually manage your food and then I’ll come back to choosing foods later. (See associated article on performance eating by clicking here.)

The bottom-line with your race nutrition is simple: you need to eat to keep going. If you don’t replace calories, you eventually run out of gas and hit the wall. But even more importantly, taking in calories during a run helps you feel better, does less damage to your body and helps you recover faster. The harder you hit the wall (or rather the further past your energy stores you go), the worse that you’ll feel afterward.

If you can keep the tank full, you can recover quickly. This is the trick for runners that run marathons on back-to-back days or similar feats of endurance. They have to avoid completely bottoming out and they need to quickly get fuel in the tank after the run to be able to run again the next day.

But with that said, actually getting yourself access to food is a bit of a challenge. I’ll split this discussion into handling workouts and races, because they present separate challenges. In the context of this discussion, “long runs” (or races) here mean runs over three or four hours in length and could extend out to many hours or days.

After figuring out what foods work for you, the next step will be determining how often you need to eat and spreading those foods out over the course of the workout or race. Carrying everything with you on a long run, may be possible, but isn’t practical for two reasons: first, it gets too heavy to carry all of the food and fluid that you’ll need, and second when you have a mass of food with you it gets hard to find what you’re looking for when you’re on the run.

You should always keep in mind that carrying things that you don’t use is a waste of energy. You may have the best intentions to eat or drink something, but if you stuff it into the bottom of a back-pack and never get to it, then you’ve just added weight to yourself for no reason.

Packs, clothing and bottles
The first step is picking a pack and clothing that work with your eating strategy. Typically, I have a medium-sized waist pack that carries most of my food and has at least one or two bottle carriers on the side of it. I know that the items in this pack are less accessible to me, because they are on my back-side, so I know that I’m going to have to slow down to get to them. I usually do this when I’ve stopped to go to the bathroom or when I’m running/walking up a big hill. I’ll loosen the pack, sling it around front, and retighten it for a bit. Then I dig out what I need, eat it, put any trash back in, and slide the pack back around my waist again. You can learn to do this (as with most anything) pretty smoothly while moving fast if you practice. This pack gets replenished at aid stations as I use things out of it.

The next item I have on me is usually a small pouch that I wear on my front. This will mostly contain small items like Gu (gel packs) and my Nuun (electrolyte replacement tablets). I can easily fish these out to get a quick burst of energy or replenish a bottle without stopping or slowing down. These items are critical, because if you’re in need and don’t want to stop, you’ll need to get at the quickly.

Another way that I manage these small items are to use shorts with small pockets on the sides. I can typically cram six to eight Gu packs in the two pockets on the sides of my shorts if I don’t want to carry a front pack. These are handy and quickly accessible.

The final piece of the puzzle are your water bottles. I typically carry one large bottle in my hand and one in a holder on my waist-pack. This gives me the ability to have plenty of fluid between aid stations and to alternate between electrolyte solution and my Gleukos energy drink in the two different bottles. Two bottles of fluid (about 32 ounces) is also not so much fluid that it weighs a ton. The bottles can be filled at aid stations to keep them full.

Packing your food
One piece of advice in dealing with food is to break it down into manageable servings. Cut your PB&J sandwiches in half and pack each half in a separate baggie. Put some chips in a baggie or three or four cookies. You’re going to want to eat in small amounts when you’re on the run. It’s better not to pull out a whole sandwich, take a couple of bites and then throw the rest away. You will just lose a portion of your food supply.

After breaking down your food into servings, pack them in bags to go in each of your aid stations. Think about how often you may visit that aid station and at what point in the run you’ll be. You may want less food in an early aid station, because you won’t be as hungry. Or you might plan to take a longer break at one aid station to eat. You can also throw other items into your food bags, like an extra pair of socks or a blister pads in case you might need those at some point during the run.

Eating during long-workouts
Planning aid stations and food stops is a pain. I’ve used three methods for storing and getting access to my food. I’m sure there are many other ways to handle this, but here are some suggestions:

1) Using multiple cars as aid stations – In our long runs, we use our vehicles as aid stations that we spread along the course. This means that we often have multiple vehicles stocked with food that we have to leave at various points along the run. We try to lay out courses that allow us to access to a car about every 8-10 miles. The vehicles can be locked to keep people or critters from getting into our stuff.

To give you an example, in our run this last weekend, we met at the mid-point of the run and left one car there (#3), then we drove out half-way along the course to leave a second car (#2), and finally drove to the start/finish of the run with the third (#1). We then ran to car #2, continued to car #3, turned around, ran back to car #2 and finished at car #1. This gave us access every 8-10 miles.And note for planning purposes that the stash is car #2 was larger than the others, because we visited that car twice.

I’m the first to admit that this is a total pain, and requires a lot of planning, but it works.

2) Using a home base as an aid-station – Last year when I was training for an Ironman event, I was doing my training solo. I didn’t have the help of other people to support me or to help lay out aid stations. What I typically did was to plan my workouts as multi-loop courses that took me past my house. For example, I had a 20 mile loop that I would do on the bike and I would stop in at my house, refill bottles, grab food, and use the bathroom. I also had a ten mile loop for runs that I used the same way. On my longest bricks (80 miles on the bike and 20 miles running), I was able to visit the house five times to refuel.

This is a really nice way to plan your workouts, but there are two draw-backs. First, if people are home, you’re likely to get interrupted or sucked into something inside. Second, you really need to lay out everything on the porch (or in the garage or somewhere) so that you don’t spend time messing around with things when you get home. You want to treat this like a real aid-station – grab and go.

Another version of this is to take your car somewhere and use a multi-loop course with everything in one car. I’ve done this as well and it works just fine. There are perhaps less distractions than using your home as a base, but you have to be careful to choose terrain that mimics what you’ll be racing on if you’re doing lots of loops of the same course each weekend.

3) The grocery store and restaurant approach – One last and quite effective way of getting food is to carry some cash or your debit card and just stop places along the route to get what you need. This is a great option if you do some advanced planning to know where you’ll find things. It takes more time to make these stops, but it does work. On some of my longest training rides, I’ve often stopped at Subways that I see on the route. A quick stop for a 6” sandwich only takes a couple of minutes (less than ten) and is really energizing.

There are surely more ways to do this, but the bottom line is that with a little planning you can restock your pantry quickly and frequently to keep fuel at your fingertips when you need it.

Races
In most long distance races, you’ll have two further options: aid stations and drop bags.

Aid stations in most races longer than a marathon will have some food in them. Always find out what foods the organizers plan on having in the aid stations and carry what you’ll need in addition to these foods. Also make sure that if you can’t live without something, you supply it yourself. In an Ironman race in 2006, the race organizer quite assuredly said at the pre-race meeting: “we have plenty of food in the aid stations, don’t worry about carrying it yourself.” Unfortunately, the aid-stations ran completely out of food on my third lap of the bike course – and most of the field was on their second lap behind me. That would have been a disaster, but I had made my own arrangements, so it was not a problem for me.

Drop bags (or special needs bags) are a second option in most longer races. At Ironman events and ultras, you are typically allowed to pack bags that you’ll have access to at intervals along the way. You should always find out what those intervals are and plan accordingly. In most Ironman races, you’ll have access to a special needs bag once during the bike and once during the run, this being in addition to whatever you have in your transition bags.

Closing comments
I’ll close by adding that it is always better to pack too much food to put in your aid stations or special needs bags than to run short. In nearly every long workout or race I do, I have left over sandwiches, chips, and cookies. It’s just really hard to predict which foods your body is going to like under a particular set of conditions. You may love some food while training and just have a day when that food sounds totally unappealing. It’s always best to have some food choices in different categories: salty, sweet, starchy, hard, soft – to give yourself some alternatives if things aren’t working as planned.

Finally, if you find that something terrible has gone wrong with your digestive track, you need to think and work through the situation and not ignore it. I recall a race where I ate something that didn’t agree with me that led to complete and total diarrhea. This would have knocked most people of the race. But I stayed calm and experimented with foods until I started getting something down. Yes, I spent a lot of time in the Porta-potties, but I made it through the event by managing the situation.

Put some thought into your workout and racing plans and you’ll have a real competitive advantage. As I said at the start of this article, the better you eat, the better you’ll feel.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

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2 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Training: the performance eating continuum « Running Wild with Coach Joe June 21st, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    [...] Associated articles: Training: wow, you eat a lot when you run! Training: how do you eat while you run? [...]

  2. 2. andie1304 June 23rd, 2007 at 4:50 am

    An interesting article. I’m a novice long-distance runner and I take the grocery/drug store approach. I’d normally carry a few packs of power gel with me on my long runs and get my water or sports drink from the stores. I’ve not tried solid foods as they tend to make my stomach uncomfortable when I’m running.

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