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What to eat/drink during long runs (half marathon training)?

Hi Georgie!  I asked this question of my Lean Eating coach and received some good information, but I am curious as to your response as well because I know you are a runner.

I am going to start training for a few half-marathons soon. Since my mileage will be increasing soon along with the length of my workouts, I’m starting to think about workout fuel. My long run training pace is fairly slow (~11:00 min/mile) so my longer runs will be nearing the 2 hour mark. I like to have some kind of nutrition during these runs. I don’t worry so much if I’m doing 8 miles or less. In the past, I used Sports Beans or a gel and drank water. What can I do now that is PN friendly with fat loss as a goal? My coach recommended a mix of something like 15g carbohydrate, 7.5g protein, and 5g BCAAs for every hour of training. What do you use for fuel during runs? If you use something with protein – does it carry well during your runs? I have a CamelBak fanny pack device that I use for sipping during the run. I don’t know how a protein drink would hold up in there over a few hours.  Thanks for any tips!   Kia

Hi Kia! Training for a long race is a great experience, and what you choose to eat and drink while training can help you finish the race feeling great! (And you can even take goofy finish line photos like me – this was at the RU Unite Half Marathon in April).  In short, I don’t typically consume any protein during my long runs, but stick to easily digested carbs (either gels or sports drink) and water. Actually, I tend to not take in carbohydrates on training runs and rely on them for the race only.

There are mixed opinions on carbohydrate intake for endurance sports. The prevailing sports nutrition wisdom has been “The more carbs, the better”. While this works to some extent for some individuals, it can also make it hard to shed fat, which you mentioned as one of your goals. Some athletes ascribe to an opposite tactic, known as “Train low, race high. They believe that by training your body to perform without exogenous carbohydrate you will increase your ability to oxidize fat. Some people take this philosophy so far as to deplete their glycogen stores before running long distances, to train themselves to run on low reserves of carbohydrate. Well, in my experience, without enough glycogen I simply can’t get through the long runs, so what works for me is a middle-ground tactic. I don’t pack in the carbs, (to avoid packing on the pounds) but I also don’t torture myself by trying to run with no glycogen in my tank.

Personally, I simply don’t want to take in more sugar than I have to, and if I’m going to eat carbs, I want something yummier than a sports drink!  I aim to maximally replenish my glycogen stores after every training session by including ample carbs and some protein ASAP after training. (Usually 40-100 g carbs in the 3 hour post workout window, depending on the workout, 40 g would be for an hour of training, and I increase from there.) Post-workout is when I focus on consuming most of my highest carb foods like bread, oatmeal or high carb bars. I keep my glycogen stores full between workouts by eating small frequent meals, each with slow digesting carbohydrates from vegetables, legumes, and the occasional fruit. I have a good meal before I run too, and never run on an empty stomach. With this preparation in place, I find I can get through even long workouts without needing sports drink or gel.  And I’m much happier eating some bread, pasta or cereal for my carbs than drinking sugar water.

Including protein or amino acids DURING training may help diminish muscle breakdown, but research hasn’t really shown any performance benefits of having protein+ carbs instead of carbohydrates only. Protein can, however, cause gastric upset in many people because it slows the rate of stomach emptying. (And gastric upset is something I deal with all too often.) The more protein % in your drink, the more likely digestive troubles will ensue. I don’t see any performance benefit since protein doesn’t supply much of the energy needs during long runs, and in my own experience I haven’t felt any better when I tried gels with protein included. I am always mindful of the calories I consume (yes, even when marathon training!) so I only want the calories that I need to push through those last few miles – and those are carbs, the fastest, most digestible fuel for my aching muscles. So I save my protein drink for after the run, but I get to it right away, to stop catabolism and start repairing muscle.

I have never taken BCAA, so I’m sorry I can’t give you any firsthand experience there. I would expect them to be easier to digest than protein, so you might want to try just BCAA + carb if you have tummy trouble with the higher protein %. I say give the mix your coach suggested a try. If you feel good and don’t have any digestion issues, then stick with it! If you feel you need more carbohydrate and don’t want to include more calories, I’d swap some of the protein for more carbohydrate. Same goes if you have stomach trouble.

On the portability issue, I wouldn’t want to drink a dairy based protein drink during the run, simply due to taste. You might find Isopure or another fruity protein drink more tolerable if you do want to consume protein on the run. You could mix it with maltodextrin or a premixed sports drink like Gatorade. (I do recommend getting some sodium and potassium in your drinks, especially in hot weather.) I always know I’m electrolyte depleted after a run because I get a very specific headache in the front of my skull, above/behind my eyeballs. Potassium containing foods seem to ease this, but I don’t have scientific data to back it up. 🙂

Hope this all helps! As most runners will tell you, the same fueling strategies don’t work for everyone, but hopefully you have a starting point to find the best solution for you. Write back anytime and good luck training!

  • Romano-Ely BC, Todd MK, Saunders MJ, St. Laurent TG. Effects of an isocaloric carbohydrate-protein-antioxidant drink on cycling performanceMed Sci Sports Exerc. 2006;38(9):1608–1616.
  • Valentine RJ, Saunders MJ, Todd MK, St. Laurent TG. Influence of carbohydrate-protein beverage on cycling endurance and indices of muscle disruption. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008;18(4):363–378.
  • Ivy JL, et al. Effect of a carbohydrate-protein supplement on endurance performance during exercise of varying intensity. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003;13(3):382–395.
  • Saunders MJ, Kane MD, Todd MK. Effects of a carbohydrate-protein beverage on cycling endurance and muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(7):1233–1238.
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    • keyalus July 27, 2010, 5:55 am

      Thanks so much for you answer and I love the picture!

      I think I will stick to what worked in the past and focus on making better nutrition choices before and after my run. I really worry about stomach upset and I know protein drinks don’t sit too well with me even when I’m NOT running. I was fine in past half-marathons with a package of Sports Beans and plain old water to make it through.

    • Andy Campbell July 23, 2010, 4:59 pm

      I was just like Kia and the question itself – I did not pay much attention to fueling for training runs and ran around the same pace. It caught up to me at the Half itself. I definitely needed a better fuel & hydration plan and it hurt me late in that run. If I get up to those miles again in the future I would test out a few types of snacks on the runs – gels, beans, etc. and pick one that works and does not upset my stomach.

    • The Rabbit Runner July 23, 2010, 5:45 am

      great post, as usual!! i really love your advice. I honestly could never do a long run with no fuel in the tank, thats why I love having breakfast first! I find a bagel with pb & cream cheese works best for me.

      I did notice that when I had protein pre-run it really upset my stomach while running so now I know why!

    • Chuck July 22, 2010, 10:35 pm

      As you said, everyone is differnet and all bodies respond differntly. But for endurance athletes, carbs ARE so important to include, however, as you said, if someone is looking to lose weight, the ideal way would be to make caloric restriction at other times of the day, but not to restrict at all around their workouts. This means getting in good quality carbohydrates before a workout and also plenty of carbs and protein afterward so that you body can repair and recover. Otherwise, all performance and improvements will be lost even though someone may be losing weight.

      Great post Georgie- love the picture!

    • admin July 22, 2010, 7:02 pm

      Haha thanks AC 🙂 Any tips to add? what did you do when training for the half?

    • Andy Campbell July 22, 2010, 5:53 pm

      Great post Georgie! And one of my all-time favorite photos…you are too funny.