Marathon training is hard. There’s no getting around it. You run just about every day, and to top it off, you’ve got those long runs to conquer. While there’s a certain calm that comes when you finally hit your stride, there’s just the sheer amount of time that you’re running. And when you run for that long, anywhere between 10 and 20 miles, you get tired. We’ve all hit that wall, when your legs feel like jello and you’re trudging through mud.

The problem is you’re not even close to marathon length yet. You drink water religiously, you fuel properly before your run, but you’re still bonking at about mile 12. So what exactly is the issue, and how can you fix it?

It all comes down to mid-run fuel. But before we get into that, let’s break down the science a little bit:

When you’re running, your body fuels your muscles with two things: carbohydrates, and fat. Unfortunately, once you get up to marathon pace, your body breaks down fat too slowly to be any great help to you, making carbs your primary source of racing fuel.

That’s all fine and good, except your muscles can only store so many carbohydrates, no matter how prepared you are. Optimally, your body can store about 2 hours worth of these carbohydrates, or glycogen, at marathon pace. That’s why it’s necessary to refuel at some point during the race.

But what do you refuel with?

There are actually a lot of options for runners these days. While some people prefer to stick with natural options, like bananas, oranges, or raisins, energy gels and chews have taken over the market for mid run fueling.

Energy gels and chews, as well as sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, contain high levels of sugar, electrolytes, and most importantly carbohydrates, that are super-concentrated to give you the boost you need to get through that run. Some of them even have caffeine, which stimulates your brain and your adrenaline rush, making it feel like you can do more and run farther.

All of these energy products are really useful, and key to a great race, but you have to approach them properly if you want to reap the benefits.

So how do you integrate energy chews, gels, or sports drinks into your run?

This may come as no surprise to you, but every runner is different. Some people break down carbs quickly, and may feel the effects of an energy gel as quick as three minutes after ingesting them, while for others it takes 15 minutes.

What’s more, every energy gel, chew, and drink is different. They all have different amounts of carbs, protein, sodium, and potassium, some have caffeine, and depending on your body, and your natural eating habits, each one will affect you differently.

Since most of these products are largely composed of sugar and super concentrated ingredients, they can be hard on sensitive stomachs, especially when you’re running. That’s why it’s really important to know what energy products work for best for you, and how you can optimize their use to help you bust through that “hit-the-wall” feeling.

What you Need

Some people think that you need to replenish your body’s stores as quickly and fully as possible. Unfortunately this is implausible, and will probably hurt you in the long run. Most people burn anywhere from 400 to 800 calories an hour when running. It’s not practical to try and refuel for all of those lost calories while you’re running, because your digestive system can only handle so much while you’re running. Which leads us to our next point:

Don’t Overdo It

Since your digestive system can only take so much, and your body can only process so much sugar at once, it’s important that you don’t overdo it on the carbohydrate boosters. If you do, you’ll just end up making yourself sick, or you’ll be uncomfortably bloated for the rest of your race.

Start Early

In most cases, if you’re going to be running for more than an hour, it makes sense to start the refuel process about 30 minutes in. You definitely don’t want to wait until you’re hungry to start chugging sports drinks, or downing chews, because at that point it will be too late. It’s really difficult to come back from empty, which is why you need to start refueling before your body is completely depleted of its carbohydrate stores.

Correct Use

If you’re using energy gels and chews, absolutely chase those bad boys with water. Like we said before, your body can only absorb so many carbs at once, and chews and gels are so concentrated that if you don’t dilute them with water, they’ll just sit in your stomach. Which is not a pleasant feeling, and ends up doing you more harm than good. DO NOT chase your energy gels or chews with energy or sports drinks. That will just flood your body with more carbs and sugars, which will leave you feeling sick and unable to run well.

Practice

Energy gels and chews are tricky. They’re all very different, taste different, and they’ll all affect you differently. It’s important to try all of your options until you find a combination that works for you. Some chews or gels might taste awful, and some might leave you feeling sick. You need to figure that out before you get to race day, or you’re not going to have an easy time.

Practice Smart

When you’re testing out your perfect race nutrition plan, you need to make sure you’re doing it in a smart way. If you bonked on your last run, it’s not a good idea to change your pre-run breakfast, add 3 gels to your program and two extra bottles of energy drink. Pick one thing to change, and see how it affects you. From there you can keep adapting your program, one aspect at a time, until you have the perfect setup for you. If you change a bunch of things all at once, you won’t know what worked or what really messed you up, and you’ll be back to square one.

Everyone’s program is different. Some people use a combo of water, sports drinks, and gels, while others just stick to water and energy bars. You just have to find out what gives you the biggest boost! What’s most important to remember is you can’t be afraid of negative effects. At some point, you’re probably going to bonk a long run, but it’s really just practice for the real deal anyway. And if you don’t mess up once in awhile, how can you learn what works, and what doesn’t?

So, go out, and work on your own program. Remember to start small, and add in energy boosts as you need them. As long as you work to figure out what helps you the most, you’ll be good to go come race day. And if you need any new gear for your next run, check out the great selection of quality, brand name products at Earth’s Edge. We’ve got everything you’ll need come race day, from workout gear to those energy gels themselves!

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