Training Fuel: What (if anything) Do I Need?
By Ally Bowersock, PhD, CSCS
So many fueling options, how do you know what (if anything) to pick?
Aside from WATER which is crucial for overall health, not just optimal performance, should you ingest any kind of fuel during your run? How much? Which kind? The answers to these questions is highly individualized to each person, however there are some general guidelines you can follow that will help you in narrowing down the myriad choices out there regarding sports nutrition.
To start, we look to registered dietitians with specialty training in sports nutrition to give evidence-based guidance on what could be best for all and then for more specific needs. Marni Sumbal, a friend of the store and author of several fantastic resources for athletes and triathletes, outlines the general guidelines for fueling in her book Essential Sports Nutrition. For low-intensity workouts lasting under 75 minutes, ingestion of only water is sufficient unless sweat loss is significant in which case an electrolyte solution would be ideal. For the same timeline of workout but a moderate to high intensity of workout, liquid carbohydrates could be beneficial.
For activities lasting up to 2.5 hours, 30-60 grams of carbohydrates, 250-1000 mg of sodium, and 20-30 ounces of fluid are recommended. Try varying the type of carbohydrates you ingest to minimize GI distress. For example, you could use some liquid calories (Tailwind, for example) in addition to a gel or a chew, as long as the total carbohydrate content is no greater than 60 grams. For activities greater than 2.5 hours, you will need to experiment with timing of your carbohydrates, sodium, and fluid in general, but the rate of 60-75 g/hour (carbohydrates) is the general recommendation.
Are all carbohydrates created equally? No. In fact, the sport nutrition products we carry are all specifically formulated to be ingested immediately before, during, or after exercise, depending on the product and its contents. Some people with "iron stomachs" are able to tolerate artificial sugars and dyes without incident, so for those people, most products are eligible for exercise use. For others with highly sensitive GI needs, products like Skratch, Honey Stinger, and Tailwind are ideal because they do not contain any sweeteners or dyes. Perhaps the most "safe" product out there is Maurten, a colorless and flavorless sport nutrition product that provides the aforementioned fueling needs with likely the least amount of GI "risk".
The consistency of fuel is another key element with which athletes must experiment. For example, some athletes do not enjoy the "gooey" nature of gels or chews and therefore seek to use a product like Tailwind that arguably checks all the aforementioned boxes for during-run fueling. Other athletes are fine to suck down a chew (Clif Shot Blox, Honey Stinger) or a gel (Gu, Honey Stinger, Maurten) and stash them in various pockets in their fuel belt or clothing. Also, athletes should be aware that some of these products also contain caffeine (Gu Roctane for example), so caffeine tolerance should be considered when selecting fueling products.
At the end of the day, athletes must experiment during training runs to determine what works best for each person. What works for one may not work for the next, and even if the product selection is the same, the timing may be different for each person. Similarly, what the person has or has not consumed prior to the workout can influence the rate of caloric replacement during exercise. Pre-run and post-run meals and meal timing is a whole other blog post! The nuts-and-bolts of during-run caloric consumption is that the longer you're on your feet, the more you will need to focus on how you fuel your body during your workout. Water and hydration goes a long way for shorter-duration and lower-intensity workouts, but if you're going long and/or hard, nutrition can significantly help (or hinder) your performance.