How to create the perfect fuelling plan

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I’m new to running and I’m confused about all the nutrition products that are available. I have been racing 5Ks and 10Ks and am working toward a half-marathon. Help! What is the best way to fuel? - Bethany

Bethany, you’re not alone. The number of fuelling options has skyrocketed. Years ago, it was common to see only water on race courses, even during marathons. Then sports drinks came onto the scene and provided energy, electrolytes and fluid, all in one product. Not much later, gels made their debut, followed by beans, blocks and gummies of all shapes and sizes.

The abundance of options can be confusing. Here’s how to determine what you need.

Know the purpose: The goal of mid-run fuelling is to replenish some (not all) of the fluid, electrolytes and energy you lose along the way. Running diverts blood away from the stomach and toward working muscles. Therefore, it’s impossible to replace energy at the rate it’s being lost. The key is to find the sweet spot: fuelling too little can lead to poorer performance, while fuelling too much can lead to stomach upset.

Develop a plan: The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate (or about 240 calories) per hour during activity lasting longer than 60 minutes. So, if you’re running for less than an hour, simply drinking water as you’re thirsty for it is optimal. If you’re running longer, you’ll need to consume calories via sports drink or the energy product of your choice. A recent review found that taking in more than one type of carbohydrate (for example maltodextrin, glucose, etc) increases the amount of energy your digestive system can process, so for your longest runs (upwards of 2.5 hours), consider using more than one product. The review also found that intensity matters: you’ll need fewer carbs during easy-effort long runs than you will in races.

Experiment: Think of yourself like Goldilocks: you may need to try a few options to find a fuelling plan that’s just right for you. The first product you should consider is the sports drink that will be served at your upcoming half-marathon. Use it during runs that last longer than an hour. Keep a fuel log to track how your body responds to the type of fuel, the amount and the frequency. Remember that your body will need to adapt to digesting on the run, so if the drink doesn’t agree with you at first, that doesn’t mean it’s not right for you. If it still doesn’t sit well, try gels, chews or bars (with water, of course). Try just one product at a time so it’s easy to determine what works and what doesn’t. And when in doubt, keep it simple. My personal preference is to use sports drink as a base because it delivers fluid, electrolytes and energy all in one easy-to-consume package, and then to supplement with gels or chewy carbohydrate products for runs and races longer than 2.5 hours.

Above all, remember the number one rule for fuelling on race day: Never try anything new. Develop and practice a personalised strategy, and you’ll benefit from improved performance.