Eating on the Run
Running and eating at the same time? It is most definitely not the most intuitive practice around, but it is necessary. Any distance ranging from a half marathon to a 100 mile race, food will indeed boost your performance. Eating and running is not only difficult in the sense that you have to open packages, chew, and swallow while you are heavily breathing, but it is also difficult in the sense that your digestion is majorly compromised. Why is that? Well if you are running a relatively fast pace for yourself, you are causing blood to rush to your extremities and away from your vital organs. More blood to the extremities is a good thing because it increases oxygen uptake, thus increasing speed and performance. In other words, circulation to the intestines and stomach is decreased during intense exercise. With less blood flow, the digestive tract becomes less effective. Want to give it a try to see if this is true? Go out for a 30 minute all out run. 5 minutes before you leave, eat a big piece of pizza. It won't take long to discover the pleasant effects of a sloshing, irritated gut.
So if eating while running is so important and our digestion sucks while running, then how can we do it? Simple carbohydrates is the answer. Typically we want to avoid simple carbohydrates as mentioned in one of my previous blogs here. Because simple carbohydrates, like table sugar and honey, break down so quickly, there is a spike in insulin. Irregular insulin spikes and dips can worsen health, specifically diabetes. However, when we are exercising this isn't the case. Our bodies digest carbohydrates without insulin by way of a glucose transporter called GLUT 4, which acts similarly to insulin. These sugars we ingest while running are immediately utilized and sent to our muscle cells. Even starches, complex carbohydrates can be great for longer distances like a 50 mile to a 100 mile race. Starches like potatoes still break down quickly, but they release energy for a longer period of time.
Fat can also be helpful when you are running distances above a marathon. Fats are the highest source of calories that we eat. Just one gram of fat contains nine calories! Seeing that a major goal while running is calorie replacement, fats are a good option. However, fats can be difficult to digest. They don't break down quite as easily as simple carbohydrates. Foods like nut butters, meats, and cheese can cause irritation to the digestive tract due to the slower metabolism of fats.
Protein is important for recovery, but not so important during exercise. Protein requires 35 calories to digest to every 100 calories consumed! This is wasted energy that you can't spare while running. Because of protein's complex metabolism, like fat, is also poses a risk for digestive issues. So hold off on the protein shakes and bars until after the event.
I prefer to get the majority of my calories through a product called Tailwind. Tailwind is a powder consisting of simple sugars and electrolytes. I just add a couple of scoops to my water and I am good to go! This makes reaching my caloric intake needs much easier on my system. Apart from liquid calories, I like only a few types of gels. Gels are convenient, light, and pack a lot of calories. They are often highly processed and can often cause stomach problems because there is just too much sugar packed into a little package. Maltodextrin is a refined starch from corn or potatoes that never sits well with me. I prefer my simple sugars come from honey, molasses, or maple syrup. These sugars do the trick and contain vitamins and minerals.
I also enjoy the food that is offered at aid stations. Obviously every race varies but I rely mostly on fruit as my whole food source of energy. When I ran the Wasatch 100 last year I made myself something a bit more substantial. I made arroz con leche (rice with milk in English). With a mix of white rice, cinnamon, coconut sugar, and rice milk, I had a great source of simple sugars. I will probably make this again for my next 100 miler because it is delicious and easy on the tummy.
In summary, get the majority of your calories from simple carbohydrates. Don't eat too much fat, and hold off on high amounts of protein until the end of the race. Strive to intake 200-350 calories per hour. I had to learn these principles through trial and error, and I hope you don't have to do the same. Light weight gels are a great option, but watch out for maltodextrin as it can cause stomach pain and is nearly void of all nutrients. Be sure to incorporate whole foods like fruits which provide water, simple sugars, and vitamin and minerals. Good luck and feel free to comment about what has worked for you the best.