Eating on the run: The best portable snacks for hungry runners
Making the right decisions about food can make a huge difference to our running performance
A supporter offers Mary and the other runners salted potatoes during the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa.
The only thing a long-distance runner thinks about more than running is food. When we are not planning our next run, our mind is on our next meal. For any first-timer who has notions of losing weight while marathon training, you might find it more difficult than you think. Most marathon runners are pretty hungry creatures. From the pre-race breakfast to post-run recovery meals, food is never far from our thoughts. Making the right decisions about food can make a huge difference to our running performance, our focus and our recovery.
Avoid the wall
In its simplest terms, we lose water, salt and sugar when we run long distance. The sugar powers our muscles and through sweat we lose salt and water as the body works to keep itself cool. How we choose to replenish our body with these three components is a personal decision, but it is important to recognise why we need to take it all seriously. A well-fuelled runner reduces their risk of hitting the dreaded marathon ‘wall’. If the body does not get the fuel it needs, it slows down unnecessary processes, such as running, in order to keep our essential systems functioning properly. We can feel weak, dizzy and ultimately our pace, focus and performance decreases. If you have watched the latter stages of a marathon, you most certainly have seen some runners who could have planned their fuelling strategy better.
Eating on the run
Regardless of what you eat the night before or the morning of the marathon, you will need to top up your water, salt and sugar on the run. I believe that eating and drinking little and often while running has helped me avoid hitting the wall over my years of marathons. It takes time, experience and dedication to work out your optional nutrition strategy. But a first-time marathon runner has an opportunity each week this summer to work out exactly what food agrees with their body and helps build their confidence, strength and endurance for the autumn marathon. Some runners can eat and run concurrently while others find that liquids only are what works for them. Many stomachs are sensitive, especially when they are jigging up and down for hours on a long run. Don’t rely on what works for a friend. Nothing beats experimenting with different foods yourself.
What to choose
Some people like to stick with natural food and find that fruit, nuts and homemade bars or snacks help them through. I have come across many surprise foods along a marathon route and my favourites have to be the Nutella sandwiches in Italy and the salted potatoes in South Africa. Practically, however, neither are convenient to carry so I’ll be unlikely to be having them any time again soon on a run. While most would agree that natural food is best, practically we need to fuel our bodies with something that is convenient to carry as well as gentle on the stomach.
There is wide array of endurance food products on the market aimed at helping a runner with energy, repair and concentration. There has been a boom in portable running snacks in recent years. From sweets with added salt and caffeine, to bars, gels, energy drinks and dissolvable tablets, there is endless choice of products available, all claiming to be the best. It can be overwhelming to know what to choose so ask in local running shops for advice. The truth is that not every product will work for you. For example, some people thrive on caffeine sweets while many with a sensitive stomach need to avoid the caffeine products until the very last stages of the event or they will spend a long time in the portaloos en route.
One less worry
Once you find the right choice for you, that’s one less thing to worry about for race weekend. You can plan your race knowing exactly what time you will eat and drink. A sip of water every mile and my trustee three gels have carried me through many marathons. A few extra jelly sweets for distraction in the second half and a kick of caffeine at 20 miles have kept me strong to the end of many a marathon. I just don’t spend too much time reading the long list of ingredients on the gel. There is a place for convenience and practicality on the marathon day.
Keep it simple
If you are running a marathon, you'll have many long runs before the big day. Each of these training sessions gives you the opportunity to experiment with new foods and fine-tune your own marathon snacks. There will be treats available on the marathon sidelines from generous supporters with Tupperware boxes and old biscuit tins as well as the official race snacks of High5 gels, Lucozade Sport and water. Before you choose to dive in on race day, make sure you have tried them before in training.
A full-time job
Complete marathon nutrition involves more than just what you eat on the run. Our breakfast, our post-run snacks and what we eat all week all contribute to our energy and our recovery from long runs. Over the summer, I will write more on these elements of marathon-fuelling and will give you some examples of the types of food choices successful marathon runners make.
However, in the meantime, your homework is to start the experimentation. There is a summer ahead of adventures in gels, bars, sweets, drinks and plain old fruit and water. Enjoy the sampling. As I have said many times before, there is indeed a lot more to this marathon training than just running miles.
– Mary Jennings is founder and running coach at ForgetTheGym.ie