26.2 miles is a long haul. I first truly grasped the concept just before my first marathon. Boston is a point to point course, and most runners go to the finish line and take a bus back to the start. With race day traffic it took about 90 minutes! After an hour on a bus, all I could think of was “wait, I have to run all the way back? And we’re not even there yet?”
Your body carries most of its readily accessible energy as glycogen. You probably already know that it’s stored in the body’s muscles and liver, and is converted to energy during exercise. Over the course of a marathon, your body will use ALL of its readily available glycogen. When that happens, your body gets creative, trying to turn fat and protein into fuel. Women are a little better at the fat to fuel trick than men are, and turning protein (your muscles) into fuel is a bad idea. In either case, the last of your fuel reserves are not in the forms of sugar, which is what your brain has to have to function properly, so when you bonk or hit the wall, you don’t think as well, either. It’s a mess.
Conventional wisdom puts the wall at roughly mile 20, plus or minus a couple of miles. When it happened to me (November 1st, 2015), it occurred after running continuously for 19.4 miles, just over three hours after I started exercising. It felt like my muscle groups were nauseous. As in, my legs wanted to throw up. That feeling you get in your stomach when you’re nauseated? I had it everywhere.
Fascinating. And horrible.
So. How does one avoid hitting the wall? Simple. Ingest calories. Not too many, not too few, and BEFORE you need them. Here’s a six step plan to get you to mile 26.2 with out bonking.
Rule one: Practice. Whatever you learn reading this or any other article about marathon fueling, do NOT save it for race day. Figure out your plan and write it down. Use your tactics ahead of time. Any time you have a training run of 18 miles or more, deploy the plan. By doing this, you’ll figure out what does NOT work for you with plenty of time to adjust your plan. You’ll show up with normal race day jitters, but you won’t be worried about your fueling plan.
2: Carb Load
Do NOT overdo it! Your body can only store so much! I usually start a couple days before. My diet is already probably a little high in carbohydrates anyways, but I make sure not to skip them before a marathon. Starchy vegetables like potatoes are good, as is the obvious pasta dinner or whole wheat bagel you’re planning for breakfast. And because you’re going to practice your exact pre-race meal routine at least once or twice (see rule one), you won’t find yourself overdoing it on whole wheat products and giving yourself any GI tract issues on race day.
3: Pre-Race Fuel
If you run half marathons, you probably already know what works for you the morning of the race. I’m a bit of a freak show… a sausage McMuffin with egg sits really well for me IF I eat it two hours before the race. Fat, protein, carbohydrates, salt, yum! Another alternate that works really well for me is a plain bagel, half of it with peanut butter, the other half with margarine and a slice of cheddar. But that’s me… what works for you?
When I ran Pittsburgh, I had won the VIP experience, which included breakfast near the starting line. Juice, bagel, jam, and some fruit (seen here). Light on protein (none), but other than that I liked it.
4: Minutes Before the Race
Thanks to my friend Matt (AKA Thundersnow) for this tip: bring a flour tortilla to the starting line. I eat it about 20-30 minutes before the race. My body is still processing food at a normal level, and those calories, which are so easy to digest, will start hitting my bloodstream right around the time the gun goes off.
I think a lot of people overlook this opportunity, but 100 to 150 calories right before the gun goes off can really help things get started.
This photo is proof that yes, I did eat a tortilla just before the Chicago Marathon.
5: Mid-Race Food
Here’s where rule number one really really kicks in. Different people swear by different nutritional supplements. There are a variety of products out there that pack a small calorie rush into easily digestible foods that are easy to carry. You must experiment to see what works for you.
You also must learn how to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to most people. When I was training for my first marathon, I stopped and stood there every time I took on nutrition. This got my body used to taking on calories in the middle of a workout, but did not teach me how to eat and run at the same time. That was a mistake. If I had it to do all over again, I would have started the same way, but then transitioned to eating on the run once my gut got the hang of exercising and digesting at the same time.
After seven marathons, here’s what works for me. Proper hydration plus eating every 4.5 miles makes me bonk-proof. Here’s my plan:
- 4.5 miles: a second tortilla, or a Stinger waffle
- 9 miles: a bag of Skratch chews or Sport Beans
- 13.5 and 18 miles: Vanilla flavored Hammer Gel
Yup – I’m that specific. I know the brand and flavor of gel that works for me. My stomach can tolerate it, and I get benefit from the calories. I can’t stand some of the other brands, and Clif brand chews nearly killed me once (they’re too big for me and I almost inhaled one).The order is specific, too. I can eat solid food 4.5 miles in. By the second half of the marathon, my mouth is too dry for things like Stinger waffles or jelly beans.
I also try to have an idea of where the water stops are around these food choices. If there’s a water stop at mile 5, I’ll wait until 4.75 miles in to eat so I can rinse my mouth out.
If you’re doing the math, you might wonder what I eat for mile 22.5? The answer: nothing. With 3.7 miles to go, your body is tired, and non-essential services (like digesting food) take energy away from essential services (run, dammit!). Arteries that supply your muscles enlarge to send more blood bringing oxygen and glycogen to your legs, and your digestive system takes a break. In other words, not only would you not get the benefit in time to do you any good (you’ll be just about done with the race by then), but your body probably can’t process the nutrients effectively anyways.
Bonus nutrition: Sometimes you’ll find some kind soul on the side of the road handing out orange wedges or thin slices of watermelon. Blessed are they, for they have eternal gratitude from hundreds of runners. Seriously. I love every one of them. And I always take one. An orange wedge at mile 17 is a study in the glory of all creation, condensed into a sweet and tangy mouth full of bliss. Even if you just suck the juice out of it, take it.
6: Mid-Race Hydration
Everybody sweats differently. Me? I sweat buckets. I can drink liters of water during a four or five hour exercise session. Because of this, I try to take both Gatorade and water at every opportunity. During the last mile or two, I play it by ear and do what feels right, but for the rest of the race, regular hydration is a must. On my long training runs (anything over 15 miles), I take liquids every mile. See rule one.
Added impetus for hydrating: without it, your body will quit processing calories sooner, making it harder to get the nutrition you need in the second half of the race.
Race day plan for me: take water and Gatorade at every station. For big marathons, that usually is 20 to 25 stops. If I skip one of those, no big deal. For smaller marathons, it could be as few as 6 or 8 aid stations… and that gets tricky for me, especially if there’s just one table. Blink, and you’ve run right past it. I don’t have a ton of experience here, and the one time I experienced it, I didn’t get enough liquids in me. I’m running that race again this November, so I’ll be taking a more deliberate approach, making sure I slow down and get every bit of hydration I can at each station.
Sport drinks are a big part of my long run strategy. The extra calories they include mean I’m getting probably 200 calories an hour into my system. That’s way less than the 700 to 850 calories I expend per hour, but it helps keep me from hitting the wall.
While having a plan in place is important, nothing is as important as practicing your fueling strategy during the lead up to the marathon. A lot of people really struggle with eating while they exercise… it’s normal. But you don’t want to crash and burn in the marathon, and you don’t want to vomit on the course because you’re not used to eating while running. For me, I generally apply this guideline: Any run over ten miles should include hydration, and any run over 15 should include nutrition.
There are plenty of resources on the Web for fueling during a marathon, this is just what works for me. A friend recently shared this article which includes the recommendation of 200-300 calories per hour and eating every 30 minutes. Every 45 minutes works for me. You won’t know what works for you until you try it… and maybe change plan and try again until you figure out what works for you. Maybe it’s beef jerky and pretzels. Maybe Swedish Fish. The point is to keep working the problem until you have what works, and to do it well before race day so you arrive confident in your ability to execute.