Friday, August 5, 2011

Running fuel

I always find it funny to use the term "running fuel" or to say that I'm "fueling up" before a run. Maybe it makes me feel tough, or like a machine. It implies that I can run fast, hard, and for a long time, and all I need to perform is some food. I like the image. There are days where I do feel like a machine. My legs carry me where I need them to; I don't have to think much about it, but simply enjoy the experience.

I'm curious what your go-to running fuels are....and I'm talking about what you eat/drink before, during, and for recovery. I've been testing out a few things and finding what works for me. I also have been reading tips from various sources including Runner's World magazine, #Runchat, and various runners I'm following on Twitter. I've experimented with some of the tips to try to find what works best for me. It's a work in progress, but I've found a lot of things that work well for me. 
 Day before a long run
On the day before a long run, the most important thing I've found is to be properly hydrated. I always drink plenty of water and have zero alcohol. I drink more water especially at night, a few hours before bed. In terms of food, pasta is my go-to Saturday dinner, as a night-before meal before a long Sunday run. Carbs are super important for long runs, and I have found my performance to always be better when I have pasta for dinner over other sources of carbs such as rice or potatoes. With my dietary concerns/restrictions, I always make my pasta dinner vegan to avoid morning tummy upset. My favourite method to prep this meal is sauteing veggies such as zucchini, mushrooms, peppers and onions with some olive oil, garlic, and fresh tomatoes and herbs, then serving that over the pasta, with a side salad. Then my much more omnivorous partner, can make meat on the side for himself, and/or sprinkle cheese on the pasta and find it equally as fulfilling. I also intentionally make too much food, so leftover pasta can be had the next day for a late lunch after the long run; this is much appreciated when you're tired and not eager to stand for too long in the kitchen.

Pre-run breakfast
I can't run without coffee in the morning. When I am doing a longer run (anything over 10km), I limit myself to one cup, rather than my usual two, as gels that I consume during a long run often contain caffeine. Caffeine certainly can help performance, but there is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing! I like to make sure I'm awake for at least an hour, or better an hour and a half, before a long run. This gives me time to have my coffee, have some breakfast, and digest a bit before hitting the road. For breakfast, I keep it light. My favourite is instant oatmeal, made with 1% milk instead of water. This way I get a bit more protein as well as the carbs. And I like the feeling of a warm breakfast to wake me up, and a pack of instant oatmeal is just the right amount of food. It makes me think of Goldilocks.... :) Then, I usually have some orange juice about half an hour or so before I head out the door. Or if I'm running a longer distance, I'll have a gel with some water instead of juice, about 15 min before I head out. Either option gives me a good lift to start the run on the right foot (pun so not intended).

I've read recently that having a popsicle or a slurpee or something else that's both icey and sugary can help you run 10 min longer during the summer. This isn't something I've tried yet, but I'm tempted to make some of my own healthy popsicles at home, for this purpose. The idea here is that it helps drop your body temperature down a bit, so it takes longer for you to overheat / get tired in the sun. Anyone have experience with this?

Fuel during a run
During a run, water is the most important. With all the water you're losing while sweating, it's important to recover that with water. Of course, there's such thing as having too much water, and then needing to find a place to use the bathroom during a run. Not ideal when you're keeping track of your time, and not wanting to line up for the bathrooms on a race route! I have battled with with amount of water is ideal to take with me, and how do I wish to carry the water with me. I tried a single bottle in a pack I carry around my waist. I found it uncomfortable on my tummy, and hated the feeling of it bouncing as I was running. Then I got a fuel belt. This is a common thing I see among runners on the roads these days, but it didn't work for me. While it was much more comfortable to carry than a single water bottle, each one bottle doesn't carry much, and I found it a little awkward removing and replacing the bottles from the belt while running. So now I'm onto a hand-held bottle and I think I found my niche. It comes with a strap to keep it snug against my hand, and is equipped with a pocket to store food and/or keys. The only drawbacks are that I have to open and eat my food with one hand instead of two while I'm running, and sometimes my hand cramps up a bit from holding the bottle. But my body feels much freer without bottles attached to it.

Of course water isn't enough on a longer run. It's important to restore electrolytes while you're running and running food has come a long way with various options out there to meet diverse needs of diverse runners. I used to think that eating fuel during a run was "cheating" - as you're getting energy from another source rather than from within. But really, it's never a good idea to run for hours and not eat anything, when you're burning hundreds of calories (or even thousands on longer hauls). It's still you doing the hard work, so fuel is hardly cheating.

There is everything from gels, to chews that resemble jujubes, to harder jelly-bean like candies, all specifically designed to supply the nutrition needed to fuel a run. Many dislike gels as they're somewhat gag-inducing, but they are my fuel of choice now that I'm well used to them. Anything that requires chewing is tougher to deal with while running. Of course one has the option to walk while eating, but I prefer to keep going if I can. Gel can be also messy and sticky on the hands. My favourite gels are now Gu gels, which I just got introduced to a couple months ago. Their flavours are actually enjoyable, they have caffeine options (from zero, 1 shot, or 2 shots), and they're just thick enough to be easy to slurp down with minimal effort while running. They help me get the second or third wind I need for a longer distance. I just recently tried running with the Gu Chomps (they are link jujubes), and I might mix things up and use them once in a while. They tasted good, required minimal chewing, and weren't messy at all. A pack comes with 8 chomps so you can eat them as required. I was having 2 every 25 minutes or so on my last run which seems to have worked. The drawback is that the packaging is impossible to open while running with sweaty hands. Good thing I thought of this in advance and opened the pack before I left home. Even without sweaty hands I couldn't open the packaging - I needed scissors!

Post run (recovery)
On a short run, water will do. A slightly longer one, I'll want an electrolyte drink and soon after a meal with some protein. Or chocolate milk works well too, but I mix my own so I can use 1% milk and a lower-sugar version of the chocolate syrup. When I run a long distance though, I find eating solid food difficult for a few hours. I've found having a smoothie works well, but recently read that frozen yogurt is a good idea. I had this after my last long run, and I liked it as an option. It cools you down, gives you some sugars and protein to help recovery, and it's easier on a queasy tummy than solid food. A couple hours later, I'm ready for a meal. Time for that leftover pasta.

What's your fueling routine?

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