Eating During a Run

Back when I ran track in high school, or even played soccer during the fall season, you couldn’t have paid me to eat during practice or during a game and trust me, I definitely would have wanted it. I could, and still can, always eat. I generally never say no to food, but I had the feeling that “food in” during such physical activity only resulted in one thing: food out. I was probably not the only one who thought that and it’d probably prove true at least 80% of time. But regardless, my body didn’t really need the calories anyway.

It wasn’t until I read Eat & Run by Scott Jurek during early summer of 2012 that I even contemplated the idea of eating while running. At that point in my running, I would occasionally consume an energy gel 10-20 minutes before going out for a harder run either in volume (time) or increased intensity (speed), but to actually consume anything while in the process of running? Uh-uh. Not happening.

In Eat & Run, ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek writes about his journey to ultrarunning and to eating a 100% plant-based diet in such an inspiring away that about practically everything he wrote I said to myself, “Yep. I’m trying that.” Something he discusses in the book is how during long runs and races, he needs to be able to consume calories to keep his body fueled and functioning. Of course when he’s running 100 miles or more, the calorie-consumption is much higher than that required during a 30 mile run and also much more necessary, but the idea of eating while running stuck with me.

I didn’t start running with bananas and energy bars in my hands if that’s what  you’re thinking. I obviously stored them in a running pack…no, seriously..I started doing this when training for my first marathon that November after reading Jurek’s book. I wouldn’t bring food on every run and, looking back, I didn’t need even 1 of the calories I would consume on a slow training run, but I was determined to be able to eat on a run and thought that being able to do so would be the trick to avoiding hitting “The Wall” during my marathon race. So, I would pack either pretzels, orange slices, dates, and, one time, even a small peanut butter and jelly wrap and go out and run..and eat.

No, no. The entire cooler wasn’t for me, but I stored many foods in here that would help me get through my first ultra (Tesla Hertz 50 mile, Oct 2013). There were: chocolate chips, pretzels, clif bars, bananas, oranges, almonds, gels, and more.

Now, did I need any of those foods during a 15 or 20 mile run? No. But guess what? I was able to successfully train my body to stomach foods during such physical activity which proved to be very valuable as an ultrarunner. When running at slower paces beyond the 26.2 mile, most people really do need the calories to keep them going. If you can train your body to run on fat, you don’t need to eat anything for a very long time (future post), but replenishing some of the depleted glycogen stores (carbohydrates) is generally not a regretful tactic. On a 3+ hour run I burn over 2,500 calories which is way more than I eat in a day so I really did need to get my stomach to be okay with taking in food during those runs. During my 12 hour race this past July, I drank well over 200 ounces of liquids and consumed more than 2,000 calories of food by the end of the event.  I would never have been able to make it 12 hours without needing to use “the facilities” were it not for practicing taking in food on a run.  And the food isn’t just gels. I would (and did) get sick of eating the same process, syrupy or sticky food over and over again, so this made being able to stomach actual food even more important.

Another Tesla 50 mile pic; I wouldn’t have been able to finish without Val’s support. I’m eating almonds and chocolate chips here because after 5 gels or so I couldn’t even look at another one. 

Do you have to run marathons or ultramarathons for this post to apply to you? Not at all. The main point here is that if you are doing physical activity, you generally try to eat something an hour before maybe even a gel during the activity to give you the required energy. Many people, though, can’t even stomach the energy gel and water (very important for washing down the energy gels) while on a run or get nauseous because they ate a bagel or oatmeal way too close to toeing the line or hitting that start button. Like with many things, being able to successfully do something can require some practice and it is no different with trying to eat on a run or even keeping the food you ate before a run right where it belongs.

So if you’re one of those people who want or even need that energy gel or banana half that the volunteer is offering at the aid station, but you don’t trust that you can keep it in, practicing eating on a run or eating before a run may help you. If you’re contemplating your first marathon or ultramarathon, then practicing eating on a run is something I highly recommend.  If you have any questions about eating while running such as what foods to eat and when to eat them, or even questions about the pros and cons of this, please leave them in the comments and I’ll respond as soon as I can!

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