Fueling Your Long Runs: Why It’s So Important and How to Develop Your Strategy

Fueling Your Long Runs: Why It’s So Important and How to Develop Your Strategy

BY MUIR EDITOR GEORGIA DANIELSON

The Long Run: the Goldilocks of all runs. We’re talking 1-3 hours. Long enough to explore a tasty trail and get weird in the woods, but short enough to not trash your body the same way as a race or a mission run. This is a really important run to talk about because often runners can ‘get away’ with not eating. It’s often glorified to not eat anything on runs like these.

But there’s a huge difference between runners that choose to stick to a dialed fueling strategy and those that neglect it. The dialed runners enjoy their runs far more, are able to train higher quality throughout the rest of their training week, and cut easy minutes off their race times. In contrast, the lax runners have to dig into the well just to finish the run, wake up the next day annihilated and cannot fathom the rest of their training week, and will expend precious minutes in a race monkeying around in their packs for food they’ve never tried before. 

Developing a fueling strategy is easy, dialing it in takes time and practice, and it is absolutely worth the effort.  

Why You Need to Fuel Your Long Runs

First off, you’re not going to feel like you need to fuel until maybe the end of the run or if you started out hungry. You need to fuel anyways for three main reasons:

1. It’s an Opportunity to Train Your Stomach 

If you’re incorporating long runs in your training, chances are you are training for a race or a mission even longer, where there will be serious consequences for neglectful fueling. You cannot save eating exclusively for races and missions and expect it to go well. 

Like your fitness, your stomach needs to be trained to handle calories while you run. It’s also very personal: a strategy that works well for one person may leave their running buddy throwing up on the side of the trail.  Training your gut also takes a lot of time--it’s a very gradual process. So, you need to take every opportunity to train your stomach.

2. It’s an Opportunity to Dial in Your Process

Messing around in your pack searching for gels and peanuts can be a tedious process. By taking advantage of every opportunity to fuel on your runs, you can dial in the most efficient foods and the most efficient ways to eat them. Runners often skip eating simply because they don’t want to mess with their pack or stop to get something. Dial in your process where the consequences are low.

3. Neglecting to Fuel Will Affect the Rest of Your Training

If you could go for a long run and feel nearly fresh the next day, wouldn’t that be a game-changer? Simple solution: eat during your run. 

You may feel like you can get away with no fuel, but neglectful fueling will affect how you recover, which compromises the quality of the rest of your training, as well as your energy level and soreness for at least the next day and even week. While consuming calories immediately after your run and throughout the rest of the day is very important for recovery, it will not make up for neglectful fueling during your run.

How To Develop a Fueling Strategy 

In my experience, most runners base their fueling strategy on calories. I’ve seen a few articles using grams, but I’ve never met a runner that uses grams to describe their fueling strategy. Use calories.

1. Define Your Calorie Target: Calories/Hr

A calorie target is the number of calories you aim to consume per hour to feel strong. Most runners shoot for between 150-400 calories/hour. This number depends on how well trained your stomach is: the more trained a runner’s stomach, the more calories your stomach can handle. If you haven’t trained your stomach, your calorie target will be small at first, and you’ll be able to increase it only gradually. It may take a few months to shift the number and type of calories you can handle per hour. 

Your calorie target does not depend on the length or duration of your run. You are training your stomach for longer races and missions. So, the number of calories you aim to consume per hour is not different for a 2 hour versus a 5 hour run. Because you always burn more calories than you consume, you should always be trying to increase your calorie target. Again, this is a slow, very gradual process. 

Start by picking a number between 150-250 and observing how your body reacts.  For example: 200cals/hr

2. Calculate How Many Calories You Need To Pack 

Calculate the number of hours you plan to be out TOTAL between the time you leave your house or car to the point that you start drinking a protein shake. How long is it going to be? Total elapsed time, not total moving time. 

Then, calculate the error margin.  How likely is it that you’ll get lost, hurt, or be waiting a very long time to be picked up at your end point?  How dialed is your calorie target? Add another hour or two. 


(Total Elapsed Time + 1 to 2 hours error) x Calorie Target = Total Calories To Pack  

Example:  (2hrs + 1hr) x 200cals/hr = 500 calories


3. Consider What Kinds of Food Your Stomach Can Handle

The more trained your stomach is, the more calories and the heavier the calories your stomach will be able to handle.  Think about this spectrum from lightest to heaviest:


Simple Carbs (sugar) ➔ Medium Carbs ➔ Complex Carbs ➔ Protein* ➔ Fat


If you are new to training your stomach, you go out for a 3 hour run, and eat exclusively candy, then your stomach might get upset. While simple sugars are easy to digest and the effect is instant, they can be shocking to your GI system and end up ‘rotting’ your gut.  You may end up feeling nauseous and unable to consume any calories thereafter. 

On the other end of the spectrum, fat and protein can be upsetting to a new stomach as well. So if you’re new to training your stomach, try to combine different carbs first. Most sweet-tasting real-food energy products offer this, like MUIR Fast-Burning gels and MUIR’s Hydration Mix. 

As you train your stomach, try to incorporate more fat and consider protein. These are slow burning and won’t cause an energy spike. Once your stomach is trained to handle them, they’re more satiating and less shocking to your stomach. This translates to efficiently taking in more calories farther into your race or mission. 

*Runners typically do not seek protein as fuel during runs. There are exceptions and it’s good to train your body to handle protein, plus protein can help you feel satiated, but carbs and fat are superior fuel sources. 


Liquid versus Solid

Drinking your calories is the easiest way to start training your stomach. Then start incorporating gels, solid food, and heavier food over your training runs.  


4. Gather Your Fuel

Think about how trained your stomach is and the kinds of food you’d like to try on your run. Drinks? Gels? Waffles? Now just collect them, and count up the calories. 


For example: (2hrs + 1hr) x 200cals/hr = 600 calories and you are a new runner


1 x Bottle of MUIR Hydration 1 x 54 cals =54 cals

2 x MUIR Passion fruit Pineapple Banana Gel 2 x 105cals =210 cals

3 x MUIR Red Raspberry Gel: 3 x 110cals = 330 cals

Total: 594 cals


5. Pack Up Your Food & Make Sure It’s Easy to Access

This may seem trivial, but it will take you a few runs to figure out the best strategy. Vests, handhelds with pockets, waist belts, etc. There are many ways to carry your fuel. Make sure whatever you choose rides well on you and you can easily retrieve your food. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t have to stop or slow down significantly to pull out food. 


6. Decide on an Eating Schedule and Stick to It

There is some debate here, but again, it comes down to your personal preference and trial and error. I recommend taking about half your calorie target within the first 30 minutes of your run, and continue at that rate until you get to your protein shake. Some runner eat small bites continuously, while other eat every 20 minutes and other eat every 30 minutes. Whatever you do, 


DON’T

- Wait until you’re hungry to start eating

- Forget to eat

- Skip eating towards the end VERY IMPORTANT

- Stop eating because you don’t want to mess with your pack

- Stop eating because you’re not enjoying it


DO

- Start eating w/in the first 30 minutes

- Keep track of how much you’ve eaten 

- Know when the next time you need to eat is

- Pause eating if you’re nauseous; try taking some Tums or ginger, and try eating something different on the next fuel interval

For example: 2 hour run, with 400 calories to consume with an extra 200 calories just in case:

0-0:30 1 gel, 1/4 way through bottle of drink mix   

0:30-1:00 1 gel, 1/2 way through bottle of drink mix

1:00-1:30 1 gel, 3/4 way through bottle of drink mix

1:30--2:00 Finish bottle of drink mix 

Final Thoughts

Developing and dialing in a fueling strategy is extremely important not only for your performance on big days like races and missions, but in your recovery and the quality of your training in the days following your long run. Long runs are the perfect practice stage to dial in your fueling strategy so you cut time off your race, enjoy the run infinitely more, and improve the quality of your training week all at once without any change in your fitness. Even though you may not feel like you need to eat on your long run, you may not enjoy eating, or you have trouble stomaching food, I cannot stress to runners enough to keep eating and keep experimenting with their fueling strategies. Developing a strategy to start with is easy, dialing it will take time and commitment and it will absolutely be worth it.

 

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