We have run dozens of races over the years, and have fueled in a variety of ways. Every event brings with it a new experience from local 5ks, to mountain packed 50k runs, to open ocean swims and Olympic distance triathlons.
Longer races have been the preference in large part because they offer a variety of places to see and experience and increasingly because a supported race is one of the easiest and safest ways to explore new areas. If you are not sure about what to sign up for, check out our article on choosing the right first triathlon.
With those long days though comes the need to ensure that nutrition is on point. A day where you run out of calories can quickly turn from a from experience to hitting the wall and having to DNF (Did Not Finish)!
Often an organized event will offer a handful of options at aid and fueling stations but it can be risky to try something new on a race day. That said, for some low-key races, especially trail races, the draw of the food stations is hard to pass up when presented with things like fresh strawberries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or home made treats.
How Many Calories To Eat During a Race
We know from experience that in training, especially when the mind wanders on a long run, you are likely to think “How many gels to eat during a marathon?” This is an important question and one that is best determined before starting the race, since it is hard to make up for lost calories. The best thing to do is test out in training how often you can fuel and to over estimate slightly what you think is the right amount.
Popular ways to think about this are how many Carbohydrates you should eat while running. This is important since carbohydrates (sometimes in the form of sugars) are broken down more quickly and can serve to replenish lost energy in the body. A single gram of carbohydrates equates to around 4 calories; and many recommendations suggests 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. This means a target intake is somewhere between 120-240 calories per hour during a race, with variations based on body weight.
Nerves and difficulty sticking to scheduled eating are common reasons that many runners forget to take in nutrition and eventually hit the dreaded wall. Many resources share that a runner should burns ~20 calories per pound of body weight for a 60-90 minute run. This can be misleading though as that does not mean you should eat that DURING the run.
What Food to Carry For a Triathlon
Triathlons are slightly easier to plan for in part because there are two transition areas where you can leave yourself options, as well as a bike pouch to hold even more. Still the logistics of actually taking in food at the right time can be tougher especially in longer events that start with significant swim portions. For example, a moderate Olympic distance triathlon athlete is likely to take 30+ minutes for their swim. That means that proper fueling may start right after the swim which can be a tough time to stomach gels especially if you took a couple gulps of salt water!
For triathlons too it is more common that athletes will carry their own nutrition the whole time, or at least until the run. This is because the impact of stopping on a bike is much more pronounced as you have to come to a halt to grab things. In addition, it is known that carrying nutrition on a bike is easier since there are built in water bottle holders on most bikes and even hydration aids that put a sipping straw in the middle of your handle bars!
On the bike that does happen to be the easiest thing to do, simply opt for liquid calories in the form of an energy drink or powder added to a bottle. It will be easier to grab a bottle and take a sip than it will be to tear open a bar or gel while trying to stay upright on the bike and aerodynamically situated.
Carry Food and Drinks During A Race
Once you have decided what to eat during your race, and what the aid stations will have for you. The next decision is to figure out how to carry it all with you. There are two major considerations we have when deciding how to carry food. The first is how accessible is the snack or water, you do not want to be messing with gear while trying to keep pace at the end of a long event. The second is how comfortable is the gear to wear or carry.
For things like hydration packs they may make it very easy to take a sip, but a liter of water bouncing around on your back for a few hours is one easy way to kill your form and create some nasty chafing. Below are the best types of food and drink carriers we have found for running and cycling.
- Cycling shirts or tri suits with pockets on the lower back. For anything other than a water bottle on a ride, a pouch on the back of a jersey is easy access.
- Shorts with Zipper Pockets – Like the Lululemon Pace breaker. This is best for carrying gels and the zipper reduces the chance something bounces out.
- Hydration Packs – Best for cycling but tougher for running. For runners choose a pack with removable water bottles that sit in front of the shoulders, this reduces bouncing and makes it easier to carry.
- Hand held water bottles – Best for everyday runs and shorter events. Keeps everything nearby and aids in training as you must carry some weight on the arms. Some even have pouches sewn into the handheld that hold gels.
Aid Stations of Popular Races
For major marathons and other events you can plan ahead based on what they stock at aid stations. That is because these events are organized well enough to know in advance what they will have.
Sometimes it is as easy as looking at the sponsor list, which will tell you that Gu Nutrition or Tailwind is likely to be available. Other times you have to dig deeper, we have done some research to find out what to expect from these popular races’ aid stations. While spectators may be more interested in our summary of how to track a marathon runner on race day, below is a summary of what we found regarding water and aid stations at major events:
Los Angeles Marathon Aid Station Items – Nuun, a popular electrolyte sports drink, and Boom energy gels are the go to extras on the West Coast’s most popular marathon. Similar to other events water stations pop up at nearly every mile although not directly at the measurements. In Brentwood where there is a median an occasional extra station pops up with locals handing out something fun, though don’t count on this. Traditionally this race has faced some heat issues so carrying an extra small water bottle is not a bad idea. Check out the exact spacing of aid stations at the LA Marathon course map.
Hong Kong Marathon Aid Station Items – The HK marathon is slightly unique in that it advertisers not only energy drinks and water, but also the addition of bananas and chocolate at later aid stations. There aid stations are a bit more spread out than some others, with noted stops at 5km intervals compared to the US centric 1mile increments of other major marathons. For runners interested you can check out the Runners Guide for the Hong Kong Marathon.
New York City Marathon Aid Station Items – NYC Features water stations every mile, starting at mile 3 once you get off the bridge. They also have gatorade at regular intervals and two aid stations later at the midpoint and late in the race that are stocked with Science in Sports Energy Gels. While the streets are lined with fans there are minimal other ad hoc aid stations so anything else needs to be carried. See their official site for more on what is stocked at aid stations.
Gold Coast Marathon Aid Station Items – Sponsored by Fixx nutrition this event features the Fixx electrolyte drink at alternating aid stations. Late in the race they also include a sodium rich anti cramping supplement as well. In addition water stations are plentiful in this marathon with a total of 16 aid stations spread across the 26 mile (42 km) route. See their helpful videos with more detail on the Fixx drinks, and as always make sure to sample them prior to race day to see how they fit for you.