Fueling up: Advice for marathoners

What and when to eat and drink are critical elements


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This is what it sounds like to listen to your body:

Snap. SnapSnap.

I'm sitting on a table at UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine on the South Side, where Ron DeAngelo, director of performance training, is working over my left ankle, which is cranky from a 6-mile run. We both laugh.

"Wow," he says. "That felt like that was the thing you needed."

I did feel better. But two weeks before the Pittsburgh Marathon, the list of what I need feels a little longer than fixing a tight ankle. What I seek even more is a map -- a guide to make sure I'm ready for that 26.2-mile trek on May 15.

The Starting Line

Leslie Rubinkowski had never run a mile in her life when she watched runners passing through Oakland last May during the Pittsburgh Marathon and wondered: Could I do that? Over the next 14 weeks, she'll answer that question in The Starting Line, a PG blog about training for the marathon

And so over the past few weeks I've consulted with the specialists at UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine who have advised me since late last year. Because if I have learned anything during six months of training for my first marathon, it's that the learning curve can loom as steep as any hill. But listening to your body -- and making a plan based on the messages it sends -- can clear a cleaner path.

Before Mr. DeAngelo unkinks my ankle, I tell him the story of my 20-mile run -- my longest ever -- the weekend before. How I flagged at 17 miles, even with water and energy gels. How I jogged into a drugstore, bought a Gatorade and chugged half. How that infusion boosted me through the last 3 miles. He says it sounds like I need to lose the gels and stick with sports drinks.

"You might have been dehydrated, and your body needed a little more energy," he explains. Knowing that, I need race-day strategy for more than the paper cups handed out at water stations: "If there's anybody you can plant at 17 or 18 miles with Gatorade, I would have somebody there waiting for you," he says. "Because a cup is not going to cut it."

He suggested one big change for the week before: cut weight training to just one session early in the week. "I wouldn't do it much more than Tuesday," he says. "You want to keep your strength up as much as you can."

One ritual to keep: the warm-up. He suggests scouting a place near the starting line to stretch. "Your routine shouldn't change," Mr. DeAngelo says. "It should be as close as you can do it within the parameters of what you're going to be dealing with. Your body should know it's getting ready for a run."

Leslie Bonci, UPMC's director of sports nutrition and co-author of the book "Run Your Butt Off," says that your body must also realize it's gearing up for a long run by what you feed it and when.

"Part of the practice," she tells me, "in addition to the physical practice of running the miles and getting my body used to the distance, is the gut practice -- the eating on the run, literally."

Fueling the body for any long run should start three days before -- in the case of Pittsburgh's marathon, May 12. Which is why Ms. Bonci cautions against overdoing it at the pasta dinners most marathons host.

"If I were ruling the world," she says, "the pasta dinner would be three nights before. That's when we need to think about doing it, not overloading with so much the night before."

Over those three days, the extra intake translates to roughly 100 grams of carbohydrate each day or about 400 calories -- maybe a little more cereal at breakfast or another half-piece of bread at dinner.

Gradual carb loading, Ms. Bonci explains, supersaturates the muscles and liver with glycogen, building reserves to draw on during the race. Early prep also gives food time to leave the stomach before race time -- which can prevent the biggest pitfall of those pasta dinners:

"It's free," Ms. Bonci says, "it's there, nobody's putting a limit on it. People are ingesting 2,000 extra calories, plus the sauce and everything else that goes along with it. And then it's a GI nightmare."

The same goes for hydration. Drinking more water two days before a race gives the body time to prepare (and gets rid of what's extra without causing a sleepless night). And the extra carbs will help the body better retain the fluid it needs.

On race day, it's wise to eat whatever breakfast worked during training. For the first hour, water is enough. Every hour after that, runners need fuel -- sports drink, energy gels plus water or a combination.

"Nobody's going to get through after the first hour with just water alone," Ms. Bonci says. "Second hour on, although the range is pretty much all over the board, it's anywhere from 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour."

Runners who lose a lot of salt when they sweat, she adds, can carry salt packets to dump in whatever they drink. (This is not the time, she cautions, to try new things: "There will be pierogies on the course, sausage on the course -- don't think so. It's not going to sit well if it's not something you're used to doing.")

After the race, the same fueling rules apply. "You don't necessarily have to have more at the end of a longer run because you ran long, because the assumption is during [the run] you're fueling with something," Ms. Bonci says. "You're not running on empty."

Still, something small in the half hour after the race that combines protein and carbohydrates, like chocolate milk, can speed recovery.

Planning ahead not only makes a runner stronger, she says, it offers confidence: "Regardless of how the race goes, it's not afterward the what-ifs: What if I had done this? What if I had done that? The variables will be whatever -- when anything happens on certain days, it happens. But all the things that you had control over, you did. That's peace of mind."

After I tell Vonda Wright how I stopped to down Gatorade during my 20-miler, she offers to teach me a way to drink on the run.

"You've got to practice," says Dr. Wright, an orthopedic surgeon -- and a marathoner -- who directs UPMC's Performance Research and Initiative for Master Athletes. "You're going to be: do I stop, do I go, do I walk? And then you're going to drink, and it's going to go up your nose. You're drowning in Gatorade."

So she shows me the drill on Shadyside Hospital's front lawn: grab the cup, squeeze the top narrow and flat, drink while slowing to a jog or a slow walk, and down it in one gulp. I feel ridiculous. I also feel a little smarter.

That's the point, she says: "Race day logistics are key."

From clothes to shoes to fuel, nothing a runner does should be new in the days before a race.

That's why Dr. Wright thinks my sports-drink discovery 17 miles into that long run was important -- knowing now will prevent meltdown on May 15.

"You may be like me," she says. "Those gels actually drop my blood sugar. You may need more complex carbs. Like maybe you need a bar. I need Oreos. I know, it's crazy, but it's more complex sugar and that's what I eat, Chips Ahoy! and Oreos."

She agrees with Mr. DeAngelo -- I should recruit someone to wait two-thirds into the end of the race with a drink. "And not a chug bottle," she adds, "a squirt bottle." Make sure the person is easy to spot -- she and her father, another runner, have planned to meet during races, then passed each other without knowing it.

Crossing the finish line and entering the chute that leads runners back into the world provide one more chance to listen to your body. And to what's happening inside your head.

"The first thing you do is you head right for something liquid," Dr. Wright says. "You grab two bottles of it. You chug the first one. And then you slowly walk through and you get your carb.

"But don't go through the chute too fast, because you've been waiting six months to get in this chute. So just sit there or hang out or don't go anywhere. And take a few minutes to reflect. You trained for six months for this. Stop to notice -- it's like any big life event. It sounds stupid, but it's not."


Leslie Rubinkowski, a former Post-Gazette features writer, teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and at Goucher College, Maryland, and is the author of "Impersonating Elvis." She ran her first mile last May.


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