marathon meals: fueling on the go

ambassador - running marathon ambassador Heather Calcote runs with a Camelbak for hydration

Refueling during a marathon can be quite the challenge and isn’t always the prettiest sight. Those who manage to get more water in their mouth than on their bibs consider themselves lucky. lululemon ambassador Heather Calcote shares how she mastered fueling on the go.

marathon meals: fueling on the go

running on empty

While I was training for my marathon I experimented with quite a few different fueling strategies. Nothing ever worked the magic I hoped it would and I had a hard time stomaching “food” on the go. On race day, intense nausea joined the party around mile 14 and I knew trouble was ahead.

As a dietitian I had to admit defeat. I hadn’t properly researched how to fuel for long distance runs and it certainly got the best of me. When I started training for marathon #2, I learned the value and importance of electrolytes, glucose, hydration and the art of planning ahead.

energy burning science

The muscles and brain use glucose (a form of sugar) to function. As we exercise, they burn through what is readily available in the muscles & liver (stored as glycogen). That “hitting the wall” feeling results from the depletion of your body’s glucose storage and the need to be refueled.

finding your fuel

Carbohydrate fuel sources that work the “best” to restore glucose levels will vary depending on each athlete. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Gu and gels*
  • gummy chews (e.g. Clif Bar Shot Bloks)*
  • snack foods (pretzels, crackers)
  • high carb Snack bars (e.g. Larabar)
  • sport drinks (e.g. Gatorade, Accelerade)*
  • honey or agave
    *keep in mind that sport-specific products will contain electrolytes (sodium, potassium) in addition to sugar.

don’t get stuck on empty

  • 60 minutes or less of exercise: you have adequate body stores of glucose to maintain activity and energy. Drink water as needed.
  • 60-75 minutes of exercise: aim to take in 100-250 calories, rehydrate with water and/or sport drink*
  • more than 75 minutes of exercise: take 1-2.5 sport gels (100-250+ calories) and/or 14-60oz of sport drink per hour*
    *specific caloric and fluid ounce needs differ based on athlete’s weight, endurance level, the weather and amount of time spent exercising

timing is everything

I typically take in calories every 5-6 miles (when running any longer than 90 minutes) and take water with me on every run when it’s hot out. During the winter and long runs, I drink fluids every other mile.

What works for Heather may not be your secret sauce. Use your training runs to experiment with different types of fuel, timing and amounts that work for you. Let us know what you stock in your fuel belt!

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Thanks for this post! Great timing, as I just posted today about my quest for the right fuel as I am training for my first full marathon! :D I am definitely open to suggestions and feedback!!!

Comment by Krissy @ Shiawase Life — September 20, 2011 @ 8:22 am

Hi! I’ve done over 5 full marathons and I too went through the experimentation phase with GUs, Chews, Beans, etc. This is what has worked ideally for me. (Please note I have a sensitive stomach and sweat a LOT while racing) During the race, I hydrate with Cytomax in Tangy Orange and use GU – Jet Blackberry and/or Vanilla every 35 mins. It says to GU every 45 mins but it takes me about 15 mins to digest so I take it early. I have been following this routine for the past year and I haven’t hit the WALL until mile 25. Immediately after a run I have a protein drink (Muscle Milk Light in Chocolate) to replenish my muscles.

Comment by Michelle — September 20, 2011 @ 8:30 am

Hi! I’m surprised you didn’t list Nuun tablets! These are electrolyte hydratipon tablets that don’t contain all of the sugar that Gatorade and Powerade have. they taste terrible unless you are actually sweating and they have really imporved my performance in endurance events! Check them out at

Comment by Martha — September 20, 2011 @ 8:31 am

Great article, Heather! I find that eating some real food (larabars) and also having shot bloks or Clif shots on hand during 2+ hr runs are really helpful. During my first few marathons I only fueled with gu and found that my stomach got really upset from all the sugar, but fueling with other things that are a little slower to hit the blood stream has helped. I also love accelerade or half gatorade/half water in my handheld water bottle.

Comment by Lauren @ Sassy Molassy — September 20, 2011 @ 8:44 am

Great post! And of course I love the pic. Good luck as you train for October Marathon.

Comment by Mamacita — September 20, 2011 @ 9:47 am

Thanks for your tips! I trained for my first marathon last year and learned the hard way that I can’t stomach taking gels/gu with anything but water. It causes a bad reaction (and is more common for people than I expected!) when taken with gatorade.

I found last year that taking a gel/gu at miles 6, 12 and 18 really helped me fuel properly for the marathon. I didn’t experience “the wall”. I alternated drinking water/gatorade throughout–but made sure to take the gu/gel with water!.

Comment by Karen — September 20, 2011 @ 10:09 am

Krissy – I’ll head over to your post and be in touch soon!

Michelle – so great to hear you’ve found the routine that works for you! Even recommending “timing tips” can be hard, because each athlete truly is unique in what will/won’t work for them.

Martha – I LOVE Nuun tablets! I actually just started using these and have been really pleased. I have to pay even more attention to sodium, as I sweat a lot, too – once I found my routine with electrolyte replacement + fueling, it made all the difference in the world!

Thanks, Lauren! Accelerade is another favorite of mine, too :)

Comment by Heather @ Dietitian on the Run — September 20, 2011 @ 10:24 am

Great tips from you as well, Karen! All goes to show that each person has to find the routine they like – I’ve never had success with the gels, but am a big fan of the Shot Bloks and/or Larabar snack!

Comment by Heather @ Dietitian on the Run — September 20, 2011 @ 11:37 am

Mike Arnstein is a vegan runner that just won Vermont 100 mile. Sure there is more and more vegan elite athletes out there but the funny thing about Mike Arnstein is that he won the V100 on his fruitarian diet lol!

Nothing beats fruit for before, during and after in regards to athletic performance.

Comment by Speed work Scott — September 21, 2011 @ 5:29 am

Very true, Scott! Fruits are a great source of natural sugars/carbohydrates.

Comment by Heather @ Dietitian on the Run — September 21, 2011 @ 8:37 am

I find that Electrolyte Stamina tablets or MetaSalt capsules are better alternatives for endurance athletes than sports drinks, they are more portable and do not cause GI distress- drinking water alone can cause hyponatremia. Also an insufficiency in electrolytes, which is cumulative, causes muscle fatigue. A carb/sugar based supplement is necessary, but most people are not adequately supplementing electrolytes before/during/after a race or training session, particularly magnesium. If you are a heavy sweater….then you need even more.

Comment by Karen — September 21, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

Also, don’t forget, practice eating while you run well BEFORE long races. Usually races will identify in advance what they’ll serve for drinks (almost always the lemon lime flavor of powerade or gatorade) and gu/food. Practice with those flavors to see if what the race provides you is ok for you, otherwise you will need to work on carrying your own.

Comment by Jonny — October 4, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

Jonny, thanks for your comment. Practice is totally essential! I’ve even experimented with a few things on shorter runs, just to see how it works out.

Comment by Heather @ Dietitian on the Run — October 5, 2011 @ 10:15 am

One major thing for me is that I have a hard time chugging water before a race to hydrate. So I make sure to really focus on that leading up to the big event.

Comment by The Get In Shape Girl — October 13, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

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