Race Fueling Strategies

…. I get by with a little help from my friends…

I don’t know if this old tune popped into my head because I am already thinking up candlelighting poems for my son’s Bar Mitzvah while matching each poem with a corresponding song or if it’s because I enlisted the help of Michele from Paleo Running Momma to talk to us today all about race fueling strategies.

…Oh I get by with a little help from my friends…

Michele is not only my friend, not only a Paleo running mom but also a certified running coach.

paleo running mama

Flashback to May when we spent the day shopping and eating at Roosevelt Field Mall.

Michele’s running knowledge and race experiences are perfect for assisting us in further understanding the how, what, when, where and why of fueling strategies for races.

Sometimes we think we have our personal race strategies all figured out only to decide we need to make an adjustment which is why it’s always awesome to keep reading up on our running topics to find a new method, perspective, product or training technique to incorporate into our routine.

fueling strategies for runners

Do we need to take in fuel during a 5k and even a 10k? If so, does it matter at which point or is it a personal preference?

For a 5k or 10k you won’t need to fuel during the race itself, but what you eat prior to the race and leading up to it will make a difference in performance.  You will want to be running your fastest and will be using carbs and glycogen stores for fuel, so increasing your carbs just a bit the night before will make sure your glycogen stores are topped off.
Prior to the race, quick burning carbs like a banana, toast, or something else high in carbs but low in fiber will help you race your best.  No need to think about protein or fat prior to a race, that’s for afterwards.

For a half marathon, at what point should we begin fueling? Is it true that the hour mark is best because they say that’s when we have burned through glycogen?


For a half marathon or longer distance, you will also want your glycogen stores topped off (just as when you’re racing shorter distances), but now, fueling during the race will also be necessary for you to perform your best.
Assuming you’ve had a pre-race breakfast, taking in your first fuel about 45 minutes into the race is a good strategy, to get just a bit ahead of your glycogen stores.  This is a personal preference and you’ll need to practice your fueling strategy during training runs to see what makes you feel your best.
A good rule is to fuel every 45 minutes or so, but if that feels like too much or too little, you can adjust the timing.

Which types of fuel do you recommend? What should we look for in a fuel?

race fueling strategies for runners

Personally, I like fuel that’s “real food” or from natural, organic sources.  There are so many products on the market and it does take some experimentation to figure out what works best for your digestion, personal tastes, and energy.
Even though I eat paleo, I do think running fuel can be an exception if you find a gel that works really well for you – you are burning through this immediately during the run anyway and it won’t have any bearing on your health overall.
During this training cycle, I’ve been using Clif Organic Energy Food pouches and they’ve been fabulous.
Prior to paleo, I stuck will Vanilla flavored Hammer gels but they taste way too sweet to me now!

Is it possible to run a half without fueling?

Yes, it is, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to perform at your peak.  After we burn through our glycogen, our body will turn to fat stores for energy.
When we run on fat and aren’t accustomed to it, we can run but our speed is limited and often we feel like we’ve “hit the wall” or just can’t muster up energy to hit our regular paces.
There are ways to train our bodies to run faster using fat for energy (glycogen depletion training), but it isn’t recommended for beginning runners, and, even after doing this type of training, you’ll likely still want the boost you get from fuel to perform your best.

How long before a race should we test out fuel? Should we only try it during our long runs?

If you’re doing long runs weekly for 12 weeks or so leading up to the race, you should start practicing your fueling strategy as a regular part of your long run, even if it’s not up to the peak distance.
There’s no need to practice fueling for shorter runs since it won’t give you a good indication of how you’ll feel running longer distance.  However, you can practice fueling during tempo runs or speed sessions to see what works for your system when running at race pace.

Can we quickly address water stops and Gatorade?

Do I grab the Gatorade even if I didn’t practice drinking Gatorade during my training runs?

If you didn’t train with Gatorade, I wouldn’t advise drinking it during a race.

There are usually so many water stops. Do I need to take water from them all?

This is really a personal preference and something you have to figure out with your training since so many factors (weather!) impact how much you need to actually hydrate during the race.

I do recommend though that you try to take in some water with your fuel as it helps to dilute the sugar a bit and keep you hydrated.


Read more from Michele and learn more about her online running coach services here.


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Are you a water grabber or Gatorade grabber?

Favorite gel/race fuel at the moment?

Have more questions for Michele? Ask in the comments!

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  1. says

    I tend to stay away from gatorade because I don’t practice with it, however I have been desperate and had it in races from time to time. I read ” The new rules of marathon and half marathon nutrition” this summer where this is addressed. If you can figure out a way to drink water with your gels, and also gatorade at different times, that could work, but I find it way too complicated to plan out all the water stops!
    Lisa @ Running Out Of Wine recently posted…The Things I Won’t Run WithoutMy Profile

    • says

      Way way too complicated! I promised myself I would never skip the first water stop ever again but beyond that, I can’t plan the water stops out either. Like Michele said, it depends on the weather so hopefully next week is a little cooler which doesn’t leave me feeling as thirsty as the hot humid weather runs.

  2. says

    I loved this interview! Really helpful. I used to always grab gatorade, but it gives me horrible cramps! Now I’ll only grab it if I’m desperate or if it’s a really hot day. The only gel that works for my sensitive stomach is honey stingers..they taste so good and are really easy on my stomach!
    Gretchen | Gretchruns recently posted…Fashion Talk : The Emmy’sMy Profile

  3. says

    I always go for water over Gatorade since I am allergic to most Gatorade flavors. One thing I need to transition to is fueling during a race, thus far I haven’t actually during any of my four halfs. The first one I ran with no food before either…never again, but since then the most I’ve had is 120-150 calories in GF pretzels and a cheese stick before a half! Definitely not optimal for a marathon.
    Alyssa @ Renaissancerunnergirl recently posted…Peanut Butter Confetti MuffinsMy Profile

    • says

      I have never trained for a marathon but for sure I would think we need fuel for 26.2 miles! I relied on jelly beans for the first bunch of halfs I have run but next week I am going with hammer gel. I definitely feel the positive effects by taking one in the middle of my long runs so hopefully it helps during the race too.

  4. says

    My fueling is so different depending on the race. I train based on glycogen depletion and do not fuel for any long runs under 17 miles. Because of that, my fueling during races are a bit different. I usually take one Gu (Espresso Love – best flavor EVER!) around mile 14, and then after mile 16 I walk through the water stations and take one Gatorade (every other station) and two waters (every station). Great post with great tips !! 🙂
    Jamie recently posted…Tuesday on the RunMy Profile

  5. says

    This is a very good read, prior to fall races. I guess I am lucky and can pretty much tolerate anything. I use mileage as an indicator as to when I need to fuel. I spill everything on myself so I try to drink water during runs, but crave Coke when I am done. Thanks

  6. says

    I love this post because it addresses a little bit of everything. I actually did my first two half marathons without feeling during the race and then wondered why I couldn’t perform to the best of my abilities. But the truth is – I hadn’t done the research so I didn’t know!
    Now I take a Gu during long runs longer than 14km and halfway during a half marathon. I’m intrigued by the idea of taking it at the 45 min mark though and am eager to try it out!!
    Grace @ Diary of a Running Snail recently posted…My Favourite Podcasts (I Can’t Believe I Am Writing This)My Profile

    • says

      I was hoping to touch on a little everything – I am glad it appeared that way! I just started taking in the hammer gel starting around 45 -50 minutes. It’s a good point in the run to do so I think!

  7. says

    Great tips! I avoid Gatorade at the races, since I don’t train for it and it can upset my stomach. Right now I love maple bacon GU – it’s a bit salty and slightly sweet but not as sweet as other GUs. I like to “sip” my fuel for a few miles – it gives a nice trickle of energy.
    Laura @ This Runner’s Recipes recently posted…Marathon Specific WorkoutsMy Profile

    • says

      I have never tried GU, is that weird? I went so long only using jelly beans until recently graduating to hammer gels. Since I like the raspberry, I bought a case and am sticking with it lol. I “sip” it too, I don’t take it all at once, I like the gradual effect.

  8. says

    I HATE gel and Gatorade! Gatorade is just crap chemicals and makes my stomach upset – I like Nuun. And I just hate gels. I’m still on a “trial and error” with fueling b/c I still feel like I’m losing some energy around 20 miles, but this last marathon was an improvement from last year, and I think fueling was what helped.
    This year, I started fueling at mile 2 with Nuun, and then every 2 miles (20 minutes), I was fueling. Mile 4 was 2 gummies with water from the water stop; mile 6 was just Nuun; and then back and forth with water/gummies, and Nuun every 2 miles. They had water stops at EVERY mile, so since I knew that, I could plan accordingly lol. I just feel like I need something MORE around 3.5-4 hours into the marathon b/c I’m just losing energy, and even though I did better this year with fueling MORE, it just didn’t seem to be enough. Or maybe it really was just mental…I dunno. I am kinda lost as to what else to try.
    Nikki @ will run for pizza recently posted…5 things on Sunday.My Profile