Are you in the midst of training for a half or full marathon? If the answer is yes, I’m guessing that carbohydrate gels are a big part of your training routine. Even if the answer is no, there’s probably a good chance that you consume these gels, chews or other such supplements to get through your runs.
While these gels have a place in long distance run training, of late, runners have been overusing them, believing they need the supplements for even short runs. That overuse comes with some heavy consequences.
Here’s the deal: Our bodies are designed to run on either sugar or fat. Sugar, or glycogen, comes in very limited stores. Fat, on the other hand, is available in a nearly endless supply. The trick is to teach your body to access that fat. When you overuse carbohydrate supplements like gels, your body doesn’t get the chance to learn this and it fails to access fat for fuel.
The result of this inability to access fat in a race or a long run is what’s classically known as a bonk. The result of the inability to access fat on a regular basis is slower running and unwanted calories.
So when and where should you use gels and how do you break your dependence on them? You train your body to access fat by practicing runs in a glycogen depleted (GD) state.
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Running is a learning process. I’m far from the runner I was two years ago, and unrecognizable from the one I was when I first started. There are so many mistakes to learn from and so many trials and errors to experience. It’s been six years since I put on my first pair of running shoes and began my journey. As I prepare for my long run this weekend, I can certainly say I learned one lesson the hard way: The issue of refueling during runs. This took a lot of trials and even more errors on my part. But today, my pantry is stocked with my fuel of choice and I hope my days of struggling with mid-run fuel is over.
Recently, NPR’s food blog “The Salt” reported on the issue of using real food as athletic fuel. That is, real food instead of the many popular gels, chews, and drink mixes. The title alone made me laugh at my former self. I recalled my early days in training for my first marathons. I was so convinced that I needed all natural foods. On long runs, I toted around the most cumbersome bags loaded with fresh fruit, honey, or even nuts. I was trying so hard to live up to this uber-natural standard I placed on myself. Furthermore, all awkwardness aside, these methods weren’t working. I wasn’t feeling any energy from my fuel and even worse, I was having such a hard time digesting these foods while on the run. Come marathon day, there was no way I could run a strong, fast race with these issues and a pantry in my shorts.
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