My long runs will finally return to being long for real this weekend. I have a two-hour long and steady scheduled for tomorrow morning. I'm looking forward to this because last weekend's hour-and-45-minute effort felt so good. But I have a secret I didn't share, a factor that may have contributed to the run's niceness.
Now I know a lot of people fuel before every training run, or at least before every long one. And not only that, they also carry fuel with them for the "during" part. I don't usually do that. In the long-ago past, I didn't do it because, well, at first no one told me I should and later on I was afraid of what it would do to my gut. In the first three marathons I ran (Houston in 1997, Boulder and New York in 2005), I ate and drank nothing but water during the races or the training runs that preceded them (with the exception of New York, before which I did consume a bagel because the start was relatively late).
My fourth marathon, Top of Utah last month, was the first marathon where I fueled consciously before and during the race. And yeah, it made a *huge* difference in the way I felt. (Yes, I bonked, but that was due to stupid race execution, not fueling mistakes.)
So now that I know better (and know, more or less, how to handle my gut), why don't I fuel before and during my training runs? Because of an article on the marathon long run that Greg McMillan wrote. McMillan training plans like mine include two types of long runs: long steady ones and fast finish efforts, the latter being where you DO fuel before and during because you are trying to simulate race conditions and get your body used to race pace and preparations. In contrast, for the long steady ones, where time on your feet at a relatively easy pace is the only goal of the workout, McMillan advocates NOT fueling.
You avoid fueling on the long steadies, he writes, "so that the muscles will become better at sparing the carbohydrate
stores, more efficient at burning fat and used to running with lowered
blood glucose levels. Now, many people think I'm crazy when I say this,
but it works. It takes time to get adjusted to it if you have always
been carbing up before and during your long runs, but with time and
practice you can do it." (He does note that it is important to
drink water and electrolytes throughout these runs and he recommends carrying an energy gel with you just in
case you run into problems, like taking a wrong turn that adds unexpected time and distance.)
This is what I did during Top of Utah training, and it is what I have been planning to do for Houston training too. I don't know if it made my body more efficient at fat-burning and sparing carbs, but because of my prior races where I never fueled, I knew I could at least handle it and I figured it couldn't hurt. And I found my long runs without fueling were more consistently successful than my attempts at fueled fast-finish long ones (though I think that's due more to running too fast during the week and leaving nothing in the tank for these efforts, something I'm trying to improve this time by running more conservatively during the week).
Then came last weekend's long run. Why did I eat something before the run? Because I slept in and woke up hungry. My body is used to waking up early and not eating before a run. I've gotten to the point where I don't even consider eating while I'm knocking around in the dark getting my clothing on and sucking down some water (on the fast-finish long runs last cycle, I had to put Shot Bloks etc. out with my clothing to remind myself that this time I was *supposed* to eat to practice for race day). But push me too much past my usual breakfast time and it's harder not to eat. What can I say? The sun was shining like orange juice into the kitchen. My whole family was awake. I took one look at my kids' tasty Cheerios and smelled Dan's toast....and I had to eat something. The something was a package of Cran-Razz Shot Bloks. Yum. Result? Great run.
And now, because I felt so good, I'm wondering if I shouldn't always eat before and during. After all, I'm not one of McMillan's elites, for whom changes like this to their finely-honed routines might give them a real edge. What do you think? Is making the fueling a part of the "race day" advantage worth some bonky long ones in training? Or should I just eat something already?