If you do any type of long-distance running, or know someone who does, you may have seen a wide variety of powders, gels, and homemade concoctions used to power through hours-long runs.
Nick Wagner, director of finance and operations at VICE, has been running since college. In 2014 when Wagner started competing in races, he also started experimenting in earnest with running fuel. To date, he’s done two marathons, six half-marathons, and four 5Ks. Figuring out the right strategy for what to ingest—and when—has been a trial-and-error process for him.
“Eating the right foods is crucially important, not only to keep you going for the full run, but so you don’t shit yourself during the race,” which Wagner says is more common than you’d think. He personally has never done so, but has seen other runners who have, which is why he avoids “anything that has to do with coffee” because it causes jitter and “you either ruin your time [going to the bathroom], or you shit yourself.”
Below, he offers his reviews of various running foods, with one warning: try these while training, not at the race. “It’s important to never do anything 100 percent new on race day,” he says. “That’s an unspoken rule between all runners.”
Honey Stinger Waffles
Wagner likes to eat these waffles “as you’re getting ready to go out for the run, so you don’t have a stomach full of stuff you can get cramps from.” You need sugar and carbohydrates, but “you shouldn’t go and eat a gallon of ice cream before you run.” The key is for your pre-run food to be “lean and nutritious, so that you can go as far as you need to go.”
The waffles are good for shorter runs while he’s training, but when he tried one before a race, it wasn’t enough. “I needed more. If you have a meal and want something extra [the waffle is] a bonus, but not something you should rely on…to last multiple miles before you have to have your first gel.”
Clifbar Clif Shot Energy Gels
Gels are “an important facet of every long distance runner. You will always see them carrying it, or see them being handed off.”
Gels come with and without caffeine. When Wagner first tried the non-caffeinated gels, “I had morning workouts at 5:30 AM and realized that I needed a cup of coffee or something to wake me up in the morning. I was sluggish,” he says. But he didn’t like the feeling, so when he found out Clifbar made gels with 25 mg of caffeine, he tried them out.
They don’t make you jittery, but “you’re a little bit more conscious…a little sharper early in the morning,” he says. He prefers raspberry and strawberry flavors, takes one right before training, and during the race he carries four, then asks someone to pass more to him at a certain mile.
Stinger also makes gels, and Wagner likes the flavors they offer, like lemon lime and fruit punch. But he prefers Clif gels because of the packaging. “They’re easier to tear open, and they have a loop so you can put them on your belt and have them dangle off of you. When you need it, you can rip it off, tear it open, and eat it real quick.”
Wagner advises that the consistency of gels is thick, which should factor into your flavor choice. “I’ve had the Clif chocolate and vanilla, both are disgustingly gross.” There are even pizza flavors. To that, he says: “I would die.”
With gel intake, Wagner says timing is important. For example, “if I had it too late, the burn of the food wouldn’t get me as far as I needed, then I’d have to take gels sooner in the run,” he says. I want to have as many miles that are clean at the beginning than slow down and take more gels too early in the run. Too late, and you cramp up.”
Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Drink Mix
Skratch is a high-density electrolyte powder that is used to stay hydrated … with less sugar than Gatorade, Wagner says. “While I was training, I had a harness and I would carry it with fluid so I would be able to go longer and further without having my muscles lock up.”
Through trial and error, he figured out a “very particular balance of water and Skratch solution.” But harnesses aren’t allowed during marathons, so he had to carry the mixture in a bottle and asked his parents to have more for him at a meeting point at mile 11. “They weren’t there, so I kept running and grabbed three extra cups of the solution at the Gatorade stand,” he says. The substitute didn’t work as well, however, and his legs cramped up at mile 22.
“On race day I do oatmeal, granola, and blueberries an hour before [the race] because there’s time to have it pass into the small intestine, it’s not as heavy, you’ve got your sugar, your complex carbs, and fruits for other general nutrients and antioxidants. It helps you have your digestive system lock up so you don’t shit yourself during the race.”
“The big thing whenever you read these articles is that everyone is wildly different,” Wagner says, “but at the same time we need the same thing: water, electrolytes, and some form of nutrition while you’re pushing yourself to the limit.”
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