Gluten-Free Fueling for Runners (and Marathon Training)

For the vast majority of my life, I was a breakfast-skipper. My stomach couldn’t tolerate food first thing in the morning — just thought of eating made me nauseous — and I generally ate my first bites of food at lunch. There is no doubt in my mind that this helped contribute to my overweight status, and, of course, those lunches were decidedly *not* gluten free.

And, for the first couple of years after eliminating gluten, I still skipped breakfast, meaning I was ravenous by lunch (and, yes, overindulging to compensate).

Then I took up distance walking. I still skipped breakfast on those long-walk days, but carried food with me. I couldn’t do the long walks without something to help. Once I started distance running, it all changed. And many people have asked me how I manage to run long distances while remaining gluten free, with a special concern over how I manage breakfast.

(Tl;DR version of this post: it’s pretty darn easy!)

I know I need fuel. By some estimates, the body stores about two hours of carbohydrate-based fuel. If you’re doing a short run, that is more than sufficient. But I run half and full marathons. Right now, my training runs are a *minimum* of two-and-a-half hours. That time is filled with a lot of hills, and a lot of effort. I can feel my body needing extra energy at about six miles, or at about the two-hour mark.

Food is fuel. We need it to get through the day, through the night, and through exercise. Even though I practice a slow carb diet, I embrace carbs and the good they do for my personal fitness goals. What I’ve learned since taking up running is that the way I fuel my body has a direct relationship with my performance; for example, amazingly (seriously!), my long runs the day after Thanksgiving — I use those hours to decompress — can be real challenges because by the time I serve the meal, I’m over the idea of food. I actually *undercarb* during the holiday. Every year, I vow to be smarter.

So, here are my tips for keeping well-fueled as a gluten-free runner (or walker, or athlete); the key to this advice is listen to your body, eat what makes you feel good:

  1. Breakfast. I’ve turned into a breakfast eater. I still don’t eat traditional breakfast foods (no pancakes, muffins, or toast for me), but I *do* eat breakfast every day now. My body demands it. Before my long run, I eat plain white rice with a poached egg (topped with a bit of salt and pepper). After some trial and error, this combination works best for me. Carbs plus protein are essential for fueling my runs. Basically, try to get a balance of macronutrients: good fats (eggs, avocado), protein (eggs, again), and carbs (mine comes from rice). On other days, I tend toward proteins like eggs and cottage cheese with fruits for those all-important carbs.
  2. Mid-Run Fuel. I will confess that I’m not a huge Gu fan, though the Salted Caramel flavor is okay (the husband buys it by the case). For years, I carried Gu Chomps (and still will), but I’ve switched to Skratch chews. They taste good, are gluten free, and fit neatly in the pockets of my running shorts and tights. I also carry Stinger brand organic honey gels — these are perfect for me. No grumbling from my stomach. I start fueling around the six-mile mark, and ingest a little bit every half hour or so. When I skip this step, my legs die. Smaller quantities of food work best for me as my stomach rebels when I overindulge mid-run. There are formulas for calculating the amount of carbs you need during a run, but, again, listen to your body.
  3. Hydration. Former advice was to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Better advice is to drink when you feel thirsty. For me, tiny sips work best, and I’ve recently become a (reluctant) convert to the sip, swish, and spit method. I carry a full bottle of Skratch for any run over 8 miles. I may not drink it all, but it’s there when I need it. Gatorade was my drink of choice before I switched to Skratch; it was fine, but I always felt bloated for days after the long run. Skratch doesn’t make me feel icky after my run. Your mileage may vary (see what I did there?).
  4. Post-Run. My post-race snack is, okay, potato chips. This is the one time I indulge in my absolute favorite food in the universe guilt free. Because I don’t know the provenance of most post-race foods (and I’m not a fan of bananas), I make sure my go-bag has my preferred snacks so they’re waiting for me when I finish. When it comes to training runs, I enjoy a spoonful of peanut butter and fruit right after I pull off my shoes. Lunch is usually a baked potato with chicken curry or something similar. Carbs and protein, my favorite couple.
  5. The Carbo Load. I am not 100% convinced that the carbo load truly works, but I still do it. The week before a race, I increase my overall carbs. The day before a long training run, I indulge in a big bowl of Pho, plus carbs for dinner. Generally, my body burns through these while I sleep, but some of the carbs get stored in my muscles as glucose for the morning’s run.
  6. The Rest of the Time. I stick to my regular diet throughout the week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my short run days, I increase my intake of fruit, and, after the run, especially if I’m running on the treadmill at the gym near my office, I eat a Kind bar while I’m driving home (it’s an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive, so, yeah, without that fuel, I’d be hungry and tired).

This is my basic plan, and it’s serves me well. I keep refining my actual meals as I get better at eating breakfast (yeah, I know most people have this mastered by age six), and I find foods that I love in other circumstances don’t work during intense workouts. It’s an ongoing experiment.

How do you fuel during exercise?

Tip of the Week

Never try something new, be it food or clothing, on race day. Get your routine down during your training. You can wear your new race jersey for your next training run after the event!

Gluten-Free Meal of the Week

Post-run, I look forward to lunch like a five-year old looks forward to Christmas morning. Maybe more. As mentioned, I tend to focus on protein and carbs, which can be the healthy baked potato and curry combo I mentioned or, ahem, a big juicy cheeseburger on a gluten-free bun (and a side of fries!). Obviously, that option is rare as finding a gluten-free bun to enjoy is a challenge.

One favorite lunch (or brunch, if you must) brings together the potato and the protein in a fun way: corned beef hash topped with a fried egg. Serious post-run heaven. I, of course, ruin the decadence by getting fruit on the side, but make up for it by enjoying wine or a mimosa. When you’ve run a long way, it’s all good, right?

  • Corned Beef Hash
  • Fried Eggs
  • Fruit
  • Beverage of your Choice
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