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Four Steps to Mastering Aid Stations on a Hot Race Day (Marathon & Half Marathon Edition)

30 July

Aid Station Photo
Running in the heat of the summer means learning how to manage your nutrition and hydration properly. Ignoring what your body needs will not only lead to a poor run, but it can set you back several days in terms of recovery. We’ve all had those runs where we’ve run out of food or fluids and suffered because of it.

Racing in the heat, on the other hand, requires the deliberate implementation of a plan that you know will allow you to be at your best. This plan is developed over time, and is the direct result of many runs in the heat that have taught you about your body’s needs.

Heading out for a run on a hot day means bringing your own nutrition. You can choose how much and what type of fluid to bring, as well as what types of fuel: gels, blocks, bars, you name it. You can store it all in your trusty Fuelbelt (, and even plan for scheduled pit stops along the way.

In a race, however, is more efficient to use the resources available on the course for your nutrition plan. Here are a few simple steps to make sure that your next race nutrition plan is the best it can be.

Step 1: Assess the Race Distance

If your next event is a 5K or 10K, odds are you won’t need a lot of on course nutrition. Both of those efforts take, for most runners, less  than an hour to complete. Maybe you want to carry a gel in the event that you do start to fade. This is very unlikely, especially if you have fueled properly pre-race.

At the shorter distances you might not need to rely on the regular on course nutrition. If you are training for a longer race, however, then almost every single training run is an opportunity to practice your race fueling.

In other words, the distance of your target race determines your fueling focus in the weeks and months leading up your race.

Step 2: Know Your Needs

Not if you know what’s on the course, it’s time for you to reconcile that with what your body needs. Your body has two distinct sets of needs in a race: fluids and fuel. Ideally, you have learned over time what it is your body needs and when it needs it. That is a much better place to start than by using any formula you can find online. That said, you can always be more precise.

Your Fluids

The best place to start is by conducting a sweat test, such as follows:

  • Take body weight before a one-hour moderate intensity or run.
  • Record the amount of liquid consumed during workout, and weigh yourself again after the workout.
  • Calculate the weight change and remember to add in the amount of liquid consumed during the workout.
  • Every pound lost during your workout is equal to 16 oz of fluid.
  • Note: Most people’s sweat contains about 500mg of sodium per 16oz, so plan accordingly.

Ideally this test will be conducted in conditions similar to what to expect on race day. In other words, doing a sweat test outside in the winter will have little to no relevance to your July race. Remember that you can do repeat sweat tests as often as needed, simply by weighing yourself before and after your long run.

For example, if you discovered that after your sweat test you lost 1.5 pounds in your hour of running, that means you will need to target 24 ounces of fluid an hour. Most aid station cups hold approximately 4 ounces of fluid, meaning you would need to hit at least six stations to be on target.

Reminder: Don’t forget the sodium! Make sure your sports drink contains at least 500 mg of sodium for every 16 ounces.

Your Fuel

At a minimum, your fuel needs for the run are at least 0.3 grams of carbohydrate per hour, per pound of bodyweight. As an example, and 150 pound runner should shoot for approximately 45 g of carbohydrates an hour.

Most energy gels have approximately 27 g carbohydrates, so this runner should target one gel for every 30 min. Be sure to do the math for your own weight to be precise.

Remember this will be in addition to any calories consumed from your sports drink of choice.

Your Practice

Having a plan is one thing, being able to execute it is another. Now that you have your fueling plan in place, every single run as an opportunity to start training your body to handle the fuel it needs to perform at its best.

This will undoubtedly take repetition and tweaking, so be patient. You may need to change types of fuel, flavors of fuel, and even your means of transporting it. But if it means having a great race, it’s totally worth it.

Step 3: Research the Available Nutrition

If there is one constant in the road running scene, is the fact that nutrition on the course will change with almost every single race! If you have decided that you will need to use the on course nutrition for your day, and be sure to do your research on the event website or by calling the event director directly to ascertain what will be available on the course.

In addition to finding out the types of fuel that will be available, you’ll also want to find out the frequency at which they will be placed. While longer races such as the marathon typically have 8 stations every mile, quite often half marathon offense will have a stations every 2 miles. In fact, if you’re running a smaller marathon, one that’s off the beaten path, the 8 stations might also be infrequently placed.

Either way, you want to know both factors as they will determine what, if anything, you need to carry to get you between the stations.

Thanks to Step 2 above, you already know what you need to be at your best. Using those numbers as a target, do the math on what’s available on the course.

The best case scenario will be where all you need to carry with you is your fuel, and you can take advantage of the fluids on the course.

However, if the fluids available on the course to not have sufficient sodium to meet your needs, you have 2 choices: You can either carry your own salt pills is to supplement the fluids available, or you can choose to carry your own sports drink.  Option number 1 is definitely preferred simply because salt pills are much lighter than fluids!

Step 4: Executing Your Nutrition Plan

Putting everything together on race day is the true test of your ability to race. Being able to adjust your plan to the conditions on the day, as well as the setup of the course, will determine your overall performance.

Do your best to remain as consistent and true to your training nutrition plan as possible. Pay close attention to what you can and cannot do. After the race, take the time to notes how you implemented your nutrition plan, as this will dictate how you improve for next time.

For more tips on how to handle an station in a running race, click here to watch this video from Coach Patrick McCrann.

photo by: zhurnaly
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