At Complete Running, Mark Iocchelli and Steve “Runner” Walker are debating about whether or not you should refuel during a marathon or whether you should just stick to water. Both make some good points, but I definately side with Steve on this one. I have learned what works well for my body, and everybody needs to learn what works for them. I do believe that there are a few guidelines that can make a difference, though, and that are a good basis to experiment with.

First, my credentials. I have run more marathons than Mark, and not quite as many as Steve. I’ve run all of my marathons faster than either of them, owing largely to my age and the fact that I am only a 5 or 6 years removed from averaging 85-100 miles per week throughout the course of a year. My goals tend to be a little different than what they might put down as well; depending upon how my next few year’s of training and racing go I would not be surprised if my barely attainable goals move down towards a trials qualifier.

I never began fueling during a marathon until number 4 or 5. My first Boston Qualifier was based solely upon water during the run. Even now, the vast majority of my training runs are done not only without mid-run fueling but usually without mid-run water. I will go up to 20 miles without water, although I prefer not to go over around 16 miles if I can’t get a drink along the way. I never drink gatorade while working out; I save it for before or after the run (usually after). In that respect, I tend to side with Mark; it is good to get the body used to doing without.

About two months before each marathon, I will start taking gels with me on my longer runs to get my body used to using them again. For a twenty to twenty five mile run I will usually have only 1 or 2 gel packs. My body can let me know if it has decided that it doesn’t like what I am using over the previous 4 or 5 months since the last marathon, and it lets my body know that good things are coming.

My diet the week before a race is pretty similar to my diet for the rest of the year. I will tend towards eating some sort of pasta dishes in the day or two before a race, but I eat pasta between 4 and 6 nights per week anyway. What and how I eat the morning of a race depends upon what time the race is at; fueling for New York or Boston is much different than fueling for San Antonio or Mystic Places.

During the race, I will consume between 4 and 6 gel packs starting at around mile 4. My goal is to consume a gel pack around every 30 minutes or so (about every 4 to 5 miles) as I am coming up on a water station. Gel without water is going to do more harm than good. My goal is to replenish as much of the fuel that I am using as possible. I also take a sip of water or a full cup of water every water station, depending upon thirst. I do not bother taking any more gel once I reach mile 22. My body will not have time to process and make use of the gel after that point and it will just make me have to go to the bathroom when I finish.

Since I have come up with this strategy, I have stopped hitting the wall and I have felt great after my races. What would you prefer to run? A 3:08 marathon, hurting a little in the later stages of the race, and having trouble walking for the next few days? Or a completely miserable 3:40:37 that takes you out for a week and leaves you naseous and unable to sleep for two days?

For myself, I enjoy being able to run at an easy and comfortable pace, come in under 3 hours, and be recovered within a day or two. When I ran the New York City Marathon last year, I ran negative splits. I had a lot of fun. I ran 2:51 and change. And when I finished, I felt like I had just finished a leisurely long run. My buddy’s cousin couldn’t even tell that I had run earlier in the day. The next day I was able to walk around New York City without any trouble at all. What is not to love about that? I could probably run a fast marathon without gel packs, but what happens after a race is almost as important as what happens during it.

Another argument that I have with Mark’s position is that I have absolutely no interest in burning fat. I want to burn fuel in the most efficient way possible, and I don’t have any fat to lose. I have a 5.5% body fat, and maintain a healthy weight when I exercise. If I stop exercising for any length of time, I shed weight like it is going out of style and not only look awful but get sick easier. I strive for a calorie-neutral day every day, whether I am running a marathon or taking a stroll through a park with my wife.

What is your take? Do you prefer to run your long races without refueling? Do you just stick to water? Or do you know what your body likes and do whatever is best for you, whether it be ingesting gel or chewing on salt tablets?