Posted by: Joe English | June 21, 2007

Training: the performance eating continuum

I’ve devoted a lot of time to writing about eating strategy during long races. It occurred to me that there are some people out there thinking that I’m crazy for suggesting eating peanut butter sandwiches and beef jerky, while they’re running. But before dismissing what I’m writing about, let me flesh out an idea that I call “the performance eating continuum.”

To put it simply, as you race at different speeds and for different durations, your needs and priorities change. Your eating and hydration strategy must reflect these priorities.
– The faster you run: the more emphasis you place on speed, the weight of what you carry and the more you need quickly digestible forms of energy.
– The slower (or longer) you run: the less you become concerned with your speed and weight and the more concerned with sustaining forms of energy and meal replacement.

[Click on table to enlarge]

Performance Eating Continuum

“Fast” requires high-intensity energy
For those athletes that blast through marathons in under three hours, the top priority is speed. Speed means high-intensity input and output, but it also means that there is no time to stop and a desire to carry as little as possible. If you’re intent on running sub-three hours in the marathon, you’re not stopping at all during the race. You may slow slightly in an aid station, but that’s about it.

This means that you need to carry light-weight foods that are capable of delivering energy quickly. It also means that you’re on the course for less time, so the exercise bought is completed more quickly. This may mean that you can get by with a one or two reliable energy sources and you may not need as much variety to keep your digestive system working properly.

The fast end of the spectrum can then rely more on the high-carbohydrate products found in performance racing foods – gels, energy drinks and liquid supplements.

“Slow” requires variety
As marathon times creep out toward six, seven or more hours, the emphasis shifts to being less about speed and more about sustaining energy to fuel the body over a long period of time. With ultra-marathons and endurance racing this becomes even more true.

And with the slower speed there are some trade-offs that are possible. There is less of a concern with the weight and size of food – meaning that a person that is moving more slowly can add a pack to carry food and can get into that pack to dig out what they need on the move. Also, the digestive system is under less stress and can accept more solid foods than a person that is exercising extremely intensely.

Food selection on the slow/long side of the continuum needs to take into account that the athlete will now be “missing meals”, which means that they need more than simple carbohydrates to stay fueled. The slower side of the equation needs to add in a variety of foods that include protein and other solid foods to keep the digestive system from going into distress.

The middle
When we look at the middle of the continuum, there is a balance between these interests. The four to five hour marathoner needs a mixture of high-intensity energy sources in addition to more variety to keep the digestive system working properly. They also may have a strong desire to keep the weight down and the number of stops to a minimum.

Those in the middle will need to add in some additional foods such as energy bars or light “snack foods” such as pretzels or potato chips at some point during the race.

One strategy does not fit all
The performance eating continuum says that nutrition is not a one-size fits all solution for all marathon runners. Balancing the interests for speed and the needs of the body is important across all points on the spectrum.

When you read suggestions like “take a gel every 30 minutes” you should put this in context. A three-hour marathoner would take in only 5 gel packs under this advice (not too bad), but an eight-hour marathoner would have to ingest 15 gel packs (scary). The eight-hour marathoner would be better served to replace a portion of that fuel with other sources, such as a sandwich every two hours. This will give them the energy they need, while keeping the digestive system from getting intolerant of all that gel.

As always, you need to develop your strategy by eating different foods during your workouts and discovering what works for you. The bottom line is that a well fueled athlete outperforms a poorly fueled athlete of the same capability. Manage your fuel input and you’ll both perform better and feel better during your races.

Coach Joe

Associated articles:
Training: wow, you eat a lot when you run!
Training: how do you eat while you run?

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News



  1. […] The logistics of eating on the run have two elements to them. One is food choice and the other are the realities of getting access to food. I’ll handle these two issues separately, looking first at how you can actually manage your food and then I’ll come back to choosing foods later. (See associated article by clicking here.) […]

  2. Hi –
    I’m running Hood to Coast for the first time in August. Any tips on training, eating and recuperating during the the race would be helpful. I have one of the easier sets of legs (at least according to the rankings on the HTC site (4, 16 & 28)). I’ve recently run two half marathons (3:15 and 2:20) so I have a good base. I’m not looking to set any speed records; I just want to be able to finish my legs and have a pace around 10:45 a mile. I’m sure a lot of your readers are training for the same event!!


  3. […] Related articles: The performance eating continuum […]

  4. […] Well, you’re both partially right. Your friend is right that most of the elite marathon runners don’t eat solid food or carry food with them, but you’re right in that hydration and nutrition are just as important to the elites as anyone else. The elites typically just use liquids rather than solids. (See an associated article on how distance and intensity impacts what you should consume by clicking here.) […]

  5. Joe et al,
    I know your post is focused on much longer distances but I wanted to add something about distances as you get shorter and faster yet. Though of course there are individual differences (there’s my caveat ok?) research pretty much concludes that fluids are not even necessary for less than 1 hour races/runs. We might want them and they do provide a psychological boost however, it is too short a time to get much out of the ernergy source and it is too short to be dehydrated to the point that it affects performance (>3% body weight).

    It is also interesting to view this also in a historical perspective. Though many advances have been made in replacement fluids we have to keep in mind that many sub-2:10 marathons have been run on just water!
    Coach Dean

  6. […] The performance eating continuum […]

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