My marathon alternative to gels

"I take mine with salt and sugar!"

“I take mine with salt and sugar!” Photo: dominikgolenia via photopin cc

Psst! Over here! Want to know one of the secrets behind my personal-best performance in the Dublin Marathon last week?

A 500 ml bottle of water with a teaspoon-tip of sugar and a tiny pinch of salt mixed into it, which I brought with me from the start of the race.

For most runners in a marathon, water isn’t enough. You need to replace the electrolytes (minerals, mostly salts) that you are losing when you sweat. Many runners use sports gels for this.

However, I don’t like gels – because of the taste and also the inconvenience of carrying unnecessary and fiddly things on a run. In the start area of marathons I see runners strapping on elastic waistbands and armbands stocked with what look like tubes of paint; there has to be something simpler than that.

In my first marathon, planning for the possibility of four-hours-plus on the road, I chopped half an energy bar into small pieces that I wrapped in clingfilm and stuffed into my pocket. This did me fine in conjunction with a bottle from every water station, and I finished in under four hours. That said, only if you think you’ll be out a lot longer than four hours do you need to consider bringing food on a marathon.

Since then, I hadn’t been taking sufficient care with electrolytes during marathons. I would bring small glucose tablets with me and sometimes pick up a bottle of a branded isotonic sports drink along the route – altogether a haphazard and unsatisfactory way of doing things. For one thing, the sugar only gives you a temporary lift before causing you to crash. Also, it just wasn’t working; I ran well in Paris in 2012 but faded badly in the Dublin Marathons of 2011 and especially 2012.

So, for the 2013 Dublin Marathon I decided to sort this out.

From the time of my first marathon I’ve made a simple post-run isotonic drink after I come in from a hard training session. The recipe was posted on the Dublin Marathon website back in 2004 – add a little sugar and a tiny pinch of salt (be careful not to use too much salt) to a pint or half litre of water, with a little fruit juice for taste. Stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved, and then sip it gradually rather than downing the whole lot in one. This concoction is basically the same as your colourful branded sports drinks but without the added sugars and gunk.

My plan for the Dublin Marathon was to bring a small bottle of this home-made drink with me from the start, so that I could begin rehydrating gradually before getting thirsty or depleted. I recalled that when I set my then-personal best in the 2007 Paris Marathon I had carried water with me from the start because of the high temperatures forecast. My hunch was that early and timely hydration – with electrolytes – would keep me running strongly for further in the race.

Carrying my own drink from the start would also allow me to skip the jostling and panic around the early water stations in the marathon – I would be able to keep running down the middle of the road without breaking my rhythm.

As with all race-day tactics, I practised this hydration strategy on my long runs. I got a normal 500 ml-sized bottle of water and added the salt and sugar – but not the fruit juice, in case it went off in the heat or upset my stomach during the run. During these long runs I took a small sip every 15 minutes, so that one bottle would last me just enough for the duration of the run.

Ahead of the marathon, I had a dry run (as it were) in the Dublin Half Marathon, and everything went fine. Running past the water stations without stopping felt strange at first, but that feeling quickly gave way to a sense of freedom at not having my run interrupted. Whether from the special drink or the quality of my training, or the two combined, I ran in for a personal best.

My marathon plan was to have my first sip after 15 minutes as usual and after that to have a sip at every mile marker, which would be every 8 minutes according to my target pace. This would get me past halfway. From then on I would take water from the less-crowded stations at mile 15 and every three miles after that – or perhaps even one of those big-name isotonic drinks.

And for once in a marathon, everything went to plan – despite having picked up a stomach bug in week before the race. (Stomach upsets often bring about dehydration.)

Self-sufficient with my own supply, I glided past the early water stations in blissful disinterest. At mile 12 the entire field parted dramatically like the Red Sea to rush left or right in the hunt for bottles, leaving me alone in the middle of the road. My own bottle got me exactly to halfway, and from there on I sampled the wares of the water stations.

At mile 18, just after the Milltown viaduct and up the hill, I decided to take an orange-flavoured sports drink. Perhaps I craved variety or the treat of some tangy orange. In fact, it was a risk – my doctor had advised me to avoid fruit juices for fear of inflaming my sick stomach. Thankfully the big-brand sports drink didn’t have any ill effects – not that I doubt the orange-flavoured sports drink didn’t have natural ingredients or anything. No siree!

I kept up a strong pace for the whole marathon, even when things got tough near the end – and not once did I feel thirsty or dehydrated. So, you’ll be sickened to learn that this is a heartwarming and uplifting tale of learning from one’s mistakes in order to change for the better.

This worked for me but it might not necessarily work for you. As always, take responsibility for your training methods and for what you eat and drink, and test everything well before race day. Talk to your doctor.

You’re welcome to try out this home-made isotonic drink for yourself. In return, all I ask is that you have the good grace not to beat me in the marathon.

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16 Responses to My marathon alternative to gels

  1. Cian McDermott says:

    These are another alternative to gels – basically like a jelly that you can suck while running. Much more palatable than gels I think. Will definitely try your salt and sugar recipe though. Cian

    [image: Inline images 1]

    • Run and Jump says:

      Thanks for the suggestion – I must try those jellies too, as long as I wouldn’t need to bring too many with me in the marathon! Perhaps a couple for the second half of the race once my drink runs out. Is there a particular brand?

  2. I have been bringing a water bottle w/ me on halfs and marathons for a few years. It does help my time by avoiding the ealy water stops when the crowd is still huge. I recently purchased an electrolyte powder to add to my water.
    My hydration tip is to drink what you want up untill 1 hr before the race and then don’t drink anything. Get in line for the porta potty and then get back in line. This clears my system and I have not had dehydration issues or had to stop alomg the way.

    • Run and Jump says:

      What is the electrolyte powder you use? I see so many products at expos and online that it’s hard to know what’s useful and what’s just gunk. Another reason why I like to keep things simple!

      • It’s from Hammer Nutrition. They call is Hammer HEED for High Energy Electrolyte Drink. You can see all the nutrients on their web site.
        I’ve only used it for a while and only for my last race, which was a marathon. It didn’t bother my stomach but it’s hard to say if it is any better than any other product out there. I also liked the taste “Mandarin Orange”

      • Run and Jump says:

        Thanks, I’ll check it out!

  3. alis_davidson says:

    I don’t enjoy gels (except for the noticeable hit of energy), but I need the carbs or my stomach revolts. I used to try and do without, but then I read a blog post by a Canadian elite (http://leblogdurob.com/) about what your body needs on a long run. That being said, I only need two for a run over 36km, I don’t overdo it if I don’t need to. I’ve also switched to Hi-5 gels since I’ve moved to Ireland as they’ye way less sickly sweet than Powergels and much easier to open.
    For hydration I use electrolyte tablets because I lose more salt than the average person when I run and at a certain point straight up water becomes dangerous as it dilutes my blood. The salt n’ sugar recipe sounds cheaper though, I might give it a try.

    • Run and Jump says:

      I must check out electrolyte tablets – any brand you recommend?

      Salt loss and consumption can be a tricky area so if you’re particularly susceptible then best check with a doctor before trying anything different.

  4. Aidan says:

    Near identical recipe I had from an 80s Irish Cycling school boys’ handbook. I found it did the job but had the particular reaction of giving me wind, very noticeable wind. So I went back to weak squash and more recently tea. Now this may surprise you, and bear in mind I have not attempted a marathon but I never carry a bottle on a run, even long runs on hot days. I ran my half marathon recently on maybe 2-3 rinses of my mouth. I might have a quick swig during a session of intervals but again to keep my mouth moist. It seems to be ok for me at that distance. Afterwards, no problem I can down the liquid but not during. I took a gel last year in a half at 10km and it played havoc with my blood sugar so took none this year and went faster. All this poses an interesting issue for me if I do ever get round to a marathon. Its a long way to go on nothing but my body isn’t used to running with anything.

    • Run and Jump says:

      I haven’t had the problems you had with that recipe!

      I can run half-marathon distances in training without water, but I think it would be rare for someone to go a whole marathon without hydration and no ill effects. Alberto Salazar is said to have won a marathon with little or no water back in his day, but probably not an example to follow!

      • Aidan says:

        I heard that recently about Salazar and it seemed slightly at odds with something I heard about him years ago, that he claimed to have a high sweat rate and this was a slight handicap in marathons. I certainly wouldn’t try and do a marathon with no fluid intake so experimentation would be necessary beforehand. Picking the brains of the experienced is advisable.

  5. Aidan says:

    Conversely when I cycle long distances its all good, I’m happy to drink regularly.

  6. avaruns42k says:

    Interesting post. I wasn’t going to run with a bottle (I like to have my hands free) on my first marathon Sunday, but I hadn’t thought about the crowded water stations. We’ll be almost 13,000 runners at the start…I’ll give it a try and if it bothers me too much, I can always get rid of it. I’ve used the Isostar powder on trails, but I am tempted to use your natural salt and sugar recipe with some lime juice. What did you eat on your marathon?

    • Run and Jump says:

      Ava, I’d advise you to approach your marathon on Sunday the same way as you’ve done for your long runs in training. Whatever worked in those runs will get you through the marathon. This isn’t the time to change anything or try something new.

      For instance, use the powder you’ve trained with, seeing as your marathon is so close. Taking lime juice or other fruit juice during a marathon could upset your stomach.

      A small water bottle, just the ordinary Volvic or Evian type, should be light enough to carry from the start of the race – but again you should practice. (If your marathon is on Sunday then you should just have one run left: an easy mile on Saturday morning)

      I don’t find I need food in a marathon, but that’s just me and certainly other runners like to have food en route. It’s just something you’ll have to learn for yourself through the experience of your first marathon. Some runners take jelly beans just in case – perhaps better to suck and dissolve them rather than swallow them. Again, ideally you should try this in long runs first.

      Good luck on Sunday – do your best, trust your training and your race plan, and enjoy the experience!

  7. RigBag says:

    I always use Dioralyte for marathons and long runs in warm weather – excellent for replacing salts.

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