Marathon Training Fluids
Tip #23

In marathon training fluids are needed for success and safety. Some of these fluids are true energy sources for the training itself, while other fluids are nutritious, but not the best for pure hydration purposes.
Is one fluid source better than another?

Denis Waitley stated, “Out of need springs desire, and out of desire springs the energy and the will to win.”

What fluids do you need? Compare these fluid categories for their impact on your need for hydration, need for nutrition and energy and need for everyday health. Find your winning combination of marathon training fluids.

Plain Water

Water is cheap and convenient. Plain water is sufficient for runs lasting less than an hour in moderate conditions. Without calories (fuel) water is the drink of choice for shorter exercise sessions, especially if you are trying to control your weight. As mileage and temperatures increase, however, plain water may not be sufficient and the addition of carbohydrate supplements, including gels, sports beans or bloks (or carb snacks) is a good idea. An alternative to water plus “edible” carbohydrates would be a sports drink.

Flavored Water

Some flavored waters are plain water with zero calorie flavorings. These serve the same role as plain water. However, many flavored waters contain high levels of sugar. Too much sugar in a drink can actually inhibit fluid absorption, making it a poor hydrator. The sugar provides many calories, so this may not be the best choice is you are trying to control your weight with running. Flavored waters are generally lacking nutrition, so you might want to save these for an occasional treats, not as primary marathon training fluids.


Juice has a nutrition and health advantage over flavored waters, but the sugar content is still too high to serve as a good hydrator. If you drink juice, choose 100% juice and use it for everyday nutrition, not as your primary source of hydration. Juice is also high in sugar calories, so this fuel source may provide unwanted calories if you are trying to control your weight.

Sports Drinks

The most common marathon training fluids are sports drinks, like Gatorade. Unlike regular juice, the sugar content of most commercial sports drinks are provided in the amount that encourages good absorption. This means you get the benefit of the fluids and the carbohydrate fuel. Sports drinks also provide electrolytes such as sodium that you lose in sweat. The combination of carbohydrates used in the sports drinks varies between companies. Some sports drinks now contain protein, such as Accelerade. This is a personal choice, based on tolerance and performance needs.

You should experiment with different sports drinks until you find the one that you tolerate and that you feel hydrates you the best. You should also find out what sports drink will be offered on the race course. Ideally you should train with that sports drink, or choose to carry your own.

Sports drinks are best saved for runs lasting over an hour and in more extreme temperature conditions. If you are a heavy sweater, you may need a sports drink sooner. Sports drinks may also be useful before a run if you have not eaten and need a quick fuel source. Sports drinks do provide carbohydrate calories, so make sure your run is worthy of the carbs and calories. Do not take gels with sports drinks, as this provides too much carbohydrate at once. Take gels with water on the course. If you've had adequate carbs and fluid, but still need more electrolytes (you are a salty sweater or keep cramping up), you may benefit from more electrolytes.

Enlyten Electrolyte Plus Strips are a convenient way to get electrolytes.

The nutrition profile of sports drinks is poor, so save these fluids for the trail, not for everyday nutrition and health.

Recovery Drinks

Marathon training fluids are not only valuable for hydration before and during a run, but can be useful in the recovery stage. The ideal time to provide the body nutrition for recovery is within 30 minutes of a run. Many times you may not feel like eating right after a run, so a recovery drink is worth a try. Most recovery drinks provide a nice combination of necessary carbohydrate, protein, nutrients and of course, fluid. The calorie level of most recovery drinks is high, so beware if you are trying to control your weight. You can still use these products while working on your weight, but you may not want to follow the recovery drink with as large of a meal as some runners can afford to do. No one should skip recovery nutrition, but make sure the extent of your recovery snack matches the length and intensity of your run. In some cases, a bottle of water and banana may be sufficient.

If you are headed out for long run, but have a hard time tolerating solid foods before the run, a recovery drink may do the trick. It’s worth a try to prevent an energy meltdown halfway during your run.


As far as marathon training fluids go, a smoothie would fall in the recovery drink category since there is too much carbohydrate for ideal fluid absorption during a run. Smoothies can provide a great variety of nutrients and protein for everyday nutrition, too, but beware of the calories. Portion controlled varieties like Stoneyfield Farms Organic Smoothies (ten ounces) may be a better choice than the huge portions provided at some popular smoothie bars.


You never outgrow your need for calcium, so most adults need two to three good calcium sources daily. Whether you choose cow’s milk, soy or other alternative, “milk” is a good carbohydrate and protein source for everyday nutrition. The addition of chocolate (extra carbs) makes it a good recovery drink. It’s also a good idea to choose fat reduced milk products since they are better for your heart.

Coffee and Tea

Caffeine has been studied for its impact on sports performance. At this time, the best rule of thumb for hydration is to keep caffeine-containing drinks to less than two servings per day. The impact on running performance is personal. You have to consider the risk of caffeine “jitters”, diarrhea or stomach aches while running. Coffee has no significant nutritional value or health benefits, unlike tea which contains valuable Phytonutrients (plant substances that are good for you).

Energy Drinks

Usually high in sugar, stimulants or both, energy drinks are not ideal marathon training fluids. The sugar content is often too high for ideal fluid absorption, while at the same time the stimulants can be dehydrating. Therefore, caution is advised. In addition to caffeine, common stimulants in energy drinks include guarana and ginseng. Most energy drinks are not nutritionally complete, so they are not the best choice for everyday health.


Hopefully you are in marathon training for more than the beer at the end of the race. Alcohol is dehydrating, nutrition-free (sorry, but you can’t count beer as a grain serving or wine as a fruit serving), high calorie and provides no health benefit (okay, red wine is supposed to be good for your heart, but you can accomplish the same thing with grape or pomegranate juice). Just for comparison, the current guidelines for moderate alcohol intake is: one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, a drink being defined as twelve ounces of beer or five ounces of wine or 1 ½ ounces of the tough stuff (rum, whisky, etc). So take it easy with the alcohol. There are so many other marathon training fluids that will work to your advantage.

So, you have the need for fluids and the right choice of fluids can provide what you need to be meet your potential performance goals. Put your desire to win in action with the right marathon training fluids!

How much fluid do you need?

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