I’ve been reading a new book my wife got me for Christmas…Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard by Dr. Keith Livingstone. I’ve always been a fan of Lydiard’s methods and think he was way ahead of his time. I also think many folks dabble in Lydiard and don’t truly understand him. This book puts his methods in perspective and also has the benefit of our current understanding of physiology, training response, etc. It’s a geeky training book, but really good.

Anyway, point of the post…

It has an interesting section on carb intake (e.g. gel, energy drink, etc.) on long runs in training—not racing. It says we should not use ANY carbs during long training runs of up to 3-3 1/2 hours (anything over that, supplementing carbs is recommended). Also, keep in mind these are aerobic steady state runs, not hard pace. They do recommend water and electrolytes (especially if it’s hot), but no carbs in order to train our systems to conserve glycogen and burn fat.

The basic physiological premise is this…

While running slowly increases fat burning for fuel, another way to really increase fat burning is to run when the blood glycogen (carb) stores are lowered. When muscle glycogen stores are lowered, fat burning really goes up since there is little carbohydrate available to utilize. Carb stores are lowered after 1 to 2 hours of running so you want to do 30-90 minutes of running AFTER this to maximize fat burning and to help stimulate the body to store more muscle glycogen for future runs (and races). When running (and racing) for this long, the blood glucose level also lowers. Ingesting carbohydrates, either through a sports drink or energy gels, before and during the run, maintains your blood glucose level. This no carb approach challenges the body to run with a lowered blood glucose level (and over time) adapt to better handle this state of lowered blood glucose.

The long, steady state runs must be at least two hours. The longer the better. If you’re used to gels during long runs, you’ll have to ween yourself, as your body is adapted to the constant supply of blood glucose and not the lowered state. But, as you reduce, the body will adapt and you’ll eventually be able to run up to 3 1/2 hours without any carbs (Which could take up to 8 weeks to adapt fully, depending on the individual). They also recommend not having any right before the workout either. Have normal breakfast (several hours before), then go train. This is for training only, then, in a race, you give yourself the normal dose and your body feels pampered. Interesting stuff.

NOTE: The book does say, that when you do this in training, you need to be ready to ingest carbs, protein and fat immediately afterward, or at a minimum within that 30 minute window after run completion. You’ll be low and need to get your glycogen levels back up for recovery and next day training. It’s just for during the long run.

Question…have any of you tried this? I know the Skaggs brothers practice this and so does Tony Krupicka. I’ve been thinking about it for a while (the weening off completely for 2-3 hour runs). And, over the past season, have actually started ingesting less gel on long training runs than I would in a race and not taking any up to 2 hours or so…occasionally, but not consistently. However, this takes it to a different level and has a few studies to back it up. Anyway, found it interesting and thought I’d share it. Giddyup!

To gel or not to gel?
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17 thoughts on “To gel or not to gel?

  • December 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

    Very interesting stuff. If nothing else, it makes me want to do more research. FWIW I usually don't take any food on runs up to 2 hours either. I guess the best test would be to try it and see just how miserable a 3+ hour run would be….

  • December 30, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Hey Jeff,
    Intersting post. I am relatively new to ultras/distance running and I have not heard about this. In the post youmention that you are in the weening process for your long runs. What differences have you noticed so far?

  • December 30, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Hey Jeff, I started using this no carb approach 5 years ago when I was training for WS that year. It led to the best run of my life there. I usually find that I need something right around the three hour in a long run mark but usually 100-120 calories does the trick and gets me through another 90 mins or so.

    Great post!


  • December 30, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Chris: I haven't gone cold turkey yet, but have got to the point of not taking any gels in any run of 2 hours or less. Next step is nothing. You definitely get the heavy legs and the very end of the run, but I think giving it an adaptation time is key. Unfortunately, I haven't been super consistent with the no gel thing. After reading this stuff, I am now. So, moving forward, I'll be working on it.

    AJW: FINALLY! I get a post you comment on. :)

    Hope your well dude. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm up to 2 hours, but haven't got rid of gel after that. Next step.

    Are you gonna get 3,500 miles this year?

  • December 31, 2009 at 2:48 am

    I've been doing this since late August this year, delaying my first gel by 30 more minutes each long run. I was getting tired of every long run becoming a logistical challenge when I was only going out for 3 to 4 hours.

    By October I had no issues running 2 to 3 hour trail runs with just water, so it doesn't seem to take long to adapt. I hadn't considered that I might be storing more glycogen and just assumed that I was getting better at mobilizing fat.

  • December 31, 2009 at 4:40 am

    Jeff, I've spent the last few years of 30+ marathons/ultras per year treating only races (about 5 per year) as needing gels and not using them otherwise. So most 2+ hr runs are just with water. I'd definitely recommend it as I can now do 10 mins off max pace in a marathon with only water. Never intended it purely as training but didn't want to waste loads of money on gels, then decided it was probably good for me so that gels would have more of an effect when they're needed.



  • December 31, 2009 at 9:43 am

    With Ian on this one. Just too damn tight to waste money on gels in training – and too lazy to lug extra stuff around – heck for runs up to 2 hours in the winter, I don’t even bother with water. If I go 4 hours plus, I’ll usually eat something at 3 hours or so – although rarely a gel. Can’t really comment on the benefits as I don’t have much of a basline with regards to eating more on long runs. I know I eat less than most at longer races, but still seem to do okay, so maybe that is a function of eating less in training. I plan to up my intake in races this year, however, to see if that has a noticebale impact on performance. Thanks for the overview. Interesting stuff.

  • December 31, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Very interesting Bronco boy! What’s funny is that when I train, and sometimes forget to bring gels, :-) I go for a few hours and once I feel like I need food, I tell myself to suck it up for a few minutes, then that gut feeling of needing food goes away…then I continue. It’s almost like a switch gets turned on to start burning fat. Just my two cents! I still think I’ll keep using gels though. I like the boost it gives me. Great post! Lydiard was the man. He knew how to get runners to run on “feel”.

  • December 31, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Jeff-I had heard of Lydiard’s no carb workouts before. I kind of think I’ve been following a very low carb long run approach for awhile now, not because of this idea (although I do think it has merit), but because I’m cheap and don’t want to use any more gels than necessary for cost reasons. I usually eat a couple of cookies and a small handful of pretzels before every run when I wake up in the morning, but haven’t been eating carbs on the runs unless they are over 16 miles, and lately I’ve been taking a small handful of pretzels. I eat on the longer runs mostly to calm my growling stomach, before it gets to the “nausous” really hungry feeling, not so much for the energy.

    I like the idea presented about teaching the body to go with minimal glucose available, and then when racing, use gels and maintain energy levels, one worry I have is if you train the stomach and body to run on low glucose, and then during an ultra starting eating alot, how is the stomach and digestive tract going to react? Also the minimalist glucose technique promotes the body burning fat, what does that do to someone with not alot of fat to burn? I’m a fairly thin fellow, and in the ultras I’ve trained for, I have eaten like I said to keep the stomach happy, but haven’t gone to the extreme no carb approach, so during races my stomach/digestive tract has handled eating ok. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts as you continue the transition.

  • December 31, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Ian and Nick: Good stuff. I think there is something to it in training up to 3 hours or so.

    Karl: I like the “mental” buck-up approach. I forget to bring gels sometimes too or not enough. :) Thanks for the two cents.

    David: Sean Meissner and I were talking about the “practicing” factor with gels in training yesterday on a run. And agreed, as an ultrarunner, you still have to go over that 3 1/2 hour range every few weeks and practice gels in training. I agree. I just wouldn’t, on the long days, use as much as I would in a race (which is a practice I already adhere to).

    You have to keep in mind, most of Lydiard’s runners never went over 3 hours for their long run.

  • January 1, 2010 at 3:57 am

    I really enjoy the posts. I am new the sport but I have been cycling for years. This approach sounds like another principle of carbohydrate loading. It looks like the years of research are showing just how efficient the body really is at preferring carbs over fat for fuel. Although, like Mr. Kennedy I would wonder if you could find yourself with a serious case of “dumping syndrome” on race day? Keep us posted on your research.

  • January 1, 2010 at 4:16 am


    I’ll keep progress posted. I think you have to use gels sometimes or else you surprise the GI tract too much. This approach is just supposed to make the body tap into fat burning mode faster, therefore, needing less carbs per hour to a certain point (e.g. 3 to 3 1/2 hours). I would think that past the 5 to 6 hour point in a race (e.g. 50 miler, 100k, 100 miler) you’ll need a steady IV of carbs (I like gels) into the system every 15-30 minutes. At least in my experience in 100 milers, that’s the case. Every 20 minutes the first 50 miles and every 15 minutes the 2nd 50 miles.


  • January 5, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    I say “Beware”. Look at those three runners you mentioned, the Skaggs brothers and Krupicka. All of them very inconsistent (injuries, infrequent racing, CPK disaster, etc.). Maybe due to youth, but I think injuries can happen when you train without regulating the body correctly. In theory it’s correct, but the temptation to go too hard (past aerobic at times) in training on no or little fuel can break the system down.

  • January 5, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I agree…gotta be careful going the minimalist carb route. My point was, or the point of the stuff I read was…do it “controlled” in training. Make sure you are prepared post-training run to have carb/protein/fat immediately after the workout. Eric’s CPK disaster was due to ibuprofen popping and dehydration. I’m an advocate of NO vitamin “i” ever. I use natural anti-inflammatory approaches. Someone always should be the voice of “caution” though…good comment.

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