Happy New Year everyone. I started 2010 with a 4 mile run on the beach and 13.1 today as my "peak" of recovery/training before starting to taper for Disney this coming weekend.
The topic for today is my thoughts about gels, goo, and snacks for race day. Everyone has their own method for getting calories in before and during a race. Some indulge in doughnuts, others hold fast to strict nutrution with "slow" carbs and maybe a little protein. In any given running store, there is usually at least one entire rack dedicated to protein and energy bars and another to various types and flavors of high-carb energy products. I don't know any serious runners who indulge in the sometimes dangerous herbal supplement market, but I did notice someone with "5 hour energy" at the Jax race, so perhaps that is gaining some popularity now as well. I don't condone the use of these types of products, consult the medical literature to figure out why.
The first protein bars that I recall were the original Powerbars. They are a taffy-like consistency product for getting large protein boluses in for people who use their muscles all the time. My recollection is that they were originally intended for the weightlifting market and usually were sold next to the creatine shakes at GNC. Now though, there are dozens of brands and varieties: organic, zone balanced, high carb, caffeine infused, and so on. My personal favorite is the Snickers brand of energy bar. They fall somewhere between the indulgence of a candy bar and the "health" of other products. I especially like them because they match very well to a hot cup of coffee, which I consider vital to my ritual pre-morning-long run as well as pre-race. In addition to getting your legs used to distance, I believe it is very important to experiment on long-run days during training to figure out how to best energize, so when race-day comes, you know what to expect.
That goes double for during the race. Some of the first gels were, similar to Powerbars, very pasty and difficult to eat on the run. If you look around, you can find others that you can almost eat without any water/sportsdrink. Personally, I like the Powerbar brand of gels which are a bit thinner and easier going down than other brands. I have also used Clif brand Shot Bloks on occasion. These are more akin to gelatin which you can chew as you go. Another way to eat them is actually to just pocket them in the cheek and let them slowly dissolve as you run. This has the benefit of both a slow/constant absorption of carbs as well as avoiding a highly concentrated bolus of goo in your stomach, which can make some people queasy. I have come across recipes online to make your own gels with honey and other natural products, so don't feel confined to the stuff at the store if you don't find anything that suits you.
One other thing to consider in selecting gels is caffeine. Now, I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning and especially so before a race. If you indulge in soda/tea/coffee, then caffeine can be great. It can give you an important boost late in the race and has been shown to help aid in muscle recovery. If you've never used caffeine, you might tread cautiously with these, but just try them out on a long run before you use them on race day. Also, even the highest caffeinated products have no more of the drug than a 12 oz can of Mountain Dew (50mg), a 20 oz cola, 2/3 oz of espresso, or 3-4 oz of drop coffee.
Post race/long run, carbs are important, but a little protein is good as well to begin rebuilding muscle. I typically don't use premade products for post-race recovery (unless they're free at the post-race party). For me, nothing is better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (satisfying), perhaps some chocolate milk, and fresh fruit (hydrating and refreshing). Again, figure what works well for you. I frequently have some stomach discomfort after running distances over 13, but quickly eating when I finish usually helps. If you have similar discomforts, I also find I can avoid them by taking a histamine blocker (generic zantac) before starting my run.
Good luck and healthy nutrition!