When I first started running, my goal was simple. Get past the 20-minute mark without gasping for breath. When I got fitter and decided to run half-marathons and marathons, I began to search for gadgets and research nutrition strategies to support my running. And it seems that everyone is doing the same thing. At races, you can’t mistake the sound of sports watches beeping into life as runners cross the start line. Many runners also have a nutrition strategy with energy gels and drinks ready for consumption at key times. At the 90-minute mark for instance, I always take a gel because I know that my body will need the extra energy.
But would a more relaxed approach on race day be effective? Could you run strong without gadgets and gels? Is our ability to perform well more about a positive mental attitude than anything else?
Some runners didn’t have a choice but to run “naked”. Kathrine Switzer ran the 1967 Boston Marathon when gadgets and gels didn’t exist. She simply drank water. Joyce Smith, who was the women’s London Marathon winner in 1981 (she ran the race in an impressive 2:29:57), did the same. Joyce never listened to music or used gadgets. But she did run 70 to 90 miles per week when training for a marathon. These women have proved that you can perform well with the right training and a positive mindset.
Start line blip
I ran the Brighton Marathon gadget-free in 2011 and it was a positive experience. I had planned to use a sports watch, but it didn’t work. After a mild panic, I realised that I would be OK if I just listened to my body. I’d never run a marathon before, and had no idea how I would feel in the last few miles, but I knew I had done the training. So I simply ran at what felt like my normal running speed. I felt strong during the race and had some energy in reserve at the end. Listening to your body during a race can be a good thing. Athlete Jo Pavey understands the benefits of gadgets but doesn’t always use them. “When I first started my competitive career there weren’t all these gadgets available,” she says. “I just got used to working on times on the track but I would use a heart-rate monitor if I was getting ready for a longer race like a marathon because I tried to keep my heart at a certain rate. I found that useful but I’m not always in need of an app to tell me the pace because I use the track to help me with that.”
That said, Jo believes that gadgets can boost motivation. “I do think they are great for people who want that information and also it makes them enjoy their running more and gives them things to aim for,” she says. “Anything that encourages people to keep motivated can be beneficial.”
If you forget to take your sports watch to a race, it’s worth adopting a philosophical outlook, as you never know what you might achieve when you’re more relaxed. Personal trainer and ultrarunner Anne-Marie Lategan says: “Just enjoy the race. If you run regularly you will know your natural pace. It’s very unlikely that you will run much faster or slower. You just need to listen to your body.”
Anne-Marie has run with and without gadgets when training for long ultras like Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 103-mile single-stage mountain ultramarathon. “This year I trained without anything for a long time. Three months before the race I started using my watch again. It didn’t change my speed but it did increase my stress levels. After a month, I left the watch and just enjoyed the training. The gadget provided an unnecessary stress.”
Marathon runner Simon Freeman has found that using his sports watch only in the early stages of a race can be effective. “I ran my personal best in the London Marathon after switching my watch off after the first couple of miles as suggested by my running coach,” he says. “I used the watch to get on pace for the first three miles, then I just ran, chasing the vests in front all the way to the finish line in 2:37. But I was more strict with my nutrition strategy than ever before.”
This neatly brings us on to race-day nutrition. If you are doing a long race and you forget to take your energy gels or drinks, don’t panic. If your nutrition has been generally good in the weeks leading up to the race, you will probably be fine. It’s best not to chance your luck
on drinks or gels you haven’t tried out in training, but some fruit like a banana or orange pieces will keep you going and reduce the risk of an upset stomach. Or if you have just a few gels, you can improvise to make them last longer. “Dilute the gels you do have with water to create an energy drink,” says Anne-Marie Lategan. “You can also pop into a fast-food store and get a packet of salt and sugar. Most energy drinks have between 10-12 teaspoons of sugar in them. If you can’t get anything, divide what you have strategically and use them when you expect to struggle.”
These are good emergency strategies. But don’t expect to run a race on limited nutrition if your diet is poor. “You need to follow a relatively healthy diet to be able to run,” adds Anne-Marie.
Jo Pavey, who recently came second in this year’s Great South Run at the age of 42, agrees that healthy nutrition is essential, along with timing of food. “I’m always quite diligent with timing of food before and after training and will try and eat something after a race, like a sports bar.”
If you’re aiming for a personal best and you don’t follow your nutrition strategy to the letter, then don’t worry. Anne-Marie Lategan believes you can be flexible. “Your nutrition on the day can be varied and even if you don’t use anything during the race you can still run a good time if your nutrition before the race was good.”
“MY WATCH HELPS ME NAIL PERSONAL BESTS”
“If I go for a personal best I will use my watch. It helps with consistency of my speed and can act as a big motivation. But when I am doing a 5K race I often do better when I don’t watch the time and instead just run as fast as I can. As for nutrition, how strict I am with food depends on the race distance. Anything over 15K I will stick with products I know. I like using Clif Shot Blocks – I will take one every 5K. That helps to break up the race nicely.”
Eva Hatfield, 34, marathon runner and Spartan race women’s winner
“I’M FLEXIBLE WITH MY RACE- DAY NUTRITION”
“I used to carry tons of gels with me during every marathon but soon realised I’d return with as many as I’d set out with. I simply detest the taste! Now I take just one emergency gel and sometimes a chocolate bar to guarantee I won’t run out of energy mid-race. I eat whenever I feel like it. Sometimes I take on loads of sports drink or snacks, other times I’m happy with water and a few Jelly Babies. That said, I’m a walk-runner of marathons so my strategy wouldn’t work for everyone.”
Lisa Jackson, 47, multiple marathon runner