A friend of mine who is a pretty gifted athlete trained particularly hard for her 2nd marathon. She had just narrowly missed breaking the 4 hour mark in her first marathon and had her sights set on improving that time to a sub 4. She committed to the training and, although in my opinion she may have made some common training mistakes, a sub 4 was well within her wheelhouse. Come race day she remained on track to her goal until the last 6 miles when severe leg cramps forced her pace to drop significantly. In the end, she PR’d by a small margin, but still did not break 4 hours. She was understandably disappointed.
A well-known marathoner spoke at a Utah marathon expo I once attended. When he was finished with his talk, he allowed audience members to ask questions. Someone raised his hand and asked how to prevent cramping during a marathon. This elite athlete answered that cramps always point to a hydration issue. He found that if he drank X number of ounces of water first thing in the morning (with x being a pretty high number that I can’t remember at the moment), he wouldn’t struggle with cramps during his run.
I have to admit, that although it seems to be the height of hubris for me to disagree with an athlete so beyond me in terms of skill and accomplishment, I kind of shuttered at his answer. For one, this was one of those Utah marathons with a point to point course from the top of a canyon. A bus takes runners up the canyon 26.2 miles and drops them off at the start line. I could just imagine all the people who would follow this runner’s advice the next morning by pounding tons of water and then proceed to get on a slow moving bus for the long ride up the canyon. I imagined a lot of poor people having to miserably deny nature’s call for a looooong time.
But beyond that, I thought that is answer really oversimplified the issue. The presence of cramping does not always mean the athlete is under-hydrated. There is such a thing as being overhydrated. . . and in my experience, cramps usually come when the athlete’s water and sodium (electrolyte) levels are out of balance, not just when an athlete is under-hydrated.
Finally, I couldn’t help but wonder if this elite athlete had ever really experienced the struggle to maintain the water/salt balance so common to those of us who are out on a race course for 3, 4, 5, 6+ hours, when he is typically finished with his race in just over 2 hours. Not to mention the fact that some genetic predisposition makes his body particularly suited to running long distances.
So how do you maintain the proper water to salt ratio during those long runs and most especially on race day?
Well, as always, I will begin by saying that I am no exercise physiologist. In fact, I am sure that someone with that professional credential could very easily say that I have already over-simplified the issue or used the wrong semantics or whatever. Always, always seek the advice of a professional before you take my word for anything.
I will also say that every runner is different and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. BUT the name of this blog is “How I Qualified for the Boston Marathon,” meaning I am sharing my own personal experience — not advocating that everyone should do as I do.
The number one thing that helped me to learn how to properly maintain a balance between water and electrolytes was experience. I had run and trained for 20 marathons before I ran the one that got me to my ultimate goal of Boston Qualifying, so there were plenty of opportunities for trial and error.
No, I did not learn any one specific formula such as take salt at mile x and water at mile x, but I did learn that my body gave me clues as to what I needed. For example, when my mouth felt sickly sweet after taking a gel, I would skip the sports drink and stick with water at the next aid station or two. I learned that the minute I start to feel a calf cramp, I should take a salt tablet. What you need and when will vary based on weather conditions that day. I always pack more gels and salt tablets than I think I will need, just in case.
At this year’s Olympic Trials, Shalane Flanagan really struggled in the heat. As someone who hates running in temperatures above 60 degrees, I sympathized with her. I found it interesting that in her post race interviews, she remarked on how she could feel her body becoming dehydrated. Even though she continued to take her specially formulated sports drink (as she always did), her body just didn’t seem to be absorbing it. In hindsight, it was suggested to her by someone on her team of advisors that perhaps the drink was too sweet.
Obviously, I can’t say exactly why her body wasn’t absorbing her sports drink and I don’t know if she changed anything from her normal routine to try to counteract the resulting dehydration. But I do wonder if she had ditched the sports drink and drank only water for the next few miles, her hydration might have improved. I don’t know. Shalane if your reading this, let me know what you think.
My point is to listen to your body. Try different formulas during training and see what works for you. Don’t assume that cramping or nausea or whatever is just part of marathoning. It doesn’t have to be. Don’t let something as simple as the need to drink more water or take in electrolytes keep you from realizing your goal!
Finally, I want to thank followers and new readers alike for their patience. I have not fallen off the face of the earth! Rather, posts have been few and far between because my family and I have been in the middle of a military “permanent change of station” cross-country move since the end of March. My husband, 2 year old, dog and I are STILL in a hotel room, waiting until we can be settled in our new home. And once we are settled, we will only be a few weeks out from our second child’s due date! So, life is just kind of taking over at the moment. I look forward to getting back in to a regular routine before long!!
 Erin Strout, “Shalane Flanagan on Dehydration, Delirium, and Drama at the Olympic Trials,” Runners World, 14 February 2016 (Runnersworld.com: accessed 12 May 2016).