Marathon Mistakes: A Runner's Experience Battling Hydration

NYC Marathoner Shares Lessons From Past Experience

Over 50,000 runners run the TCS New York City Marathon each year. Some have goals of just finishing in one piece, while other had time goals and aspirations of PR's.

Oiselle Team Voleé and USA Triathlon Nationals team member, Allie Burdick was running and looking to finish the race in 3:15. She had trained, and was well prepared, but something happened that nearly forced her to drop out of the race entirely. Her hydration plan had failed her.

Allie Burdick at NYC Marathon 2015

Personalize Your Nutrition Plan

Registered dietitian, Nancy Clark is an advocate for personalized nutrition plans based on your dietary needs and training plan. "Nutrition is not a static science", says Clark. "The trick is knowing how many calories you burn per hour and what foods you like to eat that help you refuel after a run."

Nutrition and hydration plans are specific to each runner.  Nancy Clark recommends experimenting daily to see what works best for you.  

Pre-Race Nutrition Mistakes Can Lead To Dizziness And Cramping

In Allie's pre-race preparation, she allocated over 2 1/2 hours to hydrate and fuel before the start of the race. She drank over 20oz of water, ate a bagel, banana, and two chia bars and felt pretty good up until it was time to move into the starting corrals. Once in the corral she started to feel light headed and dizzy, a warning sign of what was to come.  

Soon after passing mile 1, Allie realized she was really hot and still dizzy. She felt off her game but thought it would be best if she started on her nutrition plan early, consuming some GU Chomps and taking in some Gatorade and water. She pushed on until mile 16 when her stomach started to cramp.

Drinking Too Much Liquid Without Electrolytes Can Lead To Hyponatremia

Allie's body was starting to shut down. Stomach cramps at mile 16 led to muscle cramps at mile 20 until the finish line. Though she wanted to walk and quit she somehow persevered and finished. What happened? Why did a well-trained athlete like Allie, who had never experienced stomach cramps, or cramps in her legs so bad she wanted to stop, have this happen to her?

Here is Allie's personal account of what happened on race day (read her entire blog here):

    • Over-hydrating without minerals can lead to hyponatremia: I drank way too much water and zero electrolytes, in the 48 hours leading up to the race. Yes, zero. I was focused on hydrating all day on Saturday and then I had about 20 oz of more water the morning of the race. That dizziness I felt was my blood being diluted with water.
    • Sports drinks on race day can cause GI issues: I didn’t drink a sports drink prior to the race because I never have! I get easily overwhelmed with sweetness and I have never had any electrolytes before a marathon, half marathon, or long training run.
    • Too much water can slow digestion: The issue was that I never drink that much water either. I had way too much water in my body and, when I started taking fuel in early, my body couldn’t digest it AND cool my body with zero electrolytes.
    • I actually made things worse by forcing Gu Chomps down my throat and only drinking more water in the later miles.

Lesson Learned: Electrolyte Balance Is Important Both Before and During Races 

As in most marathons, there were many accounts from NYC marathoners who cramped and felt dizzy during a race in which they had trained for extensively.  What happened?

Electrolyte replacement is key to avoid body cramping and dizziness

Athletes typically address both carbohydrate replacement and fluid replacement during the course of a race, but sometimes neglect the importance of maintaining the proper balance of electrolytes, fluids, and carbohydrates (fuel) in the body to maintain blood flow, muscle contraction, and even brain function.

Bodily Processes Break Down Without The Proper Balance Of Minerals

As mentioned in Electrolytes for Runners: What You Need to Know from Runners Connect, without balanced electrolytes, the body's processes begin to break down. If you are trying to rehydrate by drinking a lot of water, failing to consume electrolytes at the same time can upset the balance of electrolytes in your bloodstream.

Drinking lots of water during a very long race in the heat, for example—this can even lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia, where blood sodium levels drop too low. Therefore, keeping your electrolytes and fluids balanced is critical for both performance and health.