What is Glycogen Depletion Training?

After I mentioned that I did not fuel or drink water during the 20 miler last weekend, I got a few questions about the reasoning behind it, so I wanted to share my thoughts (and in more than a sentence or two on IG or twitter).

Let me preface this post with a few things.

  • I did have some fuel in me during the 20 miler. I drank 16 oz of water mixed with one packet of Generation UCAN – an energy drink that slowly releases glucose without the spike and crash you get from sugar. So technically it wasn’t really a glycogen depleted run.gen ucan
  • I do not do this on every single long run. I feel much more tired after a run like this and so I limit them to a few a training cycle.
  • I am not saying that everyone should try or do this – if you are a newer marathon runner, this is probably not necessary. I’ve had some issues with bonking during my last few marathons and so I’m hopeful that a bit of glycogen depletion training will help.
  • I didn’t feel the need to drink water because it was very mild out (35 degrees)  and I wasn’t really sweating a whole lot. I did have water outside my house if I needed it, but decided I didn’t want to have to stop for a sip or two of water once I got past the 15 or 16 mile mark because I knew it would be tough to finish the run if I saw the boys up and playing.

In it’s simplest terms, Glycogen Depleted Training is a fasted run – no fuel before or during – so that you are basically running on empty to teach your body to burn fat stores.

Most people don’t have the glycogen reserves to make it all 26.2 miles of a marathon at a fast pace without running out of fuel. So our bodies look to both our fat stores and our glycogen stores when we run. The easiest way to stay ahead of the bonk is to continually fill the glycogen stores (during the run) with gels, blasts, etc (often every 30-45 minutes).

BUT, if you can train your body to use it’s own fat stores (rather than glycogen stores), it can help prevent the dreaded “hitting the wall” or bonking (bonking is the total depletion of glycogen in your body). So Glycogen Depletion Training is training your body to use more fat vs glycogen stores for energy during longer endurance events.

The theory behind running your long runs on low glycogen stores is that by not having readily available muscle glycogen to burn, you body is forced to burn fat. Consequently, your body will become more efficient at using fat as a fuel source (rather than glycogen stores). {Source: Competitor}

Additionally, it’s good to train your body to NOT be dependent on gels during a run or race. The first place our bodies turn to for energy is the glycogen stores. If you use them often on runs, your body will become dependent on that source of energy and will be need it on race day. 

I typically limit my long runs to 18 (easy paced) miles when it’s a glycogen depleted run. Anything longer or more intense (speedwork, pace work) and I make sure I fuel at least once (but often 2-3x).

A few things to keep in mind about Glycogen Depletion training:

  • Frequency: Not every long run needs to be glycogen depleted. As I already said, I feel a bit more tired post long run if it’s a fasted run for me. Additionally, I’ve been experimenting with Generation uCan this training cycle (I didn’t want the first time I used it to be on race morning) so some runs have included just the pre-run drink.
  • Work up to distance. If you’ve never run more than 10 miles without fuel, don’t jump to 20 miles next weekend. Gradually build up to the distance.
  • Early AM: I find it’s easiest to do these runs first thing in the morning. I can’t imagine being up for a few hours, not eating anything and then going on a fasted long run.
  • Pace Work: I always fuel if I am doing any type of marathon specific pace work or speedwork in my long run.
  • Does not make you faster: These runs will not make you faster or mean  you are in better shape. Training subjects (from control group and glycogen depleted group) improvement from training was identical in this study – the only differences were related to fat metabolism. {Source: Runner’s Connect}
  • Race Distance: Glycogen Depleted training is beneficial if you are training for a longer race (marathon or longer) – it will not benefit you if you are racing a short race—the race isn’t far enough for glycogen storage to become a factor {Source: Runner’s Connect}.
  • Good Posts for more info: Check out Amanda or Lauras posts on this topic for more information!

Also important to note: Some studies have shown that occasional long runs in a fasted state will improve glycogen storage and fat utilization, but extended training or multiple long runs in the fasted state will impair performance and does not provide further benefits to fat utilization. {Source: Competitor}

Do you include some Glycogen Depletion runs in your training? 

——–

I don’t post here every day, but I post all of my workouts (and other happenings) on Instagram on a daily basis {NYCRunningMama}.

For More NYC Running Mama training updates, pictures and ramblings, check out:

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    57. I love this idea for marathon training, and being an early am runner I have done up to 18 miles without fuel and no negative effects to my knowledge. Again like you said, maybe once or twice per training cycle. No it definitely doesn’t make me faster, but I also have never had the experience of bonking. I will look into generation ucann haven’t seen this before!
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    60. I don’t know if I can call them glycocen depletion runs, but I usually don’t fuel during my long runs (I go up to 16 miles).
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      I did read that doing this teaches the body to resort to fat for fuel, and I do see the positive of that, instead of my body waiting for food fuel every hour or so.
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    61. I for one have never done this but as the wife of a sub-elite marathon runner he has experimented with all of this and I really do love the idea behind it. I think we all have to find what works for us.
      Sara @ LovingOnTheRun recently posted..Around the WorldMy Profile

    62. I could not imagine doing this but I’m not at the same level as you. I know that you had trouble with cramping in marathons. I think this will help you! Take care of yourself though!
      Therese recently posted..The Commoners VacationMy Profile

    63. Great summary, Michele- I’m glad it’s working so well for you! I enjoyed experimenting with glycogen depletion runs in my last marathon cycle, too. I can see how quickly one’s body could become dependent on glycogen/gels with too much fuel and it really helped me to feel stronger (mentally and physically) knowing I would be fine without. So excited for you with the upcoming marathon!
      Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..The Spring Diet: Perfect for Healing CandidaMy Profile

    64. Thanks for the informative post! I have heard about glycogen depletion runs before and they definitely seem useful, although not something I plan to incorporate right now because I don’t have any plans to run farther than 13.1 in the near future. :)
      Rachel recently posted..#alltheawards – Thanks Laura!My Profile

    65. Very interesting post! I’d be curious to know how many fasted long runs you do during a typical marathon training cycle.

    66. This is such a great article. I did a few glycogen depleted runs training for my half-mary’s last fall, but honestly I don’t ever feel like I need fuel or water for anything less than 16. Ive done two glycogen depleted runs this cycle one of 19 and one of 17. And they have been true glycogen depleted runs: out the door at 5am with nothing in my belly but a few sips of coffee and water. I tend to really focus on hydration the day before and the night before which helps. I don’t feel like I need water. But once I get past that 16mi mark I start to drag a bit, get a second wind and then finish. But the rest of the day I am wiped out and want to eat ALL.THE.FOOD. I’ve got two 20 milers left in this cycle and I’m going to fuel on them a little bit, mostly cause I want to do a few fast finishes and my last to glycogen depleted runs I’ve felt so exhausted in the last miles…Im basically dragging myself home step by step.
      Sarah @RunFarGirl recently posted..Training Update and Race RecapsMy Profile

    67. I’ve been experimenting a bit with glycogen depletion this cycle as well (I just blogged about it also!). I haven’t fully fasted, in that I’m still eating before the run, but I’ve done runs up to 30 km’s (almost 19 miles) without any fuel during the run. So far it’s gone really well for me, and I really haven’t missed the fuel during the run. I plan on doing my next 20 miler without fuel, and my last 20 miler with (as a dress rehearsal for race day). I will eat before the run, and may try doing a full fasted run during my next training cycle.
      Terry recently posted..Long Run Fueling, and my first peak week this cycleMy Profile

    68. I’ve never purposefully done this but there have been many runs where I was so in my “zone” running i just “forgot” to fuel….
      This happened to me at my most recent half marathon and I PR’ed But it was pouring rain and I think I just had blinders on to everything but the finish line because i was so uncomfortable.

      Thanks for this post though because I know so many were questioning and concerned about your recent IG post.
      sally @ sweat out the small stuff recently posted..And now Summer became Winter because that’s Spring for yaMy Profile

    69. Great read! If I struggle with anything the most it is marathon fueling for sure!!!! I have tried the generation ucann but just can’t stomach it…I thought it was very chalky tasting! I feel like I have such a weak stomach and getting it just right is so tricky!!!!
      Jen@milesandblessings recently posted..Boston StrongMy Profile