Nutrition – tried & tested techniques – a baseline to supplement & improve your running
*This article is meant to educate and inform, not prescribe any nutritional advice. Please see disclaimer at the end of the article and Terms & Conditions for further info.
One of the most important components of training, one which is often overlooked and forgotten. You’ve trained your body and legs to run efficiently, but you didn’t train the stomach? No! Like teaching the mouth to chew but not teaching the arm to feed. Chicken before the egg… But, I digress. Training the body to handle the nutrition you’ll be throwing at it on race day and experimenting with what your body can handle is key to a successful race outcome. Our article below discusses what’s needed to keep you going for longer vs actual brand recommendations as not everybody has the same taste preferences, whereas the make up of those foods are whats important.
Due to the length of time over which an ultra marathon continues, you are essentially missing various daily meals. Some (>100 mile) races may take upwards of 36 hours. You need to supplement these missed meals with a structured and WELL TESTED nutrition plan to fuel your body along the way.
What works for one won’t work for all
Each and everybody is different. Scott Jurek once ate upwards of 50 gels during the UTMB, something he had trained his stomach to endure. I, for one, can barely handle even 10 gels during an ultra event, never mind 50! However, many athletes prefer a diverse mix of nutrition in the form of blocks, gels, bars, solid foods, fruit and sports drinks. Start with a baseline of nutrition and tweak your intake as you progress within your training, testing these choices during the longer days out running. Write down what you ate and how you felt. See what works for you.
Ultrarunning is an all you can eat buffet, with some running thrown in…
Let’s get technical
This part takes a little homework and research – the nitty gritty. You need to break down the constituents of the food you plan on consuming during your run/race. Ideally you’d want a mixture of Fats 15%, Proteins 25% and Carbohydrates 60% (give or take 5%….) Whether that is in the form of gels or solids, try to aim for the above as a baseline to give your body what it needs to continue your effort and keep you trucking along nicely.
The reason an athlete needs a healthy dose of carbs (60%) is to allow for an increased exercise capacity and performance. These much needed cabs prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level), maintain carb oxidation and increase overall endurance. At very high intensities the body primarily utilizes carbohydrates for fuel.
Protein intake helps to repair and recover from exercise, both during and especially afterwards. Protein helps minimize muscle damage, which can be quite high, during endurance events. Think about all that jarring and muscle fatigue when bombing downhill with all that eccentric muscle contraction (lengthening of the muscle tendon). Consuming proteins after an event are ideally done within 2 hours after completing a race or training run for maximum benefit and repair.
An important source of energy. During low intensity events (like ultra marathons) fat oxidation is higher than glucose oxidation. Studies have shown that athletes who consumed a higher percentage (as mentioned approx 15% of intake) had lower GI issues as these fats help slow absorption and digestion, thus maintaining blood flow to the organs in the abdominal region, reducing GI distress. At very low intensities (ultras) the body primarily utilizes fats for fuel, conserving those carbs. The fitter an athlete is, the more metabolically efficient they become, using a higher percentage of fat vs carbohydrates as intensity increases.
Now that you’ve earmarked your ingredient makeup, start with 200 – 300kCal/hour (calories) and adjust accordingly. A bar or gels calories are often listed on the back of the wrapper and a brief gooogle search advising you of other solid foods expected calories. A heavier male would be on the upper side of this 200 – 300 band, whereby a lighter female runner might only need 180 – 200 kCal per hour, possibly even a tad less if your’e tiny.
Eat early – don’t wait until you are hungry. You want to continue consuming a steady trickle of calories, avoiding the bombardment of food intake that often leads to the dreaded gut bomb. Some runners set alarms on their watches that go off every 45 mins or every hour, reminding them to keep eating/drinking. As running for lengthy periods of time often involves sleep deprivation, caffeine is an often used stimulant to aid alertness during a run/race. Remember: More is not better! A caffeine hit (approx 125mg/caffeine/cup-o-coffee) lasts around 2-3 hours and should only be taken once you become sleepy, not before. Remember, caffeine may be an added stimulant that exists in your gels/bars/drinks – be careful not to exceed the recommended amounts or overdose.
Eat little, and eat often
The number one reason for a DNF during ultra marathons is “GI distress”, whether it be in the form of nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Make eating part of your training regime and keep evolving as an ultra runner and ultra eater, essentially!
Practice makes perfect: during any run >90 mins take in a gel or bar or whatever you plan on consuming during your race day. Aim to practice this AT LEAST once per week, especially during your longer weekend runs where you need to try mimic intake to what you’d expect on race day.
Ideally you want to whittle down your choices to 4 or 5 varied staples and carry these in your pack/belt. Have a backup food group you can consume if feeling nauseous. That might be dry crackers or a PBJ sandwich perhaps? Anything that’ll help you continue to get those much needed calories down the hatch and avoid a bonk.
A sweet, a savory, a salty as well as a real food option and a manufactured food (gels or blocks) covers most appetites and includes something to suit varied levels of food fatigue you will encounter during a lengthy run. Diving further, a runner could further categorize these chosen foods into different tiers: 5 types within their GO-TO first tier and 5 varied types within the second (backup) tier. Trying something new on race day and outside the scope of these tiers should be avoided – never try something new on race day.
Practice eating when moving at a slower pace, like uphill or at an aid station, when the blood flow can redirect from fueling the muscles to aiding the stomach digest the intake.
When things go south nutrition wise and your’e starting to struggle, try the following:
- Slow down – more blood redirected towards the stomach to help wth digestion;
- Sucking on candies often helps soothe a bad stomach;
- Ginger fixes nausea. We like Bundaberg ginger beer from Australia. Its packed with ginger and sugar cane. Sweet but not too sweet. Found the world over . Have a bottle in your drop bag as a backup.
- Solid foods. Stop the gels or whatever made you sick. Try to stomach dry crackers. Switch the electrolytes for plain water. Just rememebr to get those calories back in as you won’t go for too long on plain water and dry crackers. Its a temporary fix.
Have a plan – execute, adapt and adjust if needed. Remember the foods you use during training may not be available at certain races depending on the country they are held in. Asian races typically have things like miso soup and rice balls at aid stations. Races in Italy offer bread with olive oil, cheeses and cold meats. Work these options into your nutrition plan and get the stomach used to what’s available en-route depending on where you’ll be racing. This is an often overlooked but essential part of your planning and thus nutritional training.
Practice makes perfect. Include some (if not all) of the above tricks and tips to increase your probabilities of finishing without GI distress come race day.
*Disclaimer: float running co are not registered dieticians and in no way are liable for any legal action resulting from any advice given within this article. Please see Terms & Conditions for further legal disclaimers associated to float.one, their owners and partners.
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Wonderfully informative article, thanks team!