Running long distance is hard on your body. It is asked to work real hard, so the least we can do is give it the proper nutrition to succeed. And the longer you run the more important this becomes.
To be honest, if you are going to be running 5km you probably don’t need to worry about mid-race fuel. Heck, you can get away with doing 1/2 marathons with only one gel. But if you are thinking about going long, than you are going to need to pay close attention to what you are putting into your body.
This post is meant to be a general outline and not a hard and fast plan. The reality is that for Ultra runs you are going to have to be able to adapt as fatigue and food tolerance changes. So instead, use this list as you might view a buffet and take what you want when you want it.
Also to be clear, I am not a doctor or professional nutritionist. But, I am an ultra runner so this is what I have direct experience with and what has worked for me.
Alright, time to get started. First things first. Never… EVER… try new things on race day. What does that mean? It means, that at the very least you need to train with these items, use them on your long runs. But, do not try something new. In other words, what your diet is today is going to dictate what you intake on race day.
Second thing to remember, is that we are all unique. What works for me, may not work for you. What works for the professionals may not work for you. You do not have to look any farther then the elite crowd who all have their own diet tips and tricks. Kilian Jornet eats way differently then Sage Canaday. So back to my first point, take these try them and experiment and then plan your race day nutrition.
Last thing to come to terms with, is that race day is unique. Every one of us has had what we thought was the perfect diet plan blow up in our face on race day.
The important thing is to be able to adapt and not let it ruin your day. In this case knowledge is definitely power.
This is really going to depend on body types. It should be obvious that a 6 foot 200lb man is going to need more calories then a 5 foot 100lb woman. If it’s not, then let’s start there. For me, I am 5 ft 9 and weigh about 165lbs on race day. My goal is to intake at a bare minimum 200 to 300 calories per hour.
Again I want to stress that this is the minimum that I need to keep my body going at race pace. If I can ingest more, I generally do. Although, in my last race I went overboard at one transition and caused some distress. I firmly believe there is a happy middle ground. It is going to be up to you to figure out what works.
Water intake is also important. Probably better suited for another article, but I believe that every runner should have a goal for how much liquid they are aiming to intake per hour.
What type of nutrition?
Now we are finally getting into the nitty gritty of the article. Where should these calories come from? To make things easier I will break them down to types.
A quick disclaimer, I don’t think I would recommend many of these food items if you weren’t exercising. Some of them are legitimate junk food, but they contain easy to digest and very dense calories. Which is more important that you get into your system under such a high stress load.
This is my favourite category. I tend to feel the best when I eat real food. Some good examples are bars, wraps, baby food, cookies, sausage, eggs, cheese and potatoes. I have run trail runs that have most of these at the aid stations as well as sandwiches, burritos, pizzas, fruit smoothies and nuts. I would even group potato chips under this category.
I know what you are thinking. If you can run an ultra with real food why are there any other types of food listed here? Well, I am glad you asked.
As good as it is to eat real food, you are getting natural sources of nutrition, they also tend to be less calorie dense for the bulk. If you have ever run after a big meal you know that bulky food is not that desirable.
Again this is a very personal thing. I have been known to pound a belly full of watermelon at an aid station, only to be out of energy a few minutes later. Some athletes have an iron belly and can eat anything, Dean Karnazes ate a whole pizza and a cheesecake while on a run, if you are one of those athletes then it is very likely that you won’t have to look at any other type of fuel.
This is the most portable and arguably the most popular category gels and blocks.
I would be surprised if most runners had not tried one of these at least once. It is likely that if you have run an organized event, then you have seen these at an aid station.
The benefit to this type of nutrition is obviously portability. They pack a huge amount of calories for their size, they also usually contain some form of electrolyte which helps replace all the electrolytes you have been sweating out. But, not everything is rainbows and unicorns, they also have been known to cause the most amount of GI distress. I know for myself that if I am doing any more than 50km then I have to take real food. Otherwise, I am sure to have an upset belly.
These are so popular though, that finding multiple brands and flavours should not be a problem. However, be warned! These contain a ton of sugar and chemicals. Even with those downfalls, they are race day staple for me.
The last category is the liquid calories. They can vary from something as simple as fruit juice or gatorade all the way up to Hammer Perpetuem or Gu Roctane.
The wonderful thing about these type of calories is you are usually getting a twofor. In that, you are getting calories and water at the same time. And with some of them you are getting a bunch of much needed electrolytes.
Again, they are not perfect though. If you are using the powder version, portability can be an issue. However, for me the biggest hurdle is that they simply do not satiate me. I seem to always feel hungry afterwards.
The other problem is the risk of hyponatremia or over hydrating. Although less likely, this is still a real problem that can sneak up on the endurance athlete and can send you to the hospital if you are not careful. The easiest way to avoid this is to make sure you are still eating solid food if you are fuelling mostly with liquid calories.
I use liquid calories quite regularly, with my favourite brands being Hammer and GU, but other examples are Gatorade, Powerade, Nuun, Coke, Tailwind and more.
The last thing that I want to touch base on is tablets. If you are running an ultra you are going to be stripping your body of everything! Be prepared to add electrolytes, salt and more. I will always have an electrolyte tab like eLoad with me. But, I also make sure that I have other tabs like salt or Tums ( to settle the stomach and and possible help with lactic acid ) with my crew in case I need them.
What about you? What are some of your go to nutrition for race day?