What do ultrarunners talk about when they run? The gorgeous scenery around them, pooping stories, and race nutrition. It’s just how it goes.
I was reminded of the importance of nutrition at last week’s Monument Valley 50. Despite my legs feeling thrashed from my 1st
place finish at Antelope Canyon 50 three weeks earlier, my energy remained consistent and controlled all day, and I was able to pull a 2nd
place finish and new PR. It was thanks, in part, to setting my nutrition plan early and sticking to it. Making the jump from regular ole running to ultrarunning isn’t just about logging longer miles. One of the most important aspects is understanding nutrition and how to find what works for you.
The two key principles that should guide your race nutrition are consistency
Results from scientific studies vary, but I operate under the assumption that my body can only absorb about 240 calories per hour. Unfortunately, I’ll burn between 400-800 calories per hour. So, no matter how hard I try, I’m in a caloric deficit during my races. I focus on trying to consume enough to hit that 240-calorie ceiling, which allows me to achieve minimum deficiency and maximum performance.
For ultrarunners, hitting that target is especially important. Overshoot it, and you’ll load your GI system with too much. With your body already in distress from heat, jostling and overworking, this can turn your stomach sour fast. Undershoot that target, and you’ll rapidly slip into that caloric deficit, lose energy, feel terrible, etc. And then you have to dig yourself out of that hole.
The trick is to automate your nutrition.
I find it helpful to set intervals for eating during an ultrarun, and when the time comes up to eat, I force myself to eat, no matter what. I eat about 100 calories of something every 30 minutes. That amounts to one gel, one serving of chew, half of bar, whatever your fancy in 100 calorie servings. The key is to do this without fail.
Of course, you might forget to eat on time once in a while. You may just not feel like eating or you may get lost in your run and remember to eat 5 minutes too late. That’s OK. But don’t drop your plan; adapt it. If you were supposed to eat at 1:30, but you didn’t see your watch until 1:40, eat now. Then the next time, eat at 2:05. Then the next time 2:30, and you’re magically back on schedule. Don’t skip your times, adjust them. And it’s better to stick to easily remembered times like on the hour and half-hour because once the mileage makes your brain go mushy, you’ll want to keep it simple.
But if you’re only eating 100 calories every half-hour, that only gets us 200 calories towards the 240 we need. That’s where aid stations come in. Keep your gels/chews/whatever on your regular schedule and augment them with whatever real food you want from aid stations. With aid stations spaced every 4-8ish miles, you should hit one every hour or so. When you’re there, chow down on whatever sounds good to you at that moment. A combination of the regular scheduled gels plus injections of real, solid food will get your energy levels topped off and your belly satiated.
Everybody and every body is different. Some people can’t use gels because they turn their stomach. Some people can’t choke down solid food in the middle of a race. It takes experimentation both in training and on race day to understand what works for you. That said, the best strategy is a little bit of a lot of things. No offense to brands that sell all-in-one, all-day miracle drinks, but I don’t buy it. You’re playing with fire. What if you’ve planned on using a nutritional drink all day only to find it turns your stomach three hours into the race? Ruh roh.
The best approach is to minimize risk by maximizing the variety of food you take in. That way, if something really doesn’t agree with you, you can move on from it quickly and eat something else. And even when I use gels or chews, I bring along a variety of brands and flavors. I’ve learned that I love flavors such as Montana Huckleberry and Raspberry Hammer Gels and Citrus Gu’s, and my new favorite Honey Stinger Gels, all of which I get from The Feed. So even then, I’m not hedging my bets on just one type of gel. I know what each gel will do for me and use it accordingly. Plus, that kind of variety will help prevent flavor fatigue, which just ain’t fun.
Another benefit is that you can turn to different types of food on the fly. Sometimes you are feeling hungry and need to turn to something more substantial like a bar. Or maybe you don’t feel like stomaching too much, and a gel is all you can suck down at that moment.
When you have variety, you have a toolbox. In fact, I organize it that way in my pack, putting all gels in one pocket and all chews, bars, etc. in another so I know whether to reach left or right depending on what I need.
Put all this together, and you can create a successful nutrition plan for race day. Here’s generally how I build mine for a 50-mile race:
Start off with using most gels in the early morning hours. I’m running faster and probably just had some breakfast so I don’t want to overload the stomach. An hour or two in, I’ll start to mix in some Honey Stinger Chews or Clif Bloks for something to chew on. At aid stations early on, I stick mostly to juicy fruits and pretzels. As the day rolls on, I’ll add in more chews. Come mile 30 or so I’ll throw in a bar with some good protein, and spread it across an hour to help with damaged muscle tissues. And with higher temperatures, I’ll also eat some saltier foods at aid stations—pickles, potatoes in salt, etc. And my favorite part: I’ll start drinking some Coke too. (Damn, it tastes good after a few dozen miles.) For the last ten miles or so of the race, I’ll switch back to mostly gels since I’ll probably be hammering the last section, and the gels are easy to eat and are light-ish on the stomach.
Of course, you know what’s been said about the best-laid plans of mice and men and ultrarunners. But if you stick to these two guiding principles, you’ll lay better plans. And then you’ll know how to adapt when things go awry.
So, eat up.
Check out Andy's athlete page, and try out a box of his favorites!