First off let me begin by saying that everyone is an individual and everyone has something different that works for them when it comes to fuelling for ultras. Especially when we’re talking about nutrition. Some thrive on jelly babies, some on gels and some prefer nuts and biltong. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. If it works for you, it works for you!! But there are some things to consider when tackling your next ultra.
Duration of the event
How long are you planning on being out there? This is important because it’s important to have enough fuel to keep you going. I recommend eating at least every 30min to prevent blood sugar dips. If you are racing at a very high intensity, you may find that eating more frequently is beneficial.
*Innes – Alternately, if you are running a 100 mile trail run and your goal is to simply finish, real food can work a treat. If you are out there for 30 hours, you are probably going to want to back off the gels and you will be running at a pace that allows you to walk and shuffle’ as you digest.
The great Yiannis Kouros who holds records for distances from 100 miles to 10 days would eat every 15 minutes. a small handful of raisins, nuts, fruit etc..
What To Eat?
Try and see what works for you. This is very different for everyone. Many love carbohydrates such as gels/sweets etc, but some enjoy nuts and biltong. What is important here is to practise your race day strategy in training to see if it works for YOU!
*Innes – Digestion seems to be the key consideration here. I can eat a a meal in the middle of an Ultra and run quite happily within 2 mins of finishing but for many, digesting can be a problem and leaves people feeling sick and nauseous. Products such as Tailwind and Maurten have made a huge difference to many runners experiencing digestion issues. Liquid fuel at its best they are ideal fuel for those wanting easy to digest calories with no ‘gut bombs’. Anyone who has run Comrades will confirm that boiled potatoes dipped in salt are a huge winner at a certain point in any race !!
Our bodies utilize different fuel systems during exercise, depending on the exercise intensity. To sum it up in a nutshell- if you are racing at a high intensity ie your heart rate is very high, your body predominantly uses carbohydrates. Furthermore less blood supply will go to your digestive system, meaning that your body will probably do better on easily digestible carbohydrates. If however you are plodding along at a more relaxed pace, you will find that the above won’t affect you as much because your body will start utilizing a fuel system that uses fat- so things like nuts and Biltong might be more appropriate for you.
Once again, when running long distance my advice is to eat small and regular snacks rather than high energy gels that spike your blood sugar but can then leave you feeling depleted. If you are competing in a sprint triathlon and you need fast energy, gels can work a treat..
Struggle With An Upset Stomach?
Again, this completely depends on you, the individual. Some can tolerate pretty much anything, where as some have a more sensitive stomach. Some of the foods that cause discomfort in some are: dairy products, caffeine, high fiber foods such as dried fruit, non-nutritive sweeteners and gluten. (To name the most common ones). See earlier notes about liquid fuels such as Tailwind / Maurten.
Hydration, Hydration, Hydration
Stomach cramps, stitches, dizziness, headaches- these are all signs of dehydration. Especially in an ultra event this is an area not to neglect. Make sure you load up on electrolytes prior to the event (rehidrat is a classic) and make sure you are well hydrated ( clear urine is a good indicator). When it comes to during the event- don’t just drink water, but make sure you have a source carbohydrates along with electrolytes in your bottles/bladders. The amount you need to consume is very dependent on duration of event, body weight, sweat rate etc. But generally speaking, the risk of you drinking too little is A LOT bigger than drinking too much. Key word: electrolytes!
Its also important to focus on your diet on the day’s leading up to a race. Make sure before you toe the start line you are well hydrated, and have eaten. Ideally you want to have a ‘decent breakfast’ 2 hrs before race time. If this isn’t possible consider liquid fuel prior to the race for those of shorter durations so you don’t start feeling heavy and bloated.
If you are someone who suffers from cramps, make sure you top up Magnesium levels leading up to race day and as Mariella has pointed out, a varied, colourful nutrient rich diet will make all the difference.
In most long distance runs you will have the option of a drop bag or you may have a crew helping you. Put a variety of foods in these as you will not be able to guess what you are going to crave after 50, 100, 160 K’s, although I was always a fan of Watermelon, Olives, salami sticks, cashew nuts and dolmades.
In summary, practise makes perfect and it comes down to figuring out what works for you.