Ultra Marathon Nutrition
Wish there was one place on the web that told you what to eat when and why when training for and racing an ultra marathon? Wouldn’t it be great if you could grab the basics and get rolling and then come back for more detailed advice late, or get a balanced perspective on nutrition all at once?
Bam! Wish granted!
Nutrition was the most frustrating aspect of training for my first ultra marathon. It doesn’t have to be frustrating for you. It may take some trial and error, but this post will put you on the fast track to finding a nutritional strategy that works for you.
Sorted by Complexity for Your Convenience!
I realize that you’d rather be out running than reading a blog post, so I’ve ranked them according to your level of interest. At the end of this article I’ll give you a list of the products I use when and why, but first it’s important that you understand at least some of the basic “whys” of ultra running nutrition. Again, they are sorted in order from basic, easy to understand explanations to a scientific approach that will satisfy your every curiosity.
1. Most Basic Advice from a World Champion
Marshall Ulrich holds many ultra running world records and has summited Mt. Everest and every other major peak out there. Yep, he’s hardcore. The easy nutritional advice he gives is proven effective at the highest level (no pun intended, oh wait, yes I did).
“Listen to your body and eat what you crave! Your body is smarter than you are and will tell you what you need. But you have to learn to listen to it. Remember to eat a balance of carbohydrates (simple sugars), proteins, and fats. Use the aid stations and, if you have crew, make sure they have a range of foods to give you. Sometimes it is easier to get your calories from liquid sources (like Ensure) or energy gels during a race. Try these during your pre-race training and see what works for you. Of course, stay hydrated, and don’t forget to take in electrolytes, including sodium!”
2. Balanced Advice from the most decorated Ultra Runner of all time
Yep, you probably want to listen to this man. Scott Jurek won the Western States 100 (the World Series of Ultra Running) 7 years in a row. He is the current US record holder in a 24 hour race event at 165.7 miles. 165.7 miles in one day! UNBEFLIPPINGLIEVEABLE.
Find his nutrition philosophy here:
(Scroll past the top of the article for the nutritional advice. Actually don’t; his training tips are also pure gold for a beginning ultra runner)
“Always familiarize yourself with a new food or drink during training. Many runners have experienced stomach distress when they have tried a new nutritional product in a race situation for the first time. If an event is going to have a certain food or drink on the course and you will not have your own available, use it in training and be very familiar with it before race day.”
3. The Science Behind it All
If you’re like me, the earlier articles just whetted your appetite for more knowledge. You know that the above advice works. Those guys set world records with it. Now read this article by the experts at 1st Nutrition.* It’s one of the best, easy to understand scientific explanations of ultra running nutrition I’ve found on the web.
Don’t have time to read the article? Bookmark it now, but do not skip the key quote from this one. It’s one of the most critical differences between distance running and ultra running.
Find the article here: http://firstendurance.com/2013/03/05/fueling-for-a-100-mile-running-race/
“The most overlooked element of nutrition for many runners is pace. It is your pace that determines what ratio of glycogen to fat you burn. As you approach anaerobic, high HR efforts you begin to burn almost exclusively glycogen for which you only carry a 3-hour supply. At moderate aerobic efforts you burn primarily fat, for which you have plenty to last days. Run or walk aerobically all day and you should be able to keep up with your demand for glycogen. Pacing usually fails on that first climb when everyone is together. Stick to YOUR aerobic pace. If you go anaerobic you immediately start burning your glycogen and can, very early on, initiate a bonk. Remember that at altitude your heart rate will be elevated 10-20 beats higher, this means you have to slow the pace even further to get to your aerobic level.”
-Robert Kunz (writing for the First Endurance blog)
*I’m not endorsed by and receive no compensation from 1st Nutrition. They are makers of various nutritional products for endurance athletes. I’ve never used any of them. That said, I didn’t find the article “salesy” much at all, which is refreshing from a company. Solid, free content? Yes please! Perhaps I’ll even listen about what you’re selling! Crazy how that works.
How I get it done
Anyone who has run a 50+ mile ultra has had to have a least a certain measure of success with nutrition. I’ve tried a lot of different options. Gels, chomps, jelly beans, coffee beans, bites, bars, soup, sandwiches, cakes, and more. Most of it was disastrous. No one nutritional plan works for everyone, but I’ll tell you what worked for me and that might give you a good base line for your efforts.
Duh. For me real food was what I needed. I still regularly take in gels on long runs, but for longer efforts (over 20 miles) I need to mix in something more. Likely you will too. The trick is finding a substantial food source (that incorporates fat and protein in addition to carbs) that your stomach is able to digest without too much trouble.
Impossible you say? I thought so too, but one thing to remember is that during an ultra length run you’re running a lot slower than you would during, say a half marathon. That said, I tried a lot of fuel sources before stumbling upon the most amazing food the world has ever known. (and by “world” I guess I mean, “my stomach while running”).
Geek check! Lord of the Rings Fan? Remember that Elven way bread that with one bite magically fuelled a grown man for hours? Well, sadly I haven’t found it at any grocery store in my area.*
But I did find the closest thing us mere mortals have crafted thus far:
Wow, that was anticlimactic. No, not the flavorless dry air of a wafer you’re thinking of. These are homemade bars made from a mixture of white calrose rice and scrambled eggs. From there, garnish and flavoring is up to your particular tastes and experimentation.
Like sweet and salty? Try adding bacon peanut butter, cashews, and raisins.
Want a savory option? Go with bacon, salt (or soy sauce) to taste, and freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Mix it all up and press it into a pan. Cover and refrigerate. When cool, cut them up into bars and wrap them in aluminum foil. Throw them in your pack or spy belt and eat them whenever you get hungry for more hearty fare.
I freeze them individually wrapped in a gallon ziplock bag and pull out the ones I want to use the next day and put them in the fridge. By morning they are thawed, but cold—perfect for packing on the run
I wish I could take credit for these wonder morsels, but the credit belongs to Dr. Alan Lim. He has a PH.D in sports physiology and is one of the leading cycling nutritionists in the world. I am drawn to his natural approach to nutrition. People need food. Athletes are people. Therefore athletes should eat food. How sad that the concept has become revolutionary!
Here’s a link to a youtube video that shows just how simple it is to prepare Dr. Lim’s rice cakes:
Also, I highly recommend his book, The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletes, co-authored by world renowned chef Biju Thomas. It contains tons of portable recipes you can eat on the run. This book has set me on solid ground in terms of ultra running nutrition and I can’t praise it enough!
My Essential Long Run Menu
At long last here’s my list of essential food for a long effort:
- Dr. Alan Lim’s Rice cakes (one every 1-1.5 hours)
- Hammer or Gu energy gels (1 between rice cakes and when energy is really flagging)
- Racing I carry chocolate covered espresso beans. A treat and a kick all-in-one! Yep.
That’s it. Simple is good. Trust me. Try it out.
*I have since found several purported recipes for Lembas Bread on the internet and hey, if it’s on the internet, it must work right?? Ultra Driven does not endorse any of these recipes btw. http://www.geekychef.com/2008/12/elven-lembas-bread.html
What is your favorite thing to eat on a long run? What didn’t work at all?