Fueling for an Ultra Marathon
By Vishal Patel, Chief Nutritionist
Over the past several months, I’ve been gearing up to make my ultra-debut with very low expectations on how fast or slow I’ll run. For me, my goal for my first ultra is to survive, and not have any nutrition issues!
An area I preach repeatedly to any athlete I work with is to practice, practice, practice! Which is why I finalized what I was going to eat and drink during the race many months ago, so I can practice during training, and make any necessary adjustments before race day.
For this blog, I’m focusing on what to eat, why you should eat, and what I eat and drink before a workout and during training.
What to eat: A healthy mix of whole grains, protein, and fats - with minimal fiber.
When to eat: At least 2-3 hours before the start of the race or training run.
Why eat: Eating before any race or long workout will ensure you have done everything in your power to fuel your body for the run ahead. Giving your body sufficient time will allow proper absorption and metabolism, and will decrease gi discomfort during the run.
What Vishal eats:
- 1 cup rolled oats
- ½ tbsp. Brown sugar
- 1 tsp. Cinnamon
- ½ tsp. Salt
- 1-2 tbsp. Peanut butter
- fruit (Whatever I have on hand)
- 1-2 cups of coffee!
- 12 fl of water with Nuun Sport
What to drink: During prolonged activities, you want to give your body the right mix of water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes to allow your body to work for you. The optimal ratio of water-to-carbs-to-electrolytes can be found in Nuun Endurance. Aim to consume 16-24 fl oz per hour, or to your personal sweat rate. Adding some carbs through hydration allows your body to absorb the fluid more efficiently, decreasing the stress put on your body during endurance exercise.
What to eat: During endurance exercise, and particularly during ultra-endurance activities, you want to give your body a mix of nutrients through food. To minimize gastric distress, make sure you separate your hydration from your fuel. Your body can only handle so many carbohydrates through fluids. And your body also needs more than just carbohydrates during ultra-endurance events. As you exercise for longer durations, your body will begin relying on fats for fuel. That is one of the main reasons you hear us say to eat real food during exercise, as your body will process it more efficiently while giving your body a nice mix of nutrients.
For pro-longed endurance activities (4+ hours) aim to consume 150-300 calories per hour, and adjust that number based on how you feel during and after the run. Timing on when to eat and drink is very important, but don’t set a timer or drink based on thirst. Recent research has shown that drinking towards thirst can lead to decreases in exercise performance. I recommend eating every 30 minutes or so, then adjusting based on how you feel. The perfect amount of calories and hydration will differ from athlete to athletes, so it's important to take the baseline recommendation and adjust based on your individual needs.
Why eat and drink: Eating during the run provides energy, while drinking provides fuel your muscles by delivering oxygen. Nutrition can make or break a training run or race, and it's one factor we can control. I know it can be more convenient to get your hydration and fuel in one bottle. But trust me, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Or rather, you won’t know what real hydration and fueling can do for you unless you really break it apart.
What Vishal eats and drinks:
- 16-18 fl oz of Nuun Endurance (my favorite flavor: orange mango)
- 1 rice cake (~150 cals) every hour or so, made with calrose rice, cane sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice, salt.
- 1 Clif shot block every 45 minutes or so
Eating and drinking early and often is very important as well. Why? In the earlier portions of the race your body (intestines) are under the least amount of stress.