With spring almost upon us (though you might not know it here in Madison), many runners have started thinking about what races they’ll be running this year. If you’ve already tackled a marathon and are itching to try something new, you might be considering an ultra. And so begins the excitement of researching races and distances, deciding on a training plan, and maybe buying a new pair of shoes. One thing that will be arguably as important as logging the miles will be experimenting with what you eat and drink so that you don’t have a miserable experience on race day!
I must confess that when I was asked to write this post, I felt vastly under qualified to give advice. I love running marathons but have only run one 50-mile ultra, so I definitely don’t consider myself an “expert” on the topic of nutrition, by any means. So I guess I’m starting with the disclaimer that I’m presenting what worked well for ME, and suggesting that you might use it as a place to start if you’re thinking about attempting an ultra. What I said there is key, though; there is no “one-size-fits-all” diet that will guarantee you success in an ultramarathon. Furthermore, even if you’ve trained perfectly, we all know that race day can bring unexpected complications…one being (not to sound too technical) an “icky tummy.”
All disclaimers aside, you really can’t ignore the importance of proper fueling, especially when you get into longer events. When I was training for my first marathon, I lost about 30 pounds. “Awesome!” you might say, nodding your head with approval, as we runners are constantly defending that the benefits of running far outweigh the injuries we inevitably suffer. Here’s the problem: although I probably needed to lose a few pounds, at the time I wasn’t trying to lose weight. I felt like I was eating all the time…but the pounds just melted away. When I look back at pictures of myself during that time, I realize that in addition to losing fat, I lost a TON of muscle. And when I think back to my diet at the time, I cringe when I realize the minimal amount of protein I was taking in, during a time when my body needed it the most.
So I’ll start there. Whereas most of us get by on gels and sports drinks during a marathon, you really need to add more protein into the equation for an ultra. Most of the sources I read before my race recommended that after a few (3-4) hours of running, you should start taking in more protein; this Runner’s World article will give you a better idea of the protein/carb ratio you should look for. I am NOT one to judge other people’s diets, so I would never say that you can’t do an ultra if you are a vegan (some argue a vegan diet lacks adequate protein). In fact, I would recommend the mind-blowing book Eat and Run, by Scott Jurek, to anyone considering running an ultra…in fact, I would recommend it to anyone, period. Jurek is one of the best ultrarunners that has ever competed, and the book is punctuated with his own vegan recipes. In my opinion, the man is superhuman…but I digress. I’ll also give a special shout-out to my wonderful friend Meghan Ross who crossed the finish line of the North Face Endurance Challenge with me; Meghan is also a vegan. The point is that however you work protein into your run, whether it’s from meat, beans, eggs, nuts, etc., doesn’t matter…just do it.
What I like most about the Runner’s World article linked above is that it alludes to “never digging out of a calorie deficit” when you’re running an ultra because you’re constantly burning more than you’re taking in. So the one solid piece of advice I would give (and one that is echoed by every ultrarunner you will ever talk to) is “eat early, and eat often.” I can normally subsist on only water for runs up to about 12 miles, at which point I start taking in gels (not a hard and fast rule, but what works for me). After hearing the “eat early” advice from myriad sources, however, I started taking gels about 30 minutes into the ultra. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and I was ripping the top off of my favorite Mint Chocolate Gu. That is AFTER, mind you, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana in the morning. Believe me…I started early. I took Gu like clockwork, and after three hours, I added Clif bars into the equation. Again, this might not be for everyone, but for some reason, Clif bars seem to sit really well in my stomach, even when I’m on the move. They’re also pretty darn easy to pack, which is something else you’ll have to consider when you’re out there.
This brings me to another point: when you pick a race to run, figure out where the drop points are for bags. Think very carefully about what you want to put in the bag–it should also include changes of clothes, extra shoes, and first aid materials, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll just focus on the nutrition aspect. Ultras will often give you an option as to where you want your bag dropped, so you should think about how much you want to carry before you’ll have to stop and “restock.” I am a fiercely independent person, and if you’re like me, you might want to do a race “on your own.” However, once you’ve made a foray into ultra territory, you need to be particularly smart about things, and you may want to consider having someone meet you at various points along the way. My boyfriend Rob was utterly invaluable to me when I did my ultra, not only for moral support, but also for bringing me additional food when I most needed it.
I did not complete a “fast” 50-miler, but I completed it with relatively few stomach troubles. As I mentioned before, I swear by Clif bars. I also took the advice of Rolando Cruz (Berkeley Running Company) and experimented with Ensure during the training process. Nutrition shakes like this have a nice protein/carb/fat ratio, and for people with sensitive stomachs, liquid calories are sometimes preferable. I can’t remember the EXACT number of shakes, Clif bars, and Gu packets that I took in on race day, but I assure you that it was a lot. Personally, I calculated the distances between each and every aid station and made sure I had taken in a certain number of calories for each distance. I also marked my handheld water bottle in 8-oz. increments to make sure I was hydrated enough.
This last part can’t be stressed enough. Drink lots of water, but also be aware of the dangers of hyponatremia, which results from drinking too MUCH water. Hyponatremia is a sodium imbalance, which you can imagine may happen when you’re losing salt through sweat, then drinking a ton of water (and not getting enough sodium). During training, you may want to experiment with pretzels or other salty foods. I used salt tabs while I was training during the especially hot Madison summer. Make sure you check how much sodium is actually in salt tabs if you use them, though; some have fairly negligible qualities that won’t do you much good in the long run (pun intended). Make sure you know the signs of hyponatremia before you run an ultra; it can be fatal, and should be taken extremely seriously. But don’t let this scare you into drinking too little water; you absolutely must stay hydrated! A lot of races will also provide cooked potatoes which will be set next to little salt trays…it’s an easy source of salt when you need it, and the potatoes tend to be pretty easy on one’s stomach.
Now I must confess something. I absolutely threw conventional wisdom to the wind when it came to “avoiding anything new on race day.” True, I was wearing clothes that had been used numerous times, and my shoes were perfectly broken in. But when it came to nutrition, I took full advantage of the aid stations, even when they contained items that I hadn’t tried out during training. I found it almost humorous how much junk food there was: brownies, cookies, cake, candy, etc. As runners, we typically try pretty hard to treat our bodies well, but the aid stations often stock food that would give dietitians a heart attack. Many provide soda that is opened early to allow it to flatten (if you’ve never experienced the joys of drinking carbonated beverages while running, I don’t recommend starting). But when you think about it, you have multiple opportunities to “bonk” or “hit the wall” during an ultra (this means your glycogen stores have been completely depleted, and you can’t run any more). During a marathon, this can happen around the 20-mile mark, and in an ultra, you have the wonderful opportunity of hitting this point twice (or more, depending on the length of the race). The soda is there for sugar and caffeine, and the junk food is to get quickly-absorbed sugars into your system. I’m not saying you HAVE to eat junk food, but it can be like rocket fuel when you feel like bonking. I think Meghan summed it up at mile 45 when we each downed a congealed handful of Skittles and she claimed that it “really did taste like the rainbow.”
So now you have my list for surviving an ultramarathon: PB&J, Clif bars, Ensure, Gu, and the occasional indulgence in “junk”. I carried some of this with me, packed some in my bag (which I strategically placed at an aid station that I would pass twice during the race), and carried a water bottle that I refilled at each station. What it really comes down to is that it can be kind of fun to do the experimentation needed to find out what works for your body. Again, I would recommend doing your research before the race and coming up with a fueling plan, but be prepared for the unexpected. Also, know where there will be bathrooms and porta potties along the way. When you’re running for the better part of a day, you may experience some intestinal distress every now and again. And the most important thing? Enjoy the post-race feast–my goodness, you’ve earned it!