Intro to Ultras Part 2: Ultra Eating

Walk In The Park Ultra Run _25
You can’t have this much fun in an ultra if you don’t eat right.  (Photo credit: Take it to the Manx)

Last July, while Clove was on her way to an awesome Burning River finish, I was volunteering at the mile 80 aid station. I called out bib numbers as runners came in. As night started to fall, I had to go back to mile 71 to wait for the runner I was going to pace from there to the finish line. He arrived way behind schedule. He laid down and shivered. His first pacer and I forced him to eat. He hadn’t been eating enough calories and I was worried he was going to drop out right there. But he didn’t. I forced him out of the aid station and we began the trek to the next checkpoint.

It took nearly four hours to cover that nine miles, as my runner was getting dizzy from the lack of nutrients. We made it, but he had to heartbreakingly call it quits at mile 80. Another DNF due to nutrition mistakes.

Small mistakes like that are easy to make. When you’re running 26.2 road miles, it’s easier to gut it out as you only have a few hours of suffering until the finish line. But when you start running longer distances on tougher surfaces, mistakes are costly and can lead to a DNF or worse, a hospital stay.

The longer you’re out on the run, the more important proper nutrition becomes. And eating for an ultra is much different than eating for a marathon, so here’s a few things to consider while training for your first ultra.

Go with what you already know. I will not give up my chocolate cherry Clif gels for anything. When I trained for my first marathon, they were giving out Clif gels, so that’s what I trained with. I never got sick and have always been able to stomach the taste, so why ruin a good thing? What has worked for you in the marathon? Do you have one kind of gel that you always have handy? A sports drink instead of water? Keep with it and be prepared to start ordering it in bulk!

Filling up my own handheld to wash down some real food.

Timing is everything. Instead of depending on a certain amount of miles to take in food, consider eating every hour. Depending on the difficulty of the trails or who you’re with, a training run might take five hours or more. I always make sure to eat every hour. This is most important in the hot summer months, when you need more water and food to keep you going. As always, keep experimenting on your long runs so you can have a solid plan for race day. Most races have aid stations every five miles or so. In a 50K, I know it will take me approximately one hour to make it from aid station to aid station. If I’m feeling good, I’ll stick to aid station food, water and Gatorade.  It’s good to have an alarm on your watch that will go off to remind you of when to eat.

Eat real food. This is the single best piece of advice I can give when it comes to ultrarunning nutrition. At the aid station, there’s going to be so many different kinds of food on the table, like cookies, pretzels, sandwiches, gels, fruit, soup, potatoes, the possibilities are endless. And just like I wouldn’t give up my Clif gels while I’m running, my go-to race foods are fig newtons, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watermelon. You’re going to be out on the course for a while and just sticking to gels won’t get you through all those ultra miles. Take advantage of the aid station foods you’ve paid for!

Take care of yourself after you run too. Just like with marathon training, eat something high in protein shortly after you finish your run. But also, be mindful of what you eat at other meals too. Ultra training results in an ultra appetite, so make sure you’re sticking to a routine and eating nutritious, real foods when you’re not on the run as well.

What has been your experience with nutrition? What has worked for you?
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Trail and 100 mile ultra runner who still loves a good road marathon every now and then. Lifetime Northeast Ohio resident that dreams of the mountains out west, but loves CLE too much. Sometimes a vegan, sometimes does yoga, always loves a good craft beer and post race donuts.

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  1. I have some questions!

    1. Do you practice eating real food on training runs? Is there a length of run where it becomes important to eat real food? Why do you need eat real food for a 50k, but not a marathon?

    2. Do you do any kind of training to better handle glycogen depletion or to train your body to better burn fat?

  2. I can try to answer your questions from my experiences:

    1. I do practice eating on training runs–for me, those of 20 miles or longer, if I am training for an ultra. I think it is VERY important to practice fueling on these runs because your body learns to accept food while you are on the go, and you learn what your body will tolerate and keep down. Yeah, it can be a pain to carry food along with you, but I would much rather do that than try something I’ve never done race day, have it go poorly, and have my race ruined. It’s very much like the idea that you should try nothing new during a marathon: gus, shoes, shirts, etc. As for why you would eat during a 50k and not a marathon–For me, a marathon is roughly 3:30-4:00. I can get by with a few gus and be fine. I can also go 3ish hours during a day without eating. However, 50ks and beyond take me (a non-elite) much longer than 4 hours, esecially since they are mostly on trails. I cannot go 5+ hours while sitting at home without food, so I will definitely not go that long while running through the woods without eating real food. I think it’s important to remember that trial running works your body differently than road running–for many people, it’s more taxing and you are on your feet longer.

    2. I don’t do every long training run with food, especially now since I know what I like to eat during ultras and what works for me. During marathon training, I often try not to fuel much or at all, to get my body used the the glycogen depletion, like you mentioned. However, like I said above, ultras are a different game. During these runs/races I start fueling (every with just blocks or a GU) by mile 2 or 3. I do not let me tank run anywhere near empty. It’s not like a marathon where when you hit the wall at mile 20 you have an hour or hour and a half let of running. In a 50 miler if you hit the wall at this point, you have 4-5+ hours left. I do think training your body for glycogen depletion is important, and has its place–I just don’t necessarily think that it is during ultra training and racing 🙂