Mastering Trail Ultra Nutrition: What to Eat for Peak Performance

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Interested in fueling your body for ultramarathon training on challenging trails? You’re in the right spot.

When it comes to endurance trail training, nutrition isn’t just fuel; it’s a vital part of your toolkit. Spending extended hours on the trails means your body craves a steady supply of energy, hydration, and nutrients to keep you going strong.

Think of it this way: just as you wouldn’t embark on a long journey without a map and supplies, you shouldn’t dive into ultramarathon training without a solid nutrition plan.

No need to fret.

In today’s article, I’ll dig into the basics of nutrition for ultramarathon training, customized for the unique demands of technical trail running. We’ll explore how to nourish your body before, during, and after those challenging trail adventures, highlight the significance of staying hydrated, and offer some handy tips for tackling common dietary challenges.

Ready to fuel your success? Let’s dive in.

Understanding Energy Needs

When it comes to making the most out of your trail runs and races, what you eat matters a lot. Your body’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) is your starting line—the baseline calories you burn just being you, every day. Whether you have the quick-fire metabolism of a sprinter or the enduring burn of a long-distance runner, knowing your BMR is like mapping your unique nutritional terrain.

For instance, a 25-year-old woman, standing 5’2″ and weighing 110 pounds, might have a BMR around 1200 calories daily without lifting a finger. Meanwhile, a 25-year-old man at 6’5″ and 250 pounds would be starting his day at a burn rate of approximately 2070 calories. This exemplifies the vast differences in nutritional needs, even before accounting for the miles logged during training.

So, I’d recommend that you start off by actually determining your own needs. The rest is just details.

Calculate How Much You Need

To calculate the number of carbohydrates needed during a race, you can use a simple equation: Weight in kilograms = Carbohydrates per hour you need to consume

For example, if you weigh 88 kilograms, you should aim to consume around 70 to 80 grams of carbohydrates per hour during your races. It’s crucial to note that this calculation is based on grams of carbohydrates, not calories.

You should also keep in mind that you might need time and practice to get your body—and digestive system—used to consuming that much on the go.

Believe it’s not easy so expect a few hurdles along the way—it’s also the reason I insist on practicing your fueling strategy during training, not during the race. The golden rule is to never try to something new on race day. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Regardless of your choice of fuel, it’s essential to ensure you’re consistently consuming the total grams of carbs each hour to maintain a steady energy flow.

When examining nutrition labels, pay close attention to the serving size indicated. Sometimes, labels may refer to a larger quantity of the product in the packet, which could inadvertently disrupt your fueling plan.

Gels typically contain between 16 to 25 grams of carbs, depending on the brand and type, while sports drinks also vary in carbohydrate content. Therefore, it’s vital to carefully check each label and calculate your intake accurately to meet your fueling needs during the race.

Fueling Beyond the Basics:

As you log the mile on the off-beaten path, your calorie needs skyrocket. Every mile could devour up to 100 calories from your energy stores. Skimping below your BMR or not adequately compensating for increased activity levels isn’t just counterproductive; it’s a direct route to burnout and injury.

The key is to fuel efficiently, matching your intake with your output to ensure your body has what it needs to perform and recover.

Carbohydrates: The Premier Fuel

Carbohydrates are the sprinters of your diet, offering quick energy when you need it and stocking up reserves for the long haul. As you lace up for those endless trails, carbs are what your body calls on first, breaking down into glucose for that immediate energy surge or being stored away as glycogen in your muscles and liver, waiting for their turn to keep you moving.

For ultramarathoners, the strategy is clear: carbs are king.

They should form the lion’s share of your diet, about 50-70% of your total calorie intake, blending a mix of complex carbs for sustained release and simple carbs for those critical moments when you need a quick energy lift.

Proteins: The Recovery Agents

The aftermath of an ultramarathon leaves your muscles begging for repair, and that’s where proteins step into the spotlight. They’re the construction workers of your body, rebuilding the wear and tear inflicted by those relentless miles.

As an ultrarunner, I’d recommend upping your protein intake to about 15-20% of total calories, focusing on quality sources like lean meats, fish, dairy, beans, and legumes.

Fats: The Endurance Enhancers

Fats are like the slow-burning logs in a fire, providing sustained energy long after your carb reserves start to dwindle. In the long stretches of an ultramarathon, when your body begins to tap into these reserves, fats become an invaluable asset, fueling you to the finish line.

Accounting for 20-30% of an ultrarunner’s diet, healthy fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are not just energy sources; they’re vital for absorbing vitamins and supplying essential fatty acids.

Hydration Strategies

Hydration is way more than grabbing a quick drink during your run—it’s a crucial slice of the runner’s performance pie. Getting your hydration right helps keep your body cool, your performance on point, and all those runner-specific bodily functions humming along smoothly.

To dial in on your hydration needs, getting a handle on your personal sweat rate is a total game-changer. It’s not just about figuring out if you’re a heavy sweater or not; it’s about getting down to the nitty-gritty, quantifying exactly how much you sweat so you can hydrate like a pro.

Here’s How to Calculate Your Sweat Rate:

1. Pre-Run Prep: Stick to your usual water-drinking habits and hit the bathroom before you step out the door.

2. Initial Weigh-In: Weigh yourself right before your run. Make a note of this number because it’s your starting line.

3. Target Intensity Run: Hit the pavement or the trails for a run that lasts about 60 to 90 minutes, aiming for the pace you’re planning for race day.

4. Bathroom Breaks: Try to keep it simple and avoid using the bathroom during your run. It’s a bit of a challenge but necessary for accurate results.

5. Post-Run Weigh-In: Once you’re done, pat down any sweat on your skin and hair, and hop on the scale again.

6. Calculate Your Sweat Rate: Check the difference between your weights before and after the run. Convert any weight loss into fluid ounces (1 pound of weight loss = 16 ounces of fluid).

What to Eat Before Long Training Runs:

Fueling your body before long training runs is essential for maintaining energy and endurance. The key is to consume meals that provide a solid foundation, rich in easily digestible carbohydrates for a quick energy boost, along with a moderate amount of protein and minimal fat.

When it comes to preparing for ultra distances, each runner has their own preferences when it comes to food and fluids leading up to the race. Some may benefit from carbohydrate loading, a strategy that should be discussed with a Sports Dietitian to ensure optimal results.

Many ultra runners opt to increase their carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to the event, while keeping their race-day breakfast light and easily digestible. However, if the running pace is expected to be slower for longer distances, a more substantial breakfast may be suitable.

For the pre-race or pre-event meal, focus on carbohydrates with small additions of protein to stave off hunger. I’d also urge you to avoid excessive fat and fiber to promote gut comfort during the run.

When it comes to suitable pre-run breakfast options, consider:

  • Whole grain waffles with maple syrup and a side of sliced peaches
  • Light cereal or oats/porridge with fruit
  • Banana pancakes made with oats and eggs, served with a drizzle of honey
  • Breakfast burrito filled with scrambled eggs, black beans, and salsa
  • A toasted sandwich
  • Pasta or rice dish
  • Quinoa porridge with almond milk, chopped nuts, and dried apricots
  • Cottage cheese mixed with diced pineapple and a sprinkle of chia seeds
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter and banana
  • Greek yogurt topped with granola and sliced strawberries
  • Toast with vegemite accompanied by a piece of fruit
  • Multigrain toast with avocado smash and cherry tomatoes

If solid foods don’t sit well before a race, or if nerves are a factor, a liquid option like a fruit smoothie containing protein and carbohydrates can be a good alternative. Ultimately, individual preferences and tolerance levels will influence pre-race food and fluid choices.

Timing Your Nutrition Right

Have your primary meal 3-4 hours before your run. This window allows your body ample time to digest the food and convert it into energy you can use during your run.

Next, grab a small, carb-rich snack about 30-60 minutes before heading out. This acts as a final energy boost to top off your fuel tank.

Eating on the Go

During an ultramarathon, eating becomes a balancing act of keeping energy levels up without breaking your stride. Choose foods that are portable, easy to consume, and packed with carbohydrates.

Here are some on-the-run food ideas:

  • Portable Energy: Energy gels, chews, and bars are specifically designed for endurance activities, offering a compact and quick energy source.
  • Real Food Options: If you prefer whole foods, peanut butter sandwiches or salted boiled potatoes are great options. They’re high in carbs and easy on the stomach.
  • Natural Quick Fixes: For a burst of natural energy, bananas and dates are perfect. They’re high in sugar for a quick energy release and easy to carry.

How Much To Carry?

Carrying the right amount of nutrition and hydration during a race is crucial for maintaining your energy levels and performance. It’s always wise to err on the side of caution and bring more than you think you’ll need, just in case.

Having extra fuel and hydration ensures that you’re prepared for unexpected circumstances or if your body requires more than anticipated. Plus, it gives you peace of mind knowing you won’t run out during a critical moment of the race.

However, if you prefer relying on aid stations for nutrition and hydration, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with what they offer beforehand. This allows you to plan your race strategy accordingly and ensures that you’re comfortable with the options available.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Experiment with different nutrition and hydration products during your training runs to determine what works best for you. By doing so, you’ll be well-prepared and confident come race day.

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