How I Fuel for Ultras
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I'm not a dietitian or a doctor. I have an outdated NASM personal training certification and about 2 years experience working with a dietitian. I'm more right-brained than left, so what I'm saying is, I'm no nutrition expert. But I have learned a lot about sports and nutrition over the years so I'm here to impart a small parcel of knowledge to you. Take it or leave it, peace hope and love.
When I started running ultra marathons, I was a devout vegan who had no idea how to fuel or hydrate during long runs. I had a hydration pack, but rarely drank enough water. I never used salt pills, and consistently under-fueled. This resulted in a few things: I started disliking and dreading long runs, I was weak and fatigued, and my performance suffered in a big way.
When I started seeing my dietitian, she helped me untangle food myths and broke down the science of nutrition. Eventually, we started talking about food and running, and here are some things I learned.
1. Athletes, especially endurance athletes, need more protein than the average person. And the best source of protein comes from animal sources like chicken, wild caught salmon, organic, free-range eggs, and organic, lean red meat. Animal proteins are complete proteins, providing all the essential amino acids our bodies need. To aid muscle recovery after hard efforts, I consume about 1g of protein for every pound I weigh, per day (about 150g/day). During lighter training loads, this number isn't as high. Consuming high-quality protein has helped my recovery times shrink, helped me gain/retain muscles mass, and improved my body composition. Older athletes lose muscle mass at a higher rate than young athletes, so their protein needs are higher. I integrate plant protein often, and avoid processed meat as it's been linked to heart disease and a host of other negative health outcomes.
2. Eating during long workouts/races is incredibly important. Eating during long runs and races is also something I've struggled with, because it's not very fun to force yourself to eat. The payoff of eating, though, is well worth it. If I run longer than 75 minutes, I make sure to take calories with me. I try to ingest 150-250 calories per hour after the 60 minute mark. I like Spring Energy, Cliff Blocks, or Gatorade Chews for easy, quick digestion. Ingesting more than 300 calories an hour is pointless, because our bodies can't digest that much. If I'm running for many hours, during a long run or a race, I also eat real food, like peanut butter sandwiches, potatoes dipped in salt, peanut M&M's, dried fruit, or cliff bars. During races, I use liquid calories (like Tailwind) if I'm having trouble eating. After the first hour or so of a race, I try to eat something every 30 minutes.
3. Hydration largely depends on the weather and your rate of sweat loss. To measure your sweat rate, weigh yourself before and after a run lasting an hour or more. Replace each pound of body weight lost with 20-24 ounces of water. During a long race, you should stop to pee at least a few times. I once ran a 100K without stopping once, and I was badly, badly dehydrated. If you're very fit, you will sweat more than others because your body has become efficient at cooling itself. This isn't a bad thing or a good thing, it's just a thing. During long efforts, I make sure to take salt pills while I hydrate. If I'm doing a long run on a hot day and I'm losing a lot of sweat, I take two SaltStick fast chews every hour. I don't take salt for efforts less than 75 minutes.
4. What you eat before and after your workout or race is just as important as what you eat during them. I'm not going to tell you what to eat, or how much to eat, or what not to eat. Most nutrition guidelines have been harangued to death or are entirely nefarious. But I will say what one of my favorite authors, Michael Pollan said, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." In general, processed food is unhelpful. Alcohol is principally detrimental to performance. I focus on eating a variety of foods and eating enough, which has helped me stay strong, healthy, and able to power through tough workouts.
P.S. What works for me might not work for you. If that's the case, please don't tell me about it. If you're looking for a sports dietitian, you can find one near you here. Follow one of my favorite dietitian youtubers, Abbey Sharp, read The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World’s Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform, or read an update from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.