Wednesday, September 3, 2008

9/3/08: Ultrarunning nutrition

A lot of people have been asking me about what I ate/drank when running the Vermont 100. When I tell people, they usually think I’m even crazier (if that’s even possible).

When I ran the JFK 50 last fall, I did practice eating and drinking on the run, but I still wasn’t very good at it (especially the eating part). I probably had fewer than 1,000 calories over the course of the race, which is not a lot considering I burned well over 5,000.

I had only one gel and a bit of water in the last 16 miles, and I coasted in on fumes. I just barely made it to the finish line of 50 miles, but I knew I would be in big trouble if I tried to run even further.

In the 8 months between JFK and Vermont, I worked to find a nutrition system that could keep me fueled for hours on end of running without upsetting my stomach. It wasn’t easy, but I think I finally have it figured out.

I’ll start with what I’ve found doesn’t work well for me:
Gatorade: When I say I’ve run 100 miles, most people think I must consume 10 gallons of Gatorade. I actually drink almost no Gatorade regardless of how long I’m running. It’s occasionally fine at the beginning of a run, but it just doesn’t sit well in my stomach, especially after hours of running. Some ultramarathoners drink it, but it seems that there are many others like me who avoid it.
Gels: Gels are a staple for a lot of marathoners and half-marathoners. I use them quite a bit for runs under 20 miles. My favorite are e-Gels, which are actually popular among bikers but don’t seem well known to runners. However, when I go beyond 20 miles, I don’t want to go anywhere near a gel. After I’ve had two or three gels, I just can’t stomach them anymore.
Hot Food: A lot of ultramarathoners really like hot food, especially in the latter half of a 100 miler. Chicken soup is really popular, and a lot of runners will turn to burgers and pizza if it’s available. Dean Karnazes is well known for eating an entire pizza while running in is ultra-distance adventures. I’ve never had any desire for hot food while running, though. I think if I did try it, there would be a decent chance that the food would come back up.

So here are the things that do work really well for me:
Salt pills: It’s incredibly important to keep your electrolytes and salt intake in balance when running for a long time. Since I don’t drink Gatorade, I really need to pay attention to this. I need to use salt pills for any run over 3 hours (2 hours if it’s hot outside). On these long runs I’ll typically have the first one after an hour and then again every 40 – 60 minutes. I use a kind called Succeed caps, but there are a few other varieties out there as well.
Water: It’s simple, but it works. I’ll drink only water on any run up to 30 or 35 miles. It’s really important to have the salt pills in combination with the water, though. Without salt your body has trouble absorbing the water, which can make you feel both dehydrated AND overly full of water.
Clif Shot Bloks: I prefer these to gels in the first 20 or 30 miles of a run. They have more calories (200 per package) and go down pretty well. Whereas I cut off eating Gels at 20 miles, I can usually keep going with these until mile 35 or so.
Clif Bars: I REALLY like Clif Bars (both when running and when just snacking). I usually bring them along in any run over 25 miles and will have one around mile 15 and a second around mile 25.
Ensure: It’s a bit embarrassing, but I do actually drink Ensure. 8 ounces of Ensure has 350 calories and lots of protein. It’s about the fastest way you can get a big energy boost. I’ll bring Ensure along for runs over 30 miles as long as it’s not too hot outside. I have a harder time stomaching it when it does get hot.
Soda: I start to really crave soda after 4 or 5 hours of running. It’s a fast way to get a lot of calories, and it’s easy to stomach since it’s liquid. Ginger Ale has the added benefit of helping to settle your stomach. The hotter it gets, the more difficult it is to stomach sold food. I’ll rely more and more on soda when it gets hot on runs.
Fig newtons, cheez-its, pretzels: These snack foods have good number of calories and some salt as well. A baggie or two of these is great on runs over 30 miles.
PB&J: This one was new to me, but I had a LOT of PB&J at Vermont. I would estimate I had around 7 sandwiches. The longer I run, the more “regular” solid food I crave. PB&J has a lot of good fat, protein, and carbs to keep you going.
Boiled potatoes: This is a staple for ultramarathoners since it has so many carbs and is so easy to eat. A lot of people cover the potatoes in salt, but I prefer mine just plain.

Below is what I’ll bring for a few of the typical runs that I do:

Easy 20 mile run
Nathan handheld filled with water (I’ll try to refill this at least once in water fountains)
2-3 salt pills if it’s hot out
1 E-gel
2 Clif Shot Bloks
35 mile trail run
Nathan 020 filled with water (70 ounces)
10-12 salt pills
2-3 Clif Shot Bloks
Clif Bar
Baggie with Fig Newtons & Cheez-Its
Nathan handheld with water or soda

So that’s some insight into my crazy eating habits while I’m out on the trail. Hopefully it will give you some ideas of what to experiment with when you’re out running.


Aubrey said...

Wonderful blog! I greatly appreciate it, as I am training for my first ultra. Keeping myself fueled is almost scarier than the ultra itself.

Justin said...

Great eating tips! Thx. I'm a gel pack runner, but I want to try the cliff shots. On my 31 miler, fruit snacks were to me what PB & J were to you. Can't do gluten, so sandwiches are out. But jiff to go does the trick too. I'm running my home state of Delaware this June, so I'll use your tips! Keep on keepin on! -