To eat or not to eat, that is the question.

I’m will be meeting with my crew for the Salt Flats 100 mile run on Saturday. In preparation for this meeting, I am putting together my race plan. My race plan will include: a list of the aid stations and what type of gear I will need at each of them, when I expect to arrive at the aid stations, what my crew’s responsibilities will be at each aid station, and my nutrition and hydration plan.

Eating during an ultra can be similar or different from for a marathon. Training your stomach is as important as training your legs, maybe even more. Your legs cannot continue any effective forward progress without a continuous supply of nutrients. Teach your body to tolerate different options because what tastes good at 20 miles does not taste good at 50 miles. Force-feeding may become necessary after 70-80 miles when nothing tastes good.

Some runners are able to eat solid food while they run, but others are unable to do this and must stick to their favorite gel. Ultra aid stations have a good variety of tasty treats. Standard staples for ultra-aid stations are salted and boiled potatoes, trail mix, quartered peanut butter, and jelly sandwiches, some fruits such as oranges and watermelon, and potato chips. There will usually be some type of candy out there such as M&M’s, gummy bears, Swedish Fish and similar items.  Most of the time there is Coke, Mountain Dew, and maybe an energy drink like Red Bull. There is usually a gel. The brand is dependent on who is sponsoring the race. The drink mix is also dependent upon sponsors. There is plain water as well. At night, you can count on a broth, chicken noodle soup or Romen noodles and there may be coffee or hot chocolate.

Check the race website or contact the race director to find out what type of gel and drink mix they will be using during the race. It’s best to do this a few months before the race so that you have time to adjust to what they are using or make sure and get enough of what you use because you won’t be able to pick any up at the aid stations. If you know what solid foods they will have at the race, you can also try those on training runs to figure out what you can tolerate and what you cannot. Fruits are a good option, but choose ones with as little fiber as you can, you don’t want to cramp or have a bout of diarrhea.

Everyone is different and you have to figure out what works for you by trying different things during your training runs. That said there is nothing wrong with trying what other people use, in fact that is a great place to start especially if you don’t have any idea about where to start. I recommend finding a gel that works for you. There are many different types and they each use a different combination of sugars like sucrose, fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin. Try a variety of solid foods just a little bit at a time. Most of the blood in your body is working hard to keep your legs moving rather than focusing on digestion. Gummy things are generally okay which is why you see many of the gel companies making some form of a gummy or sports beans.

You will feel better during the final miles of your race if you can find an easily digestible protein you can tolerate. Try liquid protein such as muscle milk or ensure and nut butters are usually easier on the stomach than any meats. Some of the sports nutrition companies are creating drink mixes that contain a small amount of protein for runners who participate in longer events. Most are sold in single serving and bulk. Try it three or four times before ruling it out. You have to get use to running with food in your stomach and find which foods cause the least amount of problems.

In addition to all the different fuel options you have to try during your training runs, you should experiment with how you quickly or slowly you ingest what you are eating. This can change what you are able to tolerate on a run. Try eating the gel over a mile, a little bit at a time. Sometimes they are just going to take some getting used to. GU made me nauseous for the first week or two for about 15 minutes.  Not enough to make me stop the run but enough to make me think, “Oh, this is not good.” I kept using it and soon I was able to take it without problems. Different flavors have different consistencies too. Chocolate seems to be the thickest in the GU brand. Few runners can use all the flavors either. I have found you are either a chocolate/vanilla or a fruit flavors runner.

I have used GU gels and chomps, Hammer gels, and Hammer Heed. Your body has enough glycogen(sugar) to sustain you for a run of 1.5 to 2 hours even if you only have six percent body fat. This is stored in the muscles themselves. After that, you need to start supplying yourself with some sugar or you are going to crash and become mentally confused.

As a high carbohydrate runner, My fueling strategy went something like this: If I was running less than 2 hours, I did’t use any gels or Heed. I used nuun. If I was running over 2 hours, I used Heed and GU gels and chomps. I took my first gel around mile five and then every five miles thereafter. I alternated between chomps, regular GU and GU Roctane just because I would get sick of one flavor, needed a little more (roctane), or wanted something more solid. I could eat the quartered PB&J’s, but I had to eat them slow, one bite run a quarter mile, one bite run a quarter mile and so on. I also did okay with oranges and watermelon. I could drink muscle milk without too much of an adverse effect, but again a little bit at a time. I couldn’t slam the whole thing and then take off. Try to get in about 200 calories an hour while you are running by mixing fluids and (semi)solid food.

As a Low carb runner, I only ingest 50 or fewer carbohydrates a day. I switched to a low carbohydrate diet about three months ago. It took 2 months for my body to adapt to burning fat rather than glycogen. Going from high carb to low carb was difficult. I felt sluggish and nauseous unless I ate every two hours. My run times went straight into the toilet, but I kept my mileage up because I was training for the Buffalo 50 and the Salt Flats 100. I finished the Buffalo 50 in 10 hours and 47 minutes. I felt great through the whole race and was running five days later without soreness.

The benefits of this transformation have been: 1. Not crashing when my body runs low on carbs; 2. Stable emotions and mental state during the race; 3. Less stomach problems; and 4. Quicker recovery time. On a run of less than 30 miles, I do not need to fuel. Over that, I will use small amounts of almond butter mixed with ground up espresso beans and salt. You can buy nut butter pouches with either peanut butter or almond butter and they usually have some type of flavor mixed in such as chocolate, pineapple, coconut, and goji berries. There is also this stuff called Vespa, which many high carb and low carb athletes use. I tried it and did not get any benefit from it.  You can find it at http://www.vespapower.com/

As for hydration, I rely mainly on water for hydration and a constant supply of salt tabs, nuun, and broth. I have also heard that pickle juice is excellent for replacing sodium.

For more information on Low Carb athletes check out http://www.artandscienceoflowcarb.com/the-art-and-science-of-low-carbohydrate-performance/.

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