A few weeks ago (ok months, give me a break!), I gave you Your Perfect Nutrition Plan for daily living and promised a Part 2 relating to race day nutrition. I know you have been as eager as a 13 year old girl waiting for Justin Beiber to come to town (or in our house, Taylor Swift), but the wait is finally over! And just for kicks (mostly mine), I am breaking it down reporter style: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of race day Nutrition, particularly as it relates to ultras.
WHO needs to eat during a race?
The average person has enough stored glycogen to last for about 90 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise. Well trained individuals may be able to go longer than this due to increased metabolic efficiency. However, the higher one’s intensity, the greater the demands the body has for glucose, such that at race paces you’ll bonk a lot quicker than you would if you were just going out for an easy run. So anyone racing longer than an hour should consider taking in some calories during the race and I would definitely recommend some race nutrition for anyone going longer than 90 minutes.
WHAT should you eat?
There are dozens of sports nutrition companies trying to convince you that their product has the ideal mix of nutrients to fuel you to your best ever performance. Certainly, these companies have put a lot of research into their formulas and if they have been around for a few years, you can feel pretty confident that they have a good product. However, it doesn’t matter how perfect the product is if you won’t eat it! I am a firm believer that the best thing to eat during a race is something that you know you WILL eat. For example, I pretty much know that I have about a four gel per day max. After that - gag fest! If you can’t eat a gel, but you can eat jelly beans all day, eat jelly beans and don’t despair that you aren’t eating a true sports nutrition product. Certainly, your body is burning a lot of glucose while running, so you want to choose carbohydrate rich foods, but the junk food aisle of your supermarket can make for great running fuel, too (and is usually much cheaper). I ran a world record fueled almost entirely by orange soda. And when I was having stomach issues at Run Rabbit Run due to the altitude, soda and a box of Red Vines got me through the final 60 miles! I really think WHAT you eat is not that important, as long as you actually DO keep eating. I often find that even when my stomach is OK, I still just don’t want to eat, or that some foods make me gag. Having new food options can help; listen to your body and eat what you are craving. And for gagging, you can find things that dissolve if you chew them like gum (pretzels, saltines, animal crackers, etc. can all be eaten without truly swallowing if you chew long enough).
WHEN should you eat?
Before a big race I have a standard pre-race breakfast: two packs of instant oatmeal (maple and brown sugar), a banana, a bottle of sports drink, and an Ensure (chocolate, please!). It’s about 700 calories and almost all carbs. I have a pretty strong stomach, so I can eat 2 hours before a race and be fine, though know a lot of people prefer three hours ahead. During a hundred miler, I’ll start eating 20 minutes in and try to keep eating every 20 minutes from there on out, aiming for about 200 calories/hour. I think constant small boluses are easier on the stomach than trying to cram in a whole bunch of calories at once.
WHERE should you eat?
Most trail races have at least some variation in terrain and certain types of terrain are more conducive to eating than others. When I first started running ultras, I used to try to eat on the uphills because the slower pace made it easier to fumble with packs and wrappers without tripping. But now that I am racing harder, I find it is easier on my stomach and my breathing if I eat during times of lower heart rate, so I usually eat on downhills or smooth flat sections. Technical trail running does not come naturally to me, so I don’t eat as much when the trail gets rough, because I need all of my concentration for my footing. As you might expect, aid stations are great places to eat, but not just because of the food availability. Even in those few seconds when you are waiting for your bottle to be filled, your heart rate will come down making it easier to digest food. For this reason, I often will finish off whatever I have on me right before I get to the aid station and then use the aid station to resupply for the next section.
WHY should you eat during long races?
Ok, the simple answer: running burns a lot of calories and you need fuel to keep your muscles functioning.
To dive into things a bit deeper, oxidation of carbohydrates, fats and proteins produces energy (remember ATP from Bio 101?) that can be used to contract muscle fibers. Muscle glycogen is mobilized and oxidized quickly, whereas fats are mobilized and oxidized slowly. Both ultimately produce the same amount of energy, but it takes a lot longer to make that energy with fats. Only carbohydrates can be mobilized and oxidized fast enough to produce enough energy to sustain high intensity exercise. But we only have about 1500 calories worth of energy stored as muscle glycogen - definitely not enough to fuel an entire ultramarathon. Once the muscle glycogen is gone, the body has to rely on oxidation of fat for energy (protein contributes minimally). Since fatty oxidation is slower, the pace we can maintain when only using fat drops. This is “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” Note that when you do bonk, though, you still have plenty of energy to keep you moving forward, you just have to do so at a slower pace. If you slow down enough to match energy use with energy production, this switch to fat use isn’t uncomfortable. The problem is that most people who sign up for a race are trying to push themselves to some extent, even if they aren’t trying to win, and that “bonk” pace may be a slow walking pace - not what most people want to do in a race situation. But trying to maintain a pace without enough energy is very uncomfortable and you won’t get very far!
That’s where race day nutrition comes in! By eating high carbohydrate foods, we are giving our bodies more glucose to utilize for energy production. One other note: endurance training will increase your ability to mobilize and oxidize fatty acids for use, thus reducing the rate at which you burn through your muscle glycogen. Some athletes employ a low carb diet hoping to enhance this effect (not getting into that subject here!). However, we still need carbohydrates to run at the highest intensity for extended periods of time. This is why you’ll still see all the low carb athletes eating lots of carbs during races. Bottom line: efficient fat metabolism may slow the depletion of muscle glycogen, but in long races at high intensity, carbohydrate intake is still needed to keep the engine running.
HOW do you eat during races?
This past summer I crewed at three major mountain 100’s and had the opportunity to see how many different runners were doing throughout the day, and I would say GI issues were the most common problem runners faced during theses races. I saw someone vomit as early as 20 miles in and many more complained of stomach issues before they even hit the marathon mark, many of these runners stating that they never have GI issues in training, even when running 30 miles or more. So why are stomach issues so much worse on race day?
In order for the GI tract to process food, there needs to be a good blood supply to the GI tract, both to bring it the energy it needs to process the food and to whisk away all the newly absorbed nutrients. When you exercise, your muscles demand more blood and your GI tract gets less, so the GI tract works less efficiently. And while you may have no problems eating in training, there are
often many factors on race day that are quite different than your normal training routine such as anxiety, running intensity, heat, humidity, and altitude, all of which can further detract blood from the GI tract. However, my personal opinion is that many people go into a "Food Frenzy Panic Mode" on race day and this is a major cause of race day GI distress.
Ok, so what do I mean? Basically there are two possible race day eating catastrophes that lie on completely opposite ends of the spectrum: Don’t eat enough and you will bonk; Eat too much and you will have stomach distress. If you have stomach distress during a race, it doesn’t matter what quantity of food and liquid you have actually eaten, it is too much for your stomach to process at that point. If you aren’t having stomach issues, bonking is a relatively quick fix: ingest a bunch of sugary foods and in a relatively quick time your energy levels will return. People bonk and rebound all the time in races. It isn’t ideal; but it usually isn’t race ending. Stomach issues are the much bigger evil: if you are vomiting, you lose fuel and liquids but you have no way to replace them as long as your stomach keeps expelling what you put in. This can be a deal breaker.
And yet, it seems to me that many people start ultras trying to eat and drink as much as their stomach can hold. I am not sure if this is a fear of the distance: “I need to eat and drink a lot if I am going to make it to the finish,” or if this is a fear of future stomach issues: “I know I am going to feel bad late in the race, so I better eat as much as I can now.” I think a lot of people try to focus on getting in the maximum number of calories per hour, especially early in a race. Often this means they take in a lot more calories in the first hours of a race then they would in training. But the goal of taking in the maximum number of calories per hour comes with a high risk of over-fueling and setting the stomach off, particularly as I think the amount the stomach can process decreases as a race goes on (due to dehydration, damage to stomach lining, etc.), such that this early feeding frenzy can actually be the cause of stomach issues and the reason people get stomach problems earlier in races than they do in training.
In my opinion, one should aim to get by on the minimal amount possible (or just above), rather than trying to consume the maximum amount possible. It has been said that you can't put time in the bank for ultras; the same philosophy applies to eating: don't try to put calories in the bank for later in the race. Erring on the side of too few calories has easy to recognize warning signs and is easy to fix. Erring on the side of eating too much early on can be a lot harder to fix. That being said, if you do get into stomach troubles, STOP EATING! If you feel bloated, “sloshy”, nauseated (or are vomiting), it’s because your stomach is behind in processing. Try taking a few electrolyte caps to help process liquids, and then CHILL! Your stomach needs time to process what’s already in it. Adding more food/liquid will only make the situation worse. Ironically, vomiting can help tremendously because it immediately clears the backlog. If you have a stomach full of calories and liquid, you don’t need to worry about bonking/dehydration for the short term as your body is still absorbing these things. If your stomach is in a pretty bad place, I’d recommend going a whole hour without ingesting anything and then start adding back slowly. If you do vomit, avoid the second wave of "Feeding Panic": “OMG, I just threw up everything I ate so now I need to make up for lost calories!” Start back slowly, and aim for a lower hourly intake than you started with. Also, consider switching foods: sodas tend to be good for wonky stomachs, gels have a lot of calories for a very small volume (good if you are very bloated but still able to keep things down), a different drink mix may work better for you late in a race, etc. If you continuously have GI problems, you should reconsider your over-all fueling plan. Don't keep doing the same thing expecting different results.
Training with lower calorie intake can help you get comfortable with what your minimal requirements are. If you do get too low and bonk, think of it as good practice on what to do for race day and see how you can rebound from this situation. Hopefully, with this kind of training, you can have the confidence to avoid the "Food Frenzy Panic Mode" on race day.
Hopefully the "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How" of race day nutrition will help you get through your next big race!
|"Screw gels - I am going straight for the Red Vines!"