Tim Leeming. Exercise Nutritionist.
“What should I eat?” they all ask. “Well, that depends on a lot of things” I say. This is usually followed by a subtle sigh, roll of the eyes or change of subject. If the answer were so simple, it’d be on the internet somewhere easy to find and I’d be out of a job. The fact is, every runner and every race is different, and so the way that one eats will vary. Note I said the 'way' that someone eats. I will reluctantly add that exactly 'what' each person eats will differ, too.
Moving along now, the ultramarathon (any race over 42km) is a unique example when it comes to providing advice for race nutrition. Because of the sheer number of hours that any athlete is exerting themselves for, there are many nutritional considerations that don’t really come into play for shorter event. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.
With all of that said, this article simply aims to provide you with a few applicable concepts for nailing race day nutrition at your next ultramarathon. These concepts tend to apply to everyone, regardless of whether you eat higher carb or more fat. I will add though – in case I haven’t already made it clear – you’ll perform a whole lot better if you’re adapted to a healthy-fats way of eating.
Long before race day, do some experimenting!
Training is the time to figure out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be so precious about your training that you won’t go out on a limb now and then to try a certain type of food for your pre-meal or during the run. Play with the quantities, macronutrient ratios, flavours and methods for carrying and consumption. Get it down to a fine art so that race day is glitch-free. This includes planning your aid station food bags!
Don't touch the aid station
I liken the aid stations to the food table at a kiddies birthday party: full of glittery, sugary crap. Don’t get suckered in to the hype and marketing and eat something you haven’t practiced eating in training.
Variety is the spice of life
When practicing and planning what you are going to eat and drink, variety is your best friend. On race day, when you are eight hours in with who-knows-how-many to go, chances are you’ll have developed a uniquely deep dislike for the food you began eating at the start and haven’t wavered from. You’ll probably also have some weird craving for a food you haven’t eaten in years. The fact is, you need a range of enjoyable food and drink available in your backpack and at your bag drops. Different flavours, textures, nutrient profiles and even temperatures can offer a short but sweet reprieve from the pain in your legs and lungs. Follow the first piece of advice about experimenting and then fill your bags with various favourite foods for race day. I’d suggest a range of wholefoods from bananas, dates, avocados to mashed kumara, bliss balls, boiled eggs and even chicken drumsticks. Your foods might be totally different, but just make sure you’ve got a few different foods!
Be wise with your pre-race meal
This means knowing what works for you and getting the timing right. Ideally you should be eating a substantial meal (for example, avocado and egg on kumara or toast) at least three hours prior to your race start. This isn’t always easy, especially if the race starts at an ungodly hour. You’ve got two choices, 1) brave the early start and get a good meal in, or 2) eat something lighter a little closer to the race. Following the second choice, it works so that the closer you are to race start time, the lighter the meal. That might mean some muesli and fruit two hours before the start, or just a banana or coffee if eating only one hour before the start. Finally, try to avoid eating in the 60 minutes immediately prior to racing. Your body needs time to process the food so that it is ready to be used as fuel; the more nervous and hyped-up you are, the slower your processing of food will be. Hence, don’t eat in the last hour! Light hydration is permitted in that final hour.
I’ve written about hydration already, indicating the importance of drinking to thirst. It’s highly recommended that you begin the race in a well-hydrated state. Ideally you won’t have trained too hard or done anything strenuous to throw off your hydration status in the days prior to the race; and you will have been constantly paying attention to your body and drinking water when thirsty. Remember that things like air travel, medications, heat and the food you eat can affect your hydration (negatively or positively) so again, be wise!
Drink fluids, eat food
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Fluids are for drinking; this includes water and coconut water in my books. Others will choose sports drinks, flat coca-cola, electrolyte mixes and so on. Foods are for eating. If you are drinking your food, there’s a greater chance you’ll run into the all to common gastrointestinal distress.
If you’re intrigued about the health and performance benefits of getting fat-adapted, and you’d like some help with it or want to ask some questions, send us an email.