The first thing to remember about ultra marathon nutrition is that everything you eat or drink will have an effect on your running performance. This means that what you eat in the days before a long run or a race will have an impact upon the day itself.
If you have a bad run on Saturday that could be due to what you ate on Wednesday. Likewise, what you eat and drink during and after one run will impact on the next few days.
A clear example of this is hydration. On average an ultra runner should be consuming 80 fluid ounces of decaffeinated fluid a day. If you have not drunk that amount on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, then your run on Saturday will be a struggle. If you try and overcompensate on Thursday and Friday, then all you will do is flush your system of essential electrolytes and feel ill as a result.
Equally, it is common for runners to fail to replenish properly with fluid after a long run, and a few days later they will be feeling lethargic or ill.
Caffeine intake is favoured by ultra runners, but it should be noted that most runners who drink lots of coffee will tend to fall short on their other fluid intake. One solution is to always have a glass of water alongside your cup of coffee.
When it comes to ultra marathon nutrition, protein consumption can be a major problem. Protein is essential for runners as it is the main tool for repairing muscle and encouraging muscle fiber re-growth. Whether the protein is sourced from lean meat, eggs, nuts, cheese or lentils, it is essential that it forms a regular part of your diet, with extra protein taken after a long run. Many ultra runners fail to eat enough protein and then over compensate by eating more carbohydrates. Research suggests that a milk-based drink straight after a run is the optimum time for race recovery.
Looking more specifically at the period leading up to a race, your ultra marathon nutrition has been a case of trial and error to this point. You will have tried different food types and different eating patterns over the months of training and now you know the foods that work for you. Keeping a food diary will have helped in this. You will also have worked out how much food you need for optimum performance. On those days you lacked energy, you might well have been low on blood sugar, other days you ran with no effort, and on that occasion your ultra marathon nutrition was right.
Take that knowledge with you into the week before a race. Now is not the time to experiment. This is a time when you need some balance however, as you will be tapering your activity. What you don’t need now is to turn up on race day feeling bloated and out of sorts; equally, you don’t want to turn up at the race feeling empty because you have not eaten enough during taper. It is all a question of balance and responding to your body’s needs. Runners have greater awareness of their own bodies than most other people, so listen to it and make decisions accordingly.
During the race itself, ultra marathon nutrition and hydration is absolutely key. You should eat a carbohydrate-rich meal two or three hours before the race start and you must ensure that you start the race hydrated.
When you start re-fuelling during the race is down to your own needs. Some people advocate re-fuelling just 15 minutes into the event, others will wait until they are 5-10 miles in. Like so much in ultra marathon nutrition terms, this really is a case of what works for you. The key to success in your run, will be the months of training you have been doing and this is also true of nutrition. You will have been training your muscles to run but you will also have been training your digestive system to provide you with adequate energy to complete the race.
Probably the biggest factor to consider for your ultra marathon nutrition during the race itself is the transportability of your supplies. Wearing a belt bag will allow you to carry your food packed tightly around your waist, and the sorts of foodstuffs will be energy gel bars, cereal bars and sports drinks. Once more, practice running with these, and practice eating them on the move. To discover, 30 miles in, that you can’t stand the taste of a particular energy gel could be a disaster.
After the event, it is all about the replenishment. As mentioned, protein is vitally important to muscular recovery and carbohydrates are important to restore your body’s blood sugar levels. Equally important is re-hydration and you should keep sipping fluid for hours after your event until you have replaced all your sweated out. Your fluid intake should be a mix of drinks to replace the sodium you lost.
Remember, a 10 hour race could have used as many as 6,000 calories. You cannot replenish that in one sitting, so ensure you eat to repay that debt over the days following the event.