The one thing about ultrarunning that I’m afraid I’ve never really mastered is my calorie management. How much to eat during a race? When to eat it? What to eat? I worry that it’s something which has affected my performance at my longest events. Some of my friends think I just run, run, run all the time – which is sort of true – but I’ve only run farther than 40 miles 5 different times. I’m still on a learning curve when it comes to super long distance.
I don’t think this particular issue is one that most runners have to fret about too much. At a 10K or a half marathon the primary concern in simply hydration, and a little salt intake. Marathoners have to give it a little thought, but for most people a good sports drink and a few carb-rich gel packs along the way do the trick. (That’s how it works for me, anyway.)
The caloric playing field will be very different at the Burning River 100-Miler next weekend. I fully expect to be out on the course for 28 hours. I’ll be burning off and discarding calories at a steady clip for the entirety of that time, and replacing those calories will be crucial. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve trained your body to physically handle the distance, if you don’t properly fuel the engine you’ll wind up stranded on the side of the road.
I say I haven’t “mastered” this process, but I haven’t been bad at it. I do eat during long races. Ultras always offer well-stocked aid stations at regular intervals and I have taken advantage. But a specific plan for calorie replacement? No. I will attempt to correct that oversight next weekend.
Research says there is a limit to how many calories your body can process in an hour, whether you’re in the middle of a race or not. Over-eating could result in stomach or digestion problems that would sink my race the same as not eating enough. I’ll be aiming for an intake of 300 to 350 calories each hour.
In the first half, I’ll aim for liquid calories, because the body processes them much more quickly – sports drink, energy gels (at 90 calories per pack), maybe watermelon, if it’s out on the course again this year. Every time I see my crew, I’ll be drinking a bottle of Ensure, a nutritional supplement drink intended for the elderly that also happens to be great for ultra-runners (230 calories per 8oz. bottle, plus protein).
As the race goes on, I’ll begin to focus a little more on solid foods. After 12 hours of the race, it’s just nice to actually eat something. Bananas (150 calories each), salted potatoes (130 calories), PB&J (250 calories) are also somewhat easy to eat and very useful out on the course. I may also take in chicken noodle soup, oatmeal, pretzels, potato chips, and other food commonly found at the overnight aid stations. I’ll also take regular salt tablets (and maybe even a few doses of aspirin) along the way.
Hopefully my crew and I will be able to track my food intake during the race with a clipboard and a log sheet. If it looks like I’m running low, they’ll be able to push me to eat more. The biggest eating sin I usually commit is not eating enough, because I don’t “feel” hungry. So when it’s offered, I tend to say “no” when I should say “yes.” With the log my crew won’t have to take me at my word that I’m feeling fine, and perhaps can help keep me from being stubborn.
I’ve read advice from more than one ultrarunner saying the only way to run a good 100-miler – or any ultra – is to eat, eat, eat. You have a good training build-up, take in the proper calories on race day, and you will finish your race. Sunny Blende, an aptly named sports nutrition scientist, has been quoted defining an ultramarathon thusly: “It’s an eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” I intend to operate on that theory on the 30th & 31st.