I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


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.


Chris said...

If you can run like you blog, you'll be fine. You're on a blogging rush lately!

Eating during an ultra becomes even harder if you get heat. Hopefully the Midwest will cool off by the end of the month. Good luck.

GTI said...

Ha! Yes, well, over the weekend I started to get a little overwhelmed with plans and anticipation, so I started writing. It helped, and I decided to try and make it a daily mediation for the next two weeks. You know, one little chunk at a time - aid station to aid station. It's helping to keep me focused.

As for the heat, it's still my primary concern. I, too, went out for a little run yesterday evening and felt much the same way you described. The forecast still says things should be cooling off a little. I hope it comes true! (thanks again, Chris.)

Paige said...

The heat and humidity do funny things to us and our digestive tract. Listen to your body, literally. If you hear stomach sloshing, you aren't absorbing fluids well (i.e. you're taking in too much fluid, and your body can't absorb it as quickly as it's coming in). If that happens, stop taking salt and fluid for a short period, and make sure you PEE in that time frame. Then, start over. A sloshy stomach leads to a great deal of discomfort (and puffy extremities) later on...including vomitting if you're prone to such things.

In general, but especially during the heat of the day, when you eat anything solid, slow down a little, or even take a walk break(!), so that your system can process what you just put into it. It has to work a lot harder when you give it solid food, and if you don't ease up on the pace, it could cause nausea and other not fun stuff.

Concentrate mostly on simple sugars/carbs early on, especially when it's hot out. That's what your brain needs to function and avoid fatigue, and it's what your body processes the quickest. Once it cools off, then it's good to incorporate other stuff if you like.

If you start tripping or weaving around, you need caffeine.

If you start feeling nauseous, but no sloshy stomach, you need salt.

Obviously, we are all an experiment of one, but there are some principles that apply to most of us...like the sloshy stomach!

Very excited for you :)

GTI said...

Thanks, Paige. That's a lot of very good advice, and some subtle things I don't know if I would have picked up on. :)