Eating for Endurance Running

Imagine cruising into an aid station and seeing a buffet of cookies, chocolates, pretzels, doughnuts, chips, pickles, perogies, fruits, sandwiches, gummy worms, brownies, and even soup. Salty, savory, sweet, sour, and any combination thereof!

I used to think that “real” runners didn’t need to eat food on their runs. That pushing through the pain and frustration of the dreaded bonk was something that just needed to be dealt with by training more and letting my body adapt to the rigors of endurance running. With that mentality, I trained for long runs by carrying water, an electrolyte drink, and maybe some energy gels or candies. If I carried anything more, I assumed that I was weaker than I ought to be, wasn’t properly trained, or just wasn’t “real enough”. But, if the above smorgasbord of food offerings is how “real” runners eat, sign me up!

Eating for ultrarunning by a clueless rookie

Steve suffering in the pain cave due to poor nutrition during his first 50 km ultramarathon, Beaver Flat 50.

When I signed up for my first trail ultramarathon in 2019, the Beaver Flat 50 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, I knew something had to change, but had no clue how to start. Also, don’t be fooled by the name of that race—there are no beavers nor is it flat.

Throughout my training, I consistently failed to get past the 3 hour or 30 km mark on my long runs. Gels simply weren’t cutting it. I needed to start practicing with real food. And fast.

I experimented by trial and error using different types of food. At first, I carried jam and/or Nutella sandwiches and they worked, but they got messy and were at times hard to swallow. I also tried pretzels (made my mouth too dry), granola bars (too chewy), homemade protein balls (not palatable), and chocolates (they melt). My training honestly consisted eating random amounts of random food at random periods during my runs. I definitely lacked the structure and knowledge of how to properly eat and run.

That buffet of treats I mentioned at the beginning? Didn’t learn about that until race day. Boy, was it a sight and huge learning experience to see other runners feasting on endless pickles and perogies. Ultrarunning legend, Ana Trason, once stated that “Ultra marathons are just a big eating and drinking competition with a little bit of running thrown in”. Isn’t that the truth!?

I also learned about the need to replenish electrolytes lost through excessive sweating. And did I ever sweat! I exhibited many tell tale symptoms of hyponatremia (low blood sodium concentration) such as nausea, cramping, swelling, confusion, dizziness, headaches, and fatigue (Seal et al, 2019). At the last aid station, I took 2 salt capsules and ate too many slices of salt-dipped watermelon to count. Like magic, my pep returned to my step and I managed to cross the finish line in 8 hours and 8 minutes.

How many carbs should I be eating?!?

Research conducted by Burke at al (2011) suggests that ultra-endurance athletes who consumed ~ 60-90 g of carbohydrates every hour during prolonged exercise (> 2.5 hours) outperformed those who consumed less. This is higher than the prior recommendation of 30 to 60 g per hour determined by the belief that surpassing the oxidation rate of carbohydrates (~ 60 g / hr) would lead to gastrointestinal (GI) issues.

You should definitely not jump to eating that many carbs immediately as 90 g is a LOT!, Instead, slowly increase carbohydrate intake to properly train your gut and minimize GI issues (Jeukendrup, 2007). There is a fine line between eating for optimal performance and running for the toilet (or bush) that needs to be found with no standard formula for everyone. In this scenario, trial and error is your best friend.

A fueling strategy that works for me

Working with a running coach and a nutritionist, I now have a strategy based on my own dietary and physiological needs. I eat ~ 90 g of carbohydrates every hour for every run longer than 3 hours. I include a combination of complex and simple sugars to manage a sustained blood sugar level and mitigating sugar highs and lows.

To avoid being caught in a situation where I can’t stomach eating a certain type of food any longer, I carry a variety of options, from sweet to salty. Experience has taught me that trying to swallow sweets on a hot and humid day after running 6 hours is not very fun. Lastly, I keep track of all the foods I eat during a run, when I eat them, and how they made me feel to learn about what works and, more importantly, steer well away from things that don’t.

So, what’s the menu for my typical long run? Below is how I fueled for a self-supported 50 km, 8 hour trail ultra with nearly 2400 m total elevation:

Breakfast 1 (7 am):

  • Extra large bowl of oatmeal with frozen mixed berries, unsweetened vanilla almond milk, maple syrup, and one banana
  • 16 oz coffee with extra 35 % cream.

Breakfast 2 (11 am):

  • 12 oz coffee with extra 18 % cream.
  • two slices of toast with honey and a banana.

During run that started at noon (5 meals total; first meal at the 2 hour mark, skipped one meal due to no appetite):

  • 3 homemade onigiri (sticky rice wrapped in seaweed with added Himalayan sea salt)
  • 2 dried mango slices
  • 7 dried figs
  • 8 dried dates
  • 14 boiled baby potatoes with lots of Himalayan sea salt
  • Soup broth

Other things I might eat on my long runs:

  • Chocolate granola bars
  • Bananas
  • Water or honey with maple syrup and salt
  • Coconut water
  • Cliff Bars
  • Jujubes
  • Sweet potatoes with butter and salt
  • Pure maple syrup with salt
  • Oreo or fig newton cookies

I am currently training for my first 100 km trail race and will undoubtedly need to adapt my fueling strategy to meet increased caloric needs and time on feet. While my food journey is unique to my own tastes and needs, I’ve shared this post to break the notion that “real” runners don’t need to eat. Yes, some runners can get by with little calories, but I can’t. If you decide to experiment and try using different foods, remember to give yourself plenty of time and to never try new things during your race!

Resources:

Burke, L., M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29, (S1): S17-S27.

Jeukendrup, A. (2007). Carbohydrate supplementation during exercise: does it help? How much is too much? Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Seal, A. D., Anastasiou, C. A., Skenderi, K. P., Echegaray, M., Yiannakouris, N., Tsekouras, Y. E., Matalas, A. L., …, & Kavouras, S. A. (2019). Incidence of Hyponatremia During a Continuous 246-km Ultramarathon Running Race, Frontiers in Nutrition, 6(161).