Nutrition for long-distance runners… THIS will help you smash your next big race!
NUTRITION FOR LONG-DISTANCE RUNNERS
“Ultrarunning is basically an eating and drinking competition”… a great quote once coined by Ann Trason, a top ultrarunner and a star of the famed book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.
She isn’t wrong really. A poor fuelling strategy can break your race, so it is vital that endurance runners factor this into their race day preparations, and, in my humble opinion, it is not all about race day, it’s about what you do before that too. A lot can be said for having a good overall nutrition plan. It’s no good smashing back rubbish food daily only to rely on race-day strategies alone.
Fuelling your training runs and daily life are imperative for peak performance, but I won’t go too much into that in this article, this will be more about fuelling your race day runs and long training runs, which are the absolute ideal time to be testing out fuelling strategies – testing out, being the key words there… what works for you may not work for someone else and vice versa so you really do need to try out things and get your tastes, preferences and what your body can handle in a good place before race day!
The Sciency bit
Firstly, some science… important science nonetheless and whether you are into the sciency stuff or not, you really need to know this so stay with me… and we are going to focus solely on carbs here (stored in the muscles as glycogen). I am not a fan of keto (I tried it once, it was disgusting eating that much fat for a start and, secondly, I got slower!) or fat-adapted running or fasted cardio or any of that stuff. This is about what is right for the majority of people and based on my own experience, as a case study, if you will. If you are interested in fat-adaptation or keto because that’s what works for you or you heard some bloke ran a 75467-mile race in 14 hours eating only olives and drinking melted butter, then you crack on and go find that article because I am not going to reference them here, okay?!?!
… Ehem… moving on!
We normally burn off 0.8-1g for females and 1-1.2g of carbohydrates per KG of bodyweight per hour. So if you are a 75kg runner that is around the mark of 75-90g per hour of running. What does that look like in terms of food? 3 bananas or 3 scoops of most energy drink brands (my favourite being Torq Energy) or 3 of most gels… you get the picture and, I am not saying you carry 12 bananas on a 4-hour run… unless you’re a monkey?!!
We also need to consider the types of carbs… there are Fast Carbs (act very quickly and get into your system pretty much straight away e.g. dried fruits, sugar, sweeties!) and Slow Carbs (slower to digest and slower release e.g. pasta, bread, potatoes).
Finally, carbo-loading… in a nutshell, the stories of “pasta-parties” and eating a boat-load of carb-rich food the day/night before a big race are just plain dumb. You will bloat yourself for one, but eating an exorbitant amount of carbs on the previous day does not fill up your glycogen stores. Instead, you should do this gradually over the course of the week prior to your big day, add in some rice, pasta, potatoes etc to each meal in that week (NOTE: do this WITHOUT increasing your overall calories – so hang back a touch on the protein intake) and come race day your glycogen stores (which last about 90 minutes at marathon effort, longer if you run easier) will be nicely saturated.
What do I do for runs longer than 90-minutes and WHEN should I take carbs in during my race/long run?
So, we have, as above, established that you need around 1g per KG of body weight to get you through each hour. Let’s continue to work on a 75kg person in our examples and it’ll be a case of me using myself as that example since I weigh about that! This is a point I will touch on later… this is MY experience. YOUR experience may differ in terms of foods that you eat, covered below in the “WHAT should I eat” section.
Forget about intensity here, let’s go with time spent running as the measure. Let’s say my projected run time is 5 hours, therefore I am going to need 5x75g=375g carbs for the run. I like to break it down by hour and ensure that my carb intake is spread out nice and evenly, rather than having a big wallop of carbs in one hit and… in my pre-race preparations I will use a spreadsheet to work it all out! Pretty geeky, but its what works for me. You may want to write it down your fuelling plan and have it on you during the run, or maybe even have things in certain pockets of your shorts or race vest. Up to you to work that out!
Here is a screenshot of my spreadsheet for a recent race:
As you can see, purely from a taste perspective, I like to mix it up in terms of sweet and savoury. Too many gels at the start of a race and I feel disgusting by the latter stages, furry mouth feel! Something like a bagel works for me and I also find it staves off hunger which another consideration when running a long race. Nothing worse than being hungry in a race!!
I also ensure that my SLOW release carbs (in my case, the bagel) is eaten early on. This is because the carbs from that will really kick in towards the end of the race just when I need them most, whereas the gels pretty much kick in right away and the energy drink is a constant intake of carbs.
For me, 500ml of fluid per hour works for my sweat rate, with 40g carbs worth of energy drink (usually around 2 scoops of something like Torq/Tailwind/Mountain Fuel etc).
A bit of chocolate with Sea Salt is a game-changer for me! The little pinch of sea salt helps with salts lost through sweating and has the added bonus of tasting DIVINE!!! Losing too much salt can lead to cramps and muscle spasms and can end your race. I highly recommend the guys at Precision Hydration for all your sweaty needs!!
You will also notice I start my fuelling from around 20 mins into the race. It is important to start eating from the start, DON’T WAIT. You start burning carbs almost immediately as your Heart Rate and effort levels go up, so you need to start replacing them straight away. Leave fuelling too late, at your peril!
What Should I Eat?
Well… now this is one of those unanswerable questions! There isn’t really a prescribed “menu” for you to choose from here. As above, I have given you what works for ME, but I know some people who cannot stomach something like a bagel… I know people who cannot take gels at all as they give them the shits… I know people who will do a whole 100-mile ultra with just bars of chocolate… I know people who swear by Pork Pies or Vegan Sausage Rolls… I know people who eat pouches of baby food… You get the idea, right?
This where I come back to my earlier comment about testing foods, gels, powders etc during your long training runs. They are an ideal opportunity to test stuff out and also to test out the eating & drinking strategy itself. Get used to eating what and when… get used to the mouthfeel of things… trust me, whilst I like a bagel, I now know that eating a bagel whilst pushing out 7:00min/mile pace is a goddamn choking hazard, so I always take a swig of drink with the bagel in my mouth to soften it up and it slides down easier!! You don’t think of this stuff unless you experience and practise it!
So, to answer the question “What should I eat?”… that’s up to you to find out. Just follow the grams per KG of bodyweight rule as above and enjoy learning how and what to eat whilst on the run! It can be a fun and sometimes exhilarating experience… especially when you have to dart behind a bush for a “nature poo”!!!!
Finally… what about races under 90 minutes?
Answering this one in anticipation for the question! Well, as above, you store up to roughly 90 minutes worth of glycogen (assuming you have done carb-loading correctly, more on that HERE) so in reality, you should not need any additional carbs and, if you do, it should be fast carbs (gels, jelly babies, etc). To give you my own example on 5km to half marathon races:
– 5km races (17 minute-ish PB), I take 1 gel 15 minutes before. Nothing in the race
– 10km races (36 minute-ish PB)… same as in 5km races
– Half marathon (79 minute-ish PB)… 1 gel 15 minutes before, then I often take a gel with 4 miles left. If I am really honest with myself, I think this is purely a psychological boost, which is not a bad thing
And, to cap things off… what about road marathons? For me, a sub-3 hour marathoner, I certainly wouldn’t be eating solid foods. In my opinion, solid foods are reserved for trail races and ultra distances. Instead, I ensure the 1g per KG bodyweight per hour rule is applied, but I purely use gels starting from the 30-minute mark!