As I think back to the Spring of 2009, the 1st time I ever attempted an Ultra distance marathon, I have to laugh. Although the circumstances at the time were not the least bit funny, I still find humor in my oblivious disregard for proper fueling. It clearly wasn’t that I was attempting to fuel improperly, I was just completely and utterly clueless. I didn’t know any better. I figured that any calories were good calories and in my attempts at researching what to eat during an ultra, I kept discovering complicated ratios and formulas that made my brain hurt. Little did I know, the lack of knowledge and respect for fueling my body with pretty much only Cheetos and water would lead to my demise at a whopping 13 miles during the Keys100 50 Mile Race.
As I have “matured” in my ultra running, I have learned a great deal of things through experience and advice from my running “family”, but nothing resonates within me more than the realization that I still do not have the perfect formula. Plain and simple, no one has all the answers; on any given day, at any given start line, the variables of weather, clothing choice, mental state, support etc. play a big factor into how your race will go. However, if you control the things you have control over, you can and will increase your chances of success. This is where my attempt at a nutritional themed blog post comes into play. (Those of you that know me well are probably cracking up, and as I am typing, I am smirking. I have a reputation as being a junk food junkie, however, I have recently become a lot more conscious of what I am putting in my body and how it will serve me during a race as well as on a daily basis.)
It is not my intention to endorse products or brands that are mentioned throughout the duration of this article–it is information that I am personally aware of and products that myself or friends of mine have used throughout training and races. In addition, this post is not intended to be used as advice from an expert on nutrition; as I previously stated, I’m the furthest thing from an expert and am still a work in progress myself. However, my hope is that this information could be used as a “cheat sheet” or “guide” to help a new or experienced endurance athlete sort out some of their nutritional shortcomings. Had I stumbled upon a blog post of this sort prior to my 1st ultra event, I may have found success at the finish-line on race day as opposed to a few weeks later during my own 50 mile redemption run.
One of the most obvious necessities during ANY form of exercise is proper hydration. What is not so obvious is the amount of water you may or may not need for the duration of your workout. Factors such as the temperature, altitude and humidity levels of the environment in which you train also contribute to the amount of fluids you should be consuming. A helpful way to determine the amount of water you, specifically, need to drink in order to remain hydrated is to perform a sweat rate ratio test. There are a number of online resources and formulas that can assist with determining your ideal hydration zone for various activities, however, one of the most simple and user friendly hydration “helpers” that I have seen is the PowerBar Sweat Rate Calculator.
It has also been determined that the consumption of chia seeds can help promote hydration. Chia seeds possess hydrophilic properties which means that they can prolong hydration and help retain electrolytes in body fluids which, in turn, protects against dehydration and promotes endurance and recovery – exactly what an endurance athlete needs!
One very popular brand of chia seeds among athletes is Mila, which boasts splitting the outer hull of the chia – not grinding – using a proprietary cold system to optimize the bioavailability of nutrients. Nothing is added to the product – it is a pure form of Salvia hispanica L and claims to be simply the best available today. For more information on Mila, click here!
In addition to the proper amount of water consumption, it is also important to maintain an appropriate balance of electrolytes. This, too, can be tricky to figure out depending on the elements in which you are running, the duration of your workout/event and the individual athlete. Below is a comparison chart created by a fellow ultrarunner that provides information on the most commonly used electrolyte supplements that come in a pill form.
A few products manufactured to be consumed as a beverage, as opposed to a pill, include Nuun, Hammer Endurolyte Fizz, and GU Brew.
A very helpful resource that can be utilized during training and throughout a race is the Succeed Sports Nutrition Water/Electrolyte Balance Table. This table was developed to give general information and guidance to assist individuals in determining and adjusting an endurance athlete’s hydration and electrolyte balance. [Copyright 2007-11 Karl King, all rights reserved.]
The main source of carbs that is found in many sports nutrition supplements (ie. Hammer Gel, Gu, Clif shots, etc,..) is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate that is easily digestible, being absorbed rapidly as glucose. When using products containing maltodextrin, even though they are fast digesting, it is nearly impossible to replace the amount of calories that you are burning per hour during an ultra or long run. The body can’t digest that many calories at once, while working at a high intensity, however, they can obviously be beneficial as a quick source of carbohydrates or sugar.
Vitargo is different from the other carbs because it’s carb source is not maltrodextrin. It is a patented carbohydrate with unique properties to give an effective loading of easily accessible muscle energy in the body. It digests 2.3x faster than maltodextrin and since digestion occurs at a much quicker rate, athletes can take in more calories per hour without having GI distress or bloating.
There are, of course, many different traditional forms of carbohydrates you can use during a race to fuel but it is important to keep in mind the affect that it could have on your digestive tract. In the end, it truly comes down to personal preference and what works for your body.
This is somewhat of a “controversial” topic. Do you need protein during extreme endurance events? Some people will tell you, “ABSOLUTELY” while others say it is a “waste of time and cannot be absorbed or utilized” during an ultra. As we have established, I am no expert, therefore I will only say that I have played around with Perpetuem, Ensure, as well as Muscle Milk and solid foods as a source of protein during an ultra.
To sum things up, nutrition during any extreme event is typically a mix of trial and error. While some people view it as a simple formula, others view it as an intricate challenge. I, personally, am still working on my perfect scenario and, therefore, view it as the most difficult portion of my ultra experiences.
Most recently, during The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler on Pine Mountain, I found that Stinger Gels, Stinger Waffles, Vitargo, Nuun, some fresh pineapple and a Muscle Milk at the half way point worked well for my body on that particular day and allowed me to finish strong, full of laughter, and with a huge smile on my face! Only time will tell if this regiment will remain effective throughout another adventure!