From: running training tips
Sports Nutrition for the Ultramarathon
Establishing the right sports nutrition fueling protocol is critical for maximum ultramarathon performance. Many ultra runners will tell you their success comes as much from making the right nutritional decisions before and on race day, as doing the right volume and type of training.
Your running training is all in the bank on race day, but sports nutrition is where you can improve the most, or conversely, cause problems that will cost valuable minutes or hours, or even lead to a DNF. Thus, ultra runners need a sound working knowledge of the complex subtleties of fueling nutrition, as well as a solid background in ultra training techniques.
Maintaining an adequate fluid and food intake during an ultramarathon is as much an art as a science. Experienced ultra runners will tell you that the best way you can prepare your gastrointestinal system for the fueling challenges of ultra races is by practicing during training, under simulated ultra conditions, and during shorter training runs.
Every ultra runner has his own special nutritional requirements that he has to establish through trial and error. Human taste and absorption rates are highly individualized. Novice ultra runners need to realize that if raisins work for one runner, they may have the opposite effect on another, so the wise athlete will try a variety of carbohydrate rich foods and fluids to determine their personal preference and tolerance.
Pre-Race Sports Nutrition
The effects of tapering combined with carbohydrate loading have been examined in several hundred studies since the 1980’s, to the point where there is no longer much ongoing research into this procedure anymore, except on fine tuning issues of dosages, etc. We appear to have some definitive answers to our questions and most experienced runners have established protocols based on these conclusions.
Generally, runners who maintain a diet of about 60-70% carbohydrates for at least four days (and follow a tapering program for at least a week) before their event will boost the glycogen stores in their liver and muscle tissue to a level about twice as high as during normal training and normal diet. This supercompensation effect results in significant improvements in the marathon of up to 15 minutes in the marathon and much greater time improvements in ultra races.
The ultra runner can estimate his desired carbohydrate intake more precisely by calculating 8-10 grams of carbohydrate/kilogram/day. For example, a 72-kilogram (154 pound) runner should take aboard 576 to 720 grams of carbohydrates/day.
Sports Nutrition During the Race
Renowned sports nutritionists Nancy Clark says, “The two primary goals of feeding the ultraendurance runner during the event are to maintain normal hydration and to maintain normal blood glucose levels”. Seasoned ultra runners will tell you to eat before you get hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty—you need to start eating and drinking very early in the race. These are two of the golden rules of ultra running. The basic rule is that the longer the race, the slower you go, and the more you eat.
Start taking in carbohydrates right from the start, and at regular intervals, to help you conserve the glycogen that you have previously stored in your muscles and liver, for as long as possible.
How much food should the athlete take in during an ultra? Lots! Considering that runners burn 200 to 800 calories per hour (depending on size, gender, temperature, terrain, and intensity of race pace) and that ultra races can last from 5 hours to 24 hours, that’s a lot of grub.
A 150-pound runner going at a moderate pace for a ten hour ultra can burn 6,000 or more calories!
A good goal is to take in 1 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. For most runners this will be between 280 to 420 calories for a 70-kilogram (154lb) runner per hour. This should include a mix of solids and liquids. Sports nutritionist Monique Ryan, in her book Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes recommends 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate (120 to 240 calories) per hour from sports drinks.
What Solids Should You Eat?
Most ultra runners will stock standard carbohydrate rich foods like fruit, watermelon, lightweight fried fruit, bagels, fig bars, energy bars, chocolate bars, cakes, cookies, candy, jelly beans, pretzels, boiled potatoes, pies, even sandwiches (cheese sandwiches seem to be a favorite).
Ideally you should match your fluid and electrolyte needs with your losses on an hour-by-hour basis. “Ultra runners need to start the race well hydrated”, says Ryan in her book. “This can by drinking 16 to 20 ounces of fluid in the hour before start time”.
Drinking Guidelines for Ultra Runners:
120-250 ml of fluid every 15 minutes
= 1 liter (33 ounces) to 2 liters (66 ounces) of fluid per hour
Why the large range in recommended fluid intake? Sweating varies with ambient temperature, humidity, and race pace intensity, gender, and individual sweat rates. Generally, men will need more fluid than women because they tend to be larger and lose more sweat over a larger surface area.
Clearly the runner cannot carry these volumes of fluid with him, so the need for a support crew is critical. Fluid stops at drinks stations must be carefully planned, and the runner must ensure he carries enough fluid between check points. Most runners are able to absorb and process one liter of fluid per hour. An easy guide to whether you are hydrating adequately is to check the color of your urine. If it’s clear, you’re doing well. If it is dark colored, start drinking more.
Beware of sports drinks or soft drinks with high concentrations of carbohydrate (sugar), above 10%. They take longer to empty from the stomach. Remember, you want quick clearance. If you insist on taking such hypertonic sports drinks, dilute them by 50% to play it safe.
If your ultra lasts longer than 6 hours, attention must be paid to electrolyte intake, especially sodium through sports drinks or food. This is the third golden nutrition rule for ultra running. Hyponatremia occurs in athletes who take in too much low sodium fluid (water), or are excessive sweaters. It’s caused by a dilution of the sodium levels in your plasma, and is potentially fatal. It affects about 5% of runners in any given ultra event (Tarnopolsky 2008).
The people at highest risk tend to be the less fit, and those who gain water weight during the event. A higher incidence of hyponatremia among women has also been noted because they tend to gain more weight during a triathlon, have lower body mass indexes and lower sodium levels than men.
If you are at risk, you are well advised to experiment with sodium tablets, or foods high in sodium like potato chips or pretzels. There are as yet, no clear-cut guidelines for sodium intake during ultra events, but 200-500 mgs/hour is enough to prevent hyponatremia. Heavy sweaters may need as much as 1 gram/hour and salt tablets may help here. It is important that you know the sodium content of your drinks, gels, bars and other foods.
Sports Nutrition for Ultra Runners Summary
These are the most important sports nutrition considerations based on the research. Remember to find out what works best for you during your training runs rather than trying something new during your ultra event. You might also be interested in reading about related topics on sports drinks and gels, caffeine supplements, and carbohydrate loading.
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