As an ultramarathon runner, one of the things I love about races is that they are essentially a big picnic with a bit of running in-between. When you’re covering 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles or more, keeping your body fuelled is important and, let’s be honest, it’s also something to look forward to.
But only a small (albeit growing) percentage of runners will cover ultramarathon distances, so how should ‘normal’ runners fuel their runs?
I’ll start by saying that we are only covering in the article options for what to eat/drink when you are actually running. I’m assuming you have a balanced diet generally and no specific nutritional requirements.
Let’s start by talking about how our runs are powered. In the simplest terms, during any physical exercise, including endurance or long-distance running, our body uses the glucose in our blood and the glycogen in our muscles (stored energy which is converted to glucose) to power our run. Movement of our muscles is created by a chemical called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is derived from glucose, so our muscles need a steady stream of glucose to keep them moving. How much glucose depends on how strenuous the exercise and how long we are exercising for. Yes, it is a little more complicated than that, but it gives you the general idea.
Typically, on any run less than 1 hour, you shouldn’t need to take in additional fuel. Why? The answer is you should have enough blood glucose and glycogen stored in your body to power you through that run. After 60 minutes, the body’s glycogen and blood glucose levels are severely depleted, but we can’t necessarily access the energy stored in our body fat quickly enough to continue powering our run (more on how to train your body to burn fat for fuel in a later post). If we don’t replenish energy, fatigue sets in and we ‘hit the wall’.
So, what are our options for fuelling runs over 60 minutes. The advice is that we should consume 30 to 60g of carbohydrate every 30 to 40 minutes for runs that are longer than one hour. This level ensures we are fuelling our body appropriately for our run, without overwhelming our digestive system (after all, our body is concentrating keeping us running and therefore isn’t focussing so much on digestion) and causing GI problems.
Whatever you decide to use, it will involve some trial and error to find what best suits you. I have a friend who only uses a specific brand of energy gel for any distance and swears by it. Personally, I can’t stand energy gels and prefer solid food with different textures. Everyone is different, so try different strategies and find out what works for you. It’s also worth saying that you should do this before your race – so test various foods and drinks on your training runs and don’t eat or drink anything on race day you haven’t already tried. Trust me, I’ve made that mistake and it wasn’t pretty!
So, what are the options? In two broad categories, you can take carbohydrates either in solid or liquid format. We’ll look at liquids first as there are fewer options here.
Many runners use sports drinks such as Lucozade or Tailwind or Gatorade to fuel their runs. Sports drinks typically contain carbohydrates in the form of sugar, as well as electrolytes and sometimes caffeine and extra vitamins. One of the main advantages to using sports drinks is that they not only replenish our blood glucose levels, but they also act to hydrate us as well. Whilst running, we are likely to be sweating and losing water from our body, so replacing that is key to avoid dehydration. If the sports drink has added electrolytes, it can also help your electrolyte balance if you’re a particularly salty sweater.
Because the carbohydrates in sports drinks are in the form of sugar, it can be quickly absorbed by the body, giving us an immediate energy boost and reinvigorating our energy systems and improving performance. And finally, some people just like the taste of sports drinks. Refreshing flavours like citrus or fruity flavours are ones that many runners enjoy. Plus, they are gentler on the stomach than many energy bars or gels, and easier to digest therefore reducing the risk of GI upset.
It’s not all cookies and dream cakes though. The very reason why these sports drinks work so well can also be detrimental – the high sugar content. Not only does this make sports drinks highly calorific in some cases, but if you use sports drinks regularly and in volume, they can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and weight gain. Some sports drinks have almost as much sugar as fizzy drinks like Coca Cola and you wouldn’t dream of drinking Coca Cola every time you run for more than an hour.
This added sugar also has a detrimental effect on your dental hygiene too. I’d never heard about this until my dentist asked if I was regularly drinking sports drinks or consuming energy gels whilst running, when I had to have my first filling (boo!). He explained that the high sugar content, along with the acidity of sports drinks, as well as our tendency to sip them every 30 to 40 minutes can lead them to effectively dissolve our teeth and lead to the build up of plaque. And no one wants to have extra fillings just because they like a swig of Lucozade now and again.
Many sports drinks also contain caffeine, which is good in moderate amounts, but again can be detrimental to our bodies if ingested in high quantities over time. And some simply upset your stomach – one of my biggest mistakes was drinking Gatorade at the Milton Keynes marathon having never used sports drinks before. I certainly regretted that when I was vomiting it back up later in the race!
I’m not saying don’t use sports drinks – if they work for you then they can become a valuable part of your running fuelling strategy. But do consider the amount of sports drink you’re consuming and consider mixing it up a little by introducing plain water, no added sugar squash or low sugar/low calorie alternatives if available.
On to food then…
There are a huge range of options available here, from the nearly-liquid-but-not-quite versions like energy gels, through slightly more solid jelly blocks, all the way to actual proper food. I’ve covered the most popular options below as well as some of my favourites.
Available in a huge variety of flavours, consistencies, some with caffeine, some without, some with added electrolytes, some without. The array is literally mind-blowing! As I said earlier, it’s very much personal preference as to flavour and consistency, so try as many as possible. Often races are sponsored by a particular brand of gel, so it’s your opportunity to pocket a couple of freebies and try them out (remember, don’t use them mid-race….you don’t know how your body might react!)
My personal favourite brand is Torq – for me, the consistency is spot on and they create some delicious flavours like rhubarb and custard, raspberry ripple and apple pie. They are pretty much the only gels I can stomach and they taste wonderful.
The pros and cons of energy gels are very similar to energy drinks.
The most widely recognised brand here is Clif and their Shot Bloks. Think of these like the jelly cubes you get to make instant jelly. More solid than an energy gel, but not quite solid food. They come in a vast array of flavours, and some have caffeine added for the extra boost.
Personally, I like these as they have more texture than an energy gel so you like you are actually chewing something (it’s amazing how important texture becomes when you’re 5 hours into a race). If you find gels give you GI issues, but you don’t want to eat whole food, these may be a good alternative. As with energy gels, the energy comes from sugar and so that pros and cons are similar to those with sports drinks.
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on specialist sports nutrition, or just can’t stomach the thought of existing on gels or jelly shots for hours on end, or if they give you GI issues, then “real food” is a great option. Personally, I rarely use gels or specialist sports nutrition, preferring instead to eat “real food”. Food with flavour and texture, that doesn’t make my stomach churn. As with everything, it’s trial and error to see what works for you and I would wholeheartedly recommend copious amounts of testing prior to race day.
But, to get you started, here are some of my go to foods for fuelling my long runs and ultras:
Kendal mint cake – one of my personal favourites and always in my pack for long runs. Yes, it’s basically solid sugar with some mint flavouring. To me, it’s the next step up from jelly shots but it’s really refreshing (which is much needed if you have been chugging gels and your teeth feel a bit furry!) and has a nice solid texture to give you something to chew and something for your stomach to digest more easily.
Crisps / tortilla chips / pretzels – great for getting that salty fix, which is particularly important if you’re a salty sweater and/or aren’t using electrolyte drinks. It’s also surprisingly satisfying to have something with crunch!
Malt loaf – I like to buy the lunchbox size malt loaf but you can just buy a large one and slice it up yourself. Loads of gooey, yummy energy.
Chocolate bars – obvious really for a good sugar hit, but beware of the potential slump after! I tend to keep these for emergency use only (3am on an ultra when it’s raining and windy and you’re having a mini meltdown types of emergency!). Snickers tend to be my favs as you get some of the salty goodness from the peanuts and they are a nice consistency. If you’re running and it’s very cold or very hot, chocolate may not be ideal.
Peanut butter – squeezy sachets of peanut butter work well for me and I eat it straight out of the packet, but if you’re a little more classy try a peanut butter and jam bagel. Preferably wholegrain, this will pack a punch!
Sweets – I like to carry Haribo Tangfastics, mainly because they give me something to chew on as well as having the nice sour taste which is a welcome change from sweet or salty. Be careful with these if you’re not stopping to eat though as you can easily accidentally inhale them!
Bananas – the humble banana! Not one of my favourites as I don’t really like the taste or texture, but no one can dispute how great bananas are as a food to fuel exercise. High in good carbs to boost energy and high in potassium, bananas are a bit of a wonder food! They also boost levels of dopamine, helping the body fight against damaging free radicals. What’s not to like?!
Flapjacks – the king of the snack bar, in my humble opinion. Endless flavours (some sweeter, some more savoury), a satisfying buttery texture, all the slow release energy of oats with a little sugar zing for an immediate boost. Plus you can even custom make them yourself, so you know you’re going to love it.
The list really is endless….
The most important things for me when fuelling a very long run or an ultra is to make sure I have a selection of sweet and savoury foods. You won’t want to eat sweet things all of the time. The second thing is to test everything before race day, so you know what will work with your stomach and give you ample fuel. You’ll note a lot of the items in the list above aren’t the ‘healthiest’ food – so don’t eat like this all of the time. Be selective about what you eat and when to best fuel your body.
When ultra-running, you will reach a point where you just don’t want to eat anymore. So, you need to have a fuelling strategy in place and ensure you have food or sports nutrition items with you that can power you through that phase. Depending on the race or run you are doing, whether there are checkpoints, what food the checkpoints have, how long you are going for, your fuelling strategy will change. Be flexible and adaptable but make sure you continue to manage yourself well.