Our bodies generally have enough reserves for up to 60-90 minutes of exercise, leaving a large deficit of energy and hydration requirements for longer endurance events. As the duration of the event increases, so does our bodies needs which can result in many nutrition challenges along the way. Here are some practical tips to train towards optimal nutrition for race day:
- Practice race day nutrition in training. This is the golden rule when it comes to sports nutrition and may be even more important when it comes to ultra endurance events. Only you can figure out how your body responds to what you put into it so thankfully training provides the perfect scenario to test drive your nutrition. Remember nothing should be new on race day so research what is available on course and ensure it works for you (or plan your replacement nutrition needs)
- Know your limits. When it comes to long distance nutrition quantity is another aspect to focus on. For example, you may be able to tolerate a certain brand of gel, however, after 12 gels it may present a different story! Use your long training runs to figure out if there are upper limits for your chosen fuels.
- Feed early and frequently. Figure out your hourly fuel needs and split them evenly over each hour. This a simple way to ensure your meeting your requirements and also providing your body with continuous energy while avoiding the likelihood of stomach upsets.
To read more on calculating your hourly nutrition needs, read our related article: A Runner's Guide to Nutrition
- Eating and drinking while running can be taught. Many beginner runner's find it difficult to fuel on the go, however like any skill it takes patience and practice to be learnt. A hydropak (or hydration bladder) is a great tool for learning how to sip your hydration on the run. Cut up your food into small portions and make it easily accessible so you can practice eating regularly. Making fuel easily accessible will also help keep your focus on the trail in tricky terrain. Handy tip: set an alarm every 5-10 minutes to ingrain the habit of eating and drinking at regular intervals.
- Plan your training around race day. Study the course terrain, aid station placement and likely weather for the time of year to ensure your training nutrition will match up to race day challenges. For example, if you're relying on aid station nutrition know how frequent these will be and practice refuelling at these intervals during training (a great way to see what you require to take extra). Hilly races may require higher energy needs and race temperatures present different challenges (warmer temperatures increase sweating rates, therefore, hydration needs).
- Learn your carbohydrate requirements. Many factors account for carbohydrate requirements making it difficult to give general recommendations, however if you have access to a qualified nutritionist it's well worth it to get a personalised plan to work towards. Ultra-endurance athletes require up to 90g of carbohydrates per hour, however these need to be from a number of different sources to ensure higher amounts can be absorbed. Remember also you can use real food, gels, sports drink and other supplements to get your carbohydrates. Again it's vital to practice in training to ensure your body can tolerate these high amounts.
Read our related article: How to Select Fuel for Training & Race Day
- Hydrate hydrate hydrate. As a rule of thumb, we want to aim for less than 2% loss of bodyweight to avoid a downward spiral of fatigue. It can be helpful to get into the habit of weighing yourself before and after long training runs and races to ensure you're staying within acceptable limits. As with carbohydrates, many factors account for individual fluid requirements, therefore, it can be helpful to get professional guidance. Ensure your chosen fluid contains sodium and electrolytes to ensure you're replacing sweat losses and avoiding the potentially fatal hyponatraemia (low body sodium also caused by excessive drinking). During hot and humid conditions make sure you cool your hydropak/hydration overnight to help make it pleasant to drink and cool your core.
- Consider protein. Protein breakdown is inevitable when it comes to long distance running so consider incorporating fast absorbing protein into your fuel. This can either be incorporated into foods or your choice of hydration.
- Recovery is a key part of training and essentially getting fitter as you head towards race day. Rehydration, carbohydrates and protein need to be prioritised within 30minutes of completing your training.
Marewa Sutherland is a qualified Sports & Exercise Nutritionist (BAppSc, University of Otago) and co-founder of PURE Sports Nutrition.