Running and Ultra Marathon Nutrition

Getting the correct nutrition in an ultra marathon is crucial. I ate a lot of different foods in the 3100 but I had the advantage of a full time group of volunteer cooks providing everything under the sun. There was almost too much choice. 

Eating on race day can be hard. Everyone gets a little nervous or jittery before a race and during the event you have to often force food down. In the beginning of the 3100 mile race the heat and humidity stifled my hunger. My stomach jumped up and down and my tongue became ultra-sensitive. Just a sip of an acidic drink like orange juice, instantaneously led to tongue ulcers. Any hint of spice or chilli resulted in an upset stomach. I lacked or couldn't find the motivation to each much at all. 

Thankfully as the race developed I got used to eating and my digestive system adjusted. I started to get really hungry really quickly. If it was in between meals I’d get cranky, like a hungry kid, and have to send someone to buy me food. Alternatively I called the cooks, begging them to send supper early. Hunger pangs were a good sign. I could feel the body smashing the food for energy. At the start of the race food sat in my stomach for hours. Everything was working well if I was hungry. 

What Food I Consumed in the 3100

I started each day with a pre-race tub of yoghurt each morning. It lined my stomach and was easily digestible. Half an hour after the yoghurt, I ate porridge with honey. At 7:30am a full breakfast arrived. This was the only meal the cooks didn’t vary. I had scrambled eggs with onions, mashed potatoes, three pieces of heavily buttered toast and a couple of pancakes. The presentation was always immaculate but a waste of time for me. Within two minutes of the food arriving in a takeaway container I had it dumped into disposable plastic cups. Adding a liberal portion of olive oil to the mix, it became a stirred-up mush of food, vegetables and whatever else was in there.

Eating meals from cups meant I could eat without stopping, gulping a few mouthfuls when I walked up the rises. The cups were lighter to carry than a whole meal and broke my food portions up into smaller serves. Morning tea arrived at 10:30am. Cakes, quiches, chocolate brownies, mini pizzas and pastries disappeared all too quickly. Lunch came at 12.30pm, afternoon tea at 3:30pm, dinner at 6:30pm and supper at 9:00pm. Things like corn on the cob, pastas, miso soup, mashed potato and gravy, borscht, buttered rice curries, noodle dishes, blueberry pie, watermelon, papaya, tiramisu, french fries and vegetable skewers all made it to the food table. Anything that didn’t upset our stomach was fair game. Even with all these regular meals I had to top myself up with chocolate, protein bars and the occasional pizza delivery. 

Extra food treats were fantastic and often brought by locals who supported the race. Sometimes the runners would get homemade ginger beer, pumpkin pie, coconut or maple water or gourmet ice-cream. It broke the monotony of drinking the same thing every lap or snacking on one more salty pretzel. On a hot day ice-creams were unbelievably refreshing. They upset nearly every runner’s stomach but nobody cared. My record was to consume seven in a day, coming about when ice-cream treats were coincidentally brought to the sweltering race by seven different friends. I didn’t want to offend. 

One of the great tragedies of the race was to drop a half-eaten ice-cream. The combination of hot winds and the constant vibration on the popsicle stick meant it was easy to watch it slide onto the ground. It’s not a good idea to learn what’s in your favourite. Once I dropped a rainbow-coloured one. Three weeks later, after numerous rain storms, heat and shoes scuffing over it, the undeniable stain of the ice-cream was still on the cement. I could only imagine my stomach was in much the same condition. 

In a normal ultra, lack of food means lack of energy. It's not pleasant and makes finishing harder. In extreme endurance events lack of calories is more serious. Once runners deplete their fat reserves, the body starts eating away at muscle. Some runners were drinking olive oil and I have tried. It is not for me however, it tastes unpleasant and made me vomit.  I have found the best way to keep weight on and to consume calories is to eat almond butter or masses of Greek yoghurt: it tasted nice and was easy enough to stomach.

When Not to Worry About Food

Whilst food is important it is not the be all and end all of an ultra event. I eat what makes me happy rather than think too much about calorie intake, vitamins and minerals present and so on. If it's tasty and something I can look forward to, it picks me up and gives me some energy and joy just thinking about it! Food should be motivational as well as nutritional. If it is, it can keep you going until the next aid station. Running is about staying positive and energetic. Food can help with this but most of this comes from yourself, your training and mental attitude. 

No matter what food I ate during my races or how much, I don’t think I ever reached the requisite calorie intake in the 3100. Nutritional science can go out the window as it does whenever you have to dig that bit deeper. Sometimes I could feel energy even in the drinking water, filling every cell of my being and giving me power. I visualised myself getting stronger with each passing lap. With every breath I felt myself gaining momentum and strength. Watching the sun rise and set I would try and absorb some of its endless energy. It has to rise every day and I was just running for fifty.

Make Sure Your Food and Nutrition Doesn't Hinder Your Performance

Just like your apparel, shoes and gait, it is important to test out your food and nutrition in training. Find out what you can digest on the move, what picks you up and what slows you down. Does a dose of a sugary gel or sweet give you a boost or make you tired? Does a caffeinated soda help or hinder you? 

Eating well should be part of your training and recovery in preparation for an ultra. Eating high quality nutritious meals means you will train more effectively and get better results. Personally, simple things like baked spuds or tasty pastas after a hard days training are quick to make, filling and carbohydrate rich. If you want to make the distance, keep up the high calories by consuming high quality nutritious food.

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Grahak Cunningham is based between Australia and New York and is a motivational speaker and business speaker and four time finisher and 2012 champion of the Self-Transcendence 3100 mile race.



© 2012 Grahak Cunningham all rights reserved