If you're running an ultra, you can pretty much expect to face some gastric distress along the way. “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. “Have a plan,” she says, like the one outlined below, “then deviate from it when you need to.”
The Night Before
“Usually we think of carbo-loading the night before an endurance race, but when you get to ultramarathons, you don’t always want a lot of food in your gut,” Blende says. She recommends eating a meal that’s 60 to 70 percent carbohydrates two nights before your event. The rest of your calories should come from protein, like salmon or tofu, and a small amount of fat.
If you do carbo-load two nights before, make sure to drink more the day before. “Try to drink some of your calories so your gut will be pretty clean when you go off the line,” Blende says.
The night before, eat a regular meal with high quality carbs such as sweet potatoes, or whole grain pasta. Stay away from cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, Blende warns, because they can cause gas.
Morning of the Race
What you eat the morning of your 50-miler depends entirely on what kind of runner you are. “If you’re the nervous type,” Blende says, “you should eat a late-night snack rich in complex carbs” so you don’t have to eat much for breakfast. If you don’t mind getting up early, wake up two to three hours before the race starts to eat a good-sized breakfast, then go back to sleep. If you want to sleep as much as possible, wake up an hour or two before the race, eat a light breakfast, then go for it.
Examples of good pre-race meals include a bagel with peanut butter and jelly and a banana, plain oatmeal, a sports bar and some water, or even a rice, bean, and cheese burrito. “The key is to eat something you’ve tried before your long training runs,” Blende says. “You’re just topping off. You’re not trying to eat all of the calories you’re going to burn in the race.”
Blende recommends travelling with your breakfast, and even your post-race dinner, as ultramarathons are often held in remote regions where access to the food you need may be limited.
During the Race
“Off the line, you’re full. You don’t need anything for the first hour, maybe two hours,” Blende says. After that, you’ll have to start eating or drinking calories. But while you’ll burn about 100 calories per mile, your body can only absorb about 240 calories per hour, so it’s important not to eat too much, or you can get sick.
“It’s a deficit sport. You can’t eat all that you’re expending,” Blende says. “The best way to consume calories during a 50-mile race is to think of dripping them in like an IV.” She recommends setting a watch on a timer so it beeps every 15 minutes. Each time the alarm sounds, eat or drink something, whether it’s a gel, chew, sports drink, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a baked potato dipped in salt. “Leave a little of everything in your drop bag,” Blende says. “Leave your gels, your chews, your sports foods, your mixed drinks, because you might need it or you might have dropped something.” As for hydrating, the rule is simple: Drink according to thirst.
Should your stomach get upset, slow down, stop eating, or take in less. Keep up your hydration if you’re thirsty, and then start adding things back in. “Sometimes when you throw up, it’s really just your body saying, ‘OK, I’m wiping the slate clean, let’s start over,’” Blende says. Keep calm, and keep moving.
Drink water if you’re thirsty. Then start taking in calories as soon as possible in a ratio of one part protein to three to four parts carbohydrates. “It’s like if you’re going to build a house, the protein is going to help rebuild the muscle—it’s the lumber and the nails—and the carbohydrates are the construction crew. You need both,” Blende says.
Eat whatever you want, but, Blende advises, “the healthier you eat, the better off you’ll be.” Expect to keep losing weight for up to three or four days after the run. You’ll gain it back eating normally while you recover.
Bonus: No-Grain Experiment
Looking for a good way to avoid having to fuel up during the race? The biggest trend in ultrarunning nutrition right now, Blende says, is training the fat-burning system to work more efficiently by eliminating all grain carbs from your diet for six to eight weeks during the early training stages.
The key is to exercise at a low heart rate where you’re in your “fat burning” zone. “That means if there’s a steep hill, you might have to walk up it,” Blende says. “If you go above that zone, you will bonk.” After eight weeks, your body should be able to burn fat at higher heart rates, lowering your carb needs during your race. “You’ll run faster and easier without having to take in so many calories, and having to take in calories is the nemesis of an ultraunner because it can make you sick,” Blende says.
Once you do the initial six-to-eight-week period of low-heart-rate, no-grain training, you can maintain the results by training that way for two days a week.