There is a lot of debate about how best to fuel and hydrate for run training and racing. This is likely because nutrition is a crucial component of training for and participating in any endurance sport - especially long and ultra distance running. The longer the run, the more important proper nutrition and hydration becomes.
We sat down with Rawvelo ambassador and ultra-running legend turned coach, Paul Giblin to find out more.
What are the fundamental basics for nutrition and hydration when it comes to long distance running?
We all know that runners like to eat! And some extra calories the night before a long run feels more than sensible. Most of us have a favourite early morning breakfast before setting out on that crucial peak training run. For the ultra runners amongst us we’ll pack a vest with either our go-to treats or our trusted sports nutrition gels and bars.
None of that is controversial, but it is worth considering why there is a need to fuel for exercise, and how the energy is generated from the food we consume. In simple terms, the cells in our body take in raw material (nutrients from the food we eat) and convert them into energy. This ability to convert the stored chemical energy in our food into ATP allows muscles to contract and us to carry out ‘mechanical’ work (like running).
Hydration is also very important for long distance runners. Its role shouldn’t be diminished in any conversation regarding fuelling for races. Water is key for core temperature regulation, digestion and waste removal. Studies have shown that even a small drop in body mass due to dehydration has a detrimental effect on performance.
From what distances do you really need to start considering a plan for your nutrition?
Runners participating in races such as 5K’s don’t need to take in any fluids or fuel during their race due to the distance. Longer road races such as marathons can often be completed by starting off the race well-fuelled and taking in minimal fuel during the race, although you will see elite athletes taking on sports nutrition in most races beyond an hour or so in duration. So it’s safe to say in-race nutrition can improve performances for most people in events longer than an hour.
It’s even more important in ultra distance events as races last considerably longer. Ultras can be won and lost by an athlete's ability to take on fuel and hydration throughout the event.
Runners taking on marathons for the first time are often warned about ‘hitting the wall’ around 19 - 20 miles, like many do. Any advice on avoiding this?
Ingesting carbohydrates on a consistent basis has been shown to help runners reduce the chances and effects of ‘hitting the wall.’ Studies suggest that this feeling of low energy long into a race is related to the degree of blood glucose/glycogen.
While blood glucose is not considered to be a substantial energy reservoir, taking on those gels and bars while running can increase the percentage of fuel contributed by blood glucose as opposed to stored glycogen. This is critical for ultra runners and for those less experienced marathon runners too.
It has been suggested that taking on some carbohydrates at least 30 minutes before that painful 19-mile ‘wall’ mark (the point of fatigue due to glycogen depletion) will reduce the occurrences or effects of that energy slump. Any athlete running marathon distance and beyond should have a solid fuelling plan anyway. And clearly, being well-trained and in good aerobic condition will help a lot too.
Eating while on the go can be tough and cause a stitch for some. Any advice on eating on the go?
Given that GI (gastrointestinal) issues are one of the most common reasons for athletes to DNF in ultra events, runners would be wise to learn more about ‘training the gut.’ Yes, you heard that correctly!
Studies have shown that it’s possible for an athlete's body to adapt to absorbing and digesting calories with some training. Studies suggest that long and ultra distance runners should train with carbohydrates, which not only helps absorption, but also reduces the chances of GI distress. It’s not clear at this stage exactly how much is optimal to elicit an adaptation, but it’s certainly worth some experimentation. Methods like training after a meal, taking on higher concentrations of carbohydrates or running with a lot of fluid in the stomach can help. And simulating your race nutrition plan is always advisable for long events.
What equipment do you recommend runners to use to help facilitate fuelling and hydrating on the go?
- A water bottle to keep with you all day! It’s such a simple tip and helps you to monitor how much water you take on.
- In training and racing I’ll generally use a lightweight hydration vest. There’s so many great options available now and they are very comfortable to wear. They’ll easily carry some soft flasks with fluids, and have plenty pockets for bars and gels etc. You’ll even have space for waterproofs and other safety equipment if you’re heading into the mountains.
What are your recommended or favourite everyday foods to take with you on a long run? Any hydration additions too?
I recently ran the 550-mile Highland Trail route and I almost ate Rawvelo out of business in just 12-days! The bars are great in training and on long days. It’s nice to have an alternative to the liquid based gels which I use a lot when racing and in higher intensity efforts. The Rawvelo gels are some of the best I’ve tried as they are so easy to take on board and if I’m on the ball (and fuelling regularly), are a great way to combat that feeling of hitting the wall, which can happen more than once in a 300km race.
I have a home-made rice cake recipe which is great when you get the consistency right. On long events like I mentioned earlier, I’ll eat a lot of wraps stuffed full of tasty fillers - hummus, salad, rice and avocado. If I have a crew, they’ll often do some dessert versions too, with banana and nut butters. In events longer than 24 hours I’ll also try to maintain a meal cycle that reflects the timings of what I’d eat normally at home.
Drinks I usually keep as simple as possible. Mostly water. Sometimes with some electrolytes. During the day, in that late water bottle I’ll add chunks of lemon or lime, maybe some cucumber and a pinch of sea salt.
Any other recommendations / considerations for runners who are interesting in getting into ultra running?
Ultra running is a wonderful sport. You can run across the mountains, through spectacular forests, spend days out on the trails with friends, and go to places you’d never likely see. You’ll build super-hero level resilience and find grit and determination that you never knew you had. There’s a fantastic ultra running community here in the UK too (and across the world). It’s open to anyone with a passion for running. Yes, there’s a steep learning curve, but that can be hugely enjoyable too, and there’s always support to be found if you need it.
Finding a 50k race is a good place to start. It’s not much beyond a marathon but will take you into unchartered territory. Many people get the bug from just one race, and very quickly want to race again. But take it from me - go easy in the first 12-18 months. Physical fitness isn’t usually a problem but it can take a while to build a body that handle the big increase in training volume and racing distances and it’s when most people suffer injuries. There’s no rush - and don’t worry about times and positions in your first year. Just focus on finishing and enjoying the journey!
Read more from Paul on his website, Pyllon Ultra.