“If My Grandma Would Not Recognize it as Food I Should Not Eat It”
Nutrition, Food, and Calorie intake while running ultra trail races and training – My general thoughts
“If my Grandma would not recognize it as food I should not eat it” is my mantra for how I eat while running an Ultra Trail Races. Nutrition while running an Ultra Trail race is so important. Once your body goes into a calorie deficit it is almost impossible to recover for the possible multiple hours that you will still be running. For me there are no gel packs, no “gu” type products, no energy bar type products, or any other substance that the manufacturer claims as food that is not food, but rather is in the “food-like” category. I also try to stay away from as much simple sugar as possible. This includes chocolate candy, gummy things, candy, etc. However, I do sometimes start to crave Coca-Cola and cave to its power over me.
Another piece of advice that I offer other runners when asked what I eat while I run is “eat anything that will not make you throw up”. I’m serious. Just because real food is what worked for me does not mean that it will work for everyone. I am always testing new things to eat while I am running or at “training” races. At the Rocky Mountain Double Marathon outside of Laramie, Wyoming I experimented with Potato, Bean, and Cheese burritos with mild salsa. Yum! REAL food and it tastes great! I also PR’d for a double marathon; the power of beans. I have also been experimenting with making crystallized ginger and eating it when my stomach is starting to act up. Along with the crystallized ginger, I have been making homemade gingerbread cookies and homemade ginger ale to eat during my ultra trail races and training runs.
Running an Ultra Trail Race – Calorie Intake versus Calorie Burned
A general rule of thumb that I go by is that any running, cycling, or endurance event that is going to last more than two hours I will want to get extra calories from food. Your stomach can only digest about 150 calories per hour, but you will be burning a lot more calories than 150 per hour. A good estimate of how many calories you will burn per mile while running is 100 calories. So, if you are running at 5 miles per hour (12 minute pace) you will burn 500 calories in an hour. Here is where the problem starts.
Too Many Calories and Too Little Calories
Since you can only digest 150 calories per hour, you can shove all the food into your stomach you want to reach that 500 calories that you burned during the last hour of running, but only 150 calories will exit your stomach. Now you will have a gullet full of undigested food and guess what the result is going to become; it’s not pretty. Bottom line is you are going to go into calorie deficit that no matter what you do, whether you intake all your calories as liquid, real food, or food-like products.
As bad as taking in too many calories per hour the opposite is just as bad. With lack of calories in your stomach the blood starts to leave your stomach and go to where your body is telling it needs it the blood the most…your legs. Sound like a good thing; extra blood to pump the leg muscles, but it is just the opposite. When the blood leaves your stomach is when you start to get an upset stomach, get gassy, cramp, and can feel like throwing up. And once the blood goes into your legs it is almost impossible to get it back into your stomach.
Dancing the Delicate Dance of Calorie Intake During an Ultra Trail Run
It is a delicate dance on keeping the correct balance of calorie intake; and this does not even take into account liquid fuel, hydration, and sodium levels! It is important to know the approximate calorie count of the food that you will be eating during an ultra trail run and how often that you have been eating. I have friends that will take a small bite of food every 15 minutes, while I like to set my watch to go off every hour to remind me to eat. My suggestion is to experiment during your long training runs to see what method will work for you. I also asked an elite Ultra Trail Runner what he eats during the Leadville 100 Trail Race and his answer was “I eat about 20 gels and no solid food”. Again, there is no magic bullet that will work for everyone; you must experiment to find what works best for you.
When the “Game Plan” is not Working it is Time to Change the Game Plan.
I am going to guess that all of us have had that really bad race that nothing seemed to be going right. This happened to me during the Alpine to Slick Rock 50 mile Trail Run in Moab, Utah. All the real food that I packed was worthless. I would put it in my mouth and I would have to spit it out. Whatever was happening to me during that ultra trail race made all the food that usually tastes good taste awful (an using the word awful is being very considerate). I had no choice but to switch my game plan and start eating food-like products. The new game plan was not ultimately the best, but it was good enough to get me to the finish line with 10 minutes left in the race before the cut-off.
The Bottom Line
To sum up the importance of Ultra Trail Running calorie intake:
1) You will always go into calorie deficit.
2) Do not eat much more than about 150 calories per hour.
3) Do not eat less than 150 calories per hour.
4) When what usually works is not working it is time to change your game plan.