Fueling for the Finish - Digging yourself out of a nutritional hole

March 5, 2021

This is Part Five of our nutrition series and brings us a round-table discussion featuring a variety of Chaski’s ultra-running superstars: Kris Brown, Pete Kostelnick, Cal Neff, and registered dietician Carolyn Stocker R.D., C.S.C.S.. Following suit with our previous fueling posts Fueling for 50K, Fueling for 50k to 100k, Fueling for Ultras: 12-24 hours, Fueling for Multiday Runs, the Collective takes a look at a great reader question submitted to Pete’s latest article.

Kris, Pete, Cal, and Carolyn are all leaders of Camp Chaski and are all accepting new athletes for coaching.

Dear Chaski,

I'm primarily an adventure racer, having done a couple dozen 12-24 hour events. They are usually at a slower pace due to environmental constraints (lack of trails/roads), but also require self-supporting (foraging for water, carrying food).

My question is based on an experience I had last summer. I was doing a 24 hour team adventure race (whole team moves together), and our entire team suffered from minor heat injuries partly due to dehydration but mostly due to poor fueling—we hadn't considered how much more food we needed in the extreme heat. At the halfway mark some of us were in pretty bad shape—slurring words, hands cramped closed, poor judgement, etc.

I was one of two on the team who was still able to make sound decisions, and we spent about 30 minutes force feeding the rest of our team until their altered mental status subsided and they were able to start feeding themselves. Everyone on the team was able to finish the race once we adjusted our fueling strategy (we ended up doubling our food intake).

That leads me to my question: What is the best way to fuel if you find yourself in some kind of deficit during a race, i.e. you've realized that you are way behind on water, electrolytes, or food? Playing catchup is a lot harder than staying ahead of nutrition needs, and it's one of those situations where being unprepared can end in a really bad day.


A tired and hungry adventure runner

Kris Brown:

I think that your first move is to inject additional calories into your plan without otherwise modifying it. As in, if your plan was 300 calories per hour and 6 hours into the race you hit an energy low despite having adhered to that plan, I think you should take an extra 100-200 calories and then resume the plan. You should probably expect to run into the same problem down the road, but sometimes you just need a quick extra boost.

The second move is to do the same thing -- add an extra gel off-schedule -- but then modify the schedule to include more fuel, like bumping from 300 to 400 calories per hour for the remainder of the race. After all, you got behind on nutrition because you were running at a deficit, so it makes sense that the fueling rate ought to be increased.

In both of these cases I think it's important to emphasize that you should be thinking medium to long term as you try to fix the situation. Bonks are to be expected, and it's best not to react to them with desperate binge-eating when it's possible that a quick fix will get you back on track. That said, it's also tough to wait the 20-30 minutes it will take for that gel to take effect when you feel like shit and there's a possibility that it won't be enough. But still. No need to panic, most of the time.

But then there are situations like the one described by the commenter that require a slightly more drastic intervention. At that point I think the best response is to prioritize eating over running for a while until the situation seems less dangerous. Stop running, maybe even stop moving. Eat a bunch. Keep in mind, though, that if you eat a big gutload of food your body is going to take longer to digest it , so if you can, try to eat a medium portion. Don't flood the engine, so to speak. Maybe eat one PBJ. Or like 3 gels. Not a triple cheeseburger. You want something that will hit you quickly enough to improve the situation ASAP, then you can eat a bunch more to try to fix the problem.  This is the same principle behind why we have a recovery shake immediately after a run, not a giant burrito. So in all of these cases, I think it's best to try to be patient and a bit conservative.

It's worth mentioning that as you increase and decrease your fueling to match your effort, you need to try to balance calories, water, and electrolytes. Hyponatremia is probably the most imminently dangerous form of depletion, so I think if you're having some ambiguous but severe-seeming symptoms (there are good descriptions of the difference in presentation between dehydration and hyponatremia that all runners should study, but let's face it, many of us probably couldn't tell the difference in the field), the biggest thing to avoid would be chugging a bunch of water. Use your brain, though. If you've been drinking water with electrolyte tabs all day, you may have reason to believe your problem is not salt depletion.

So, the short version. If the problem seems minor, slowly inject some more calories and be patient with starting to feel better. If the problem is severe, de-prioritize running and fix yourself before you try to get back to racing.

Carolyn Stocker (R.D., C.S.C.S.)

This is a very challenging question as everyone is so different when it comes to fueling for ultras.  What will work for one person will not work for another.  I have worked with ultra athletes who can eat donuts and pizza during a race and others who can't even tolerate liquid nutrition (Tailwind, Maurten, etc.).

The first question I have is how long of an event was this person from Reddit referring to? 12 hours is very different from 24 hours in regards to fueling.   Also, can't emphasize enough Kris's comments on hyponatremia, this happens more often than we probably realize!

Cal Neff

Having done a few adventure races and recently playing with some longer but slower distances this type of fueling is very different from what we are used to from a racing nutrition perspective where we typically focus on purely carbohydrate intake. In these cases it’s imperative to move to a complete macronutrient diet including fats and proteins to avoid the issues that team faced, or worse (rabdo etc.).

Gels would not be a very efficient fuel simply from there weight/space to calorie ratio for packing and hauling. Larger pouches of nut butter, “energy balls”, meal replacement powders, bars, etc would be a better option in my opinion. Drop locations should have larger meals similar to what we are used to at 100mi aid stations. The longer adventure races are more like fast packing than ultra running, better way to think of it.

Pete, whatcha got in the stroller?

From a gut training perspective I can say that parenting has made me a better ultra runner and given me an iron stomach - eating dinner with the family and then heading out for runs is the norm and sure helps for those longer races! So this team needs to practice this type of fueling would be my other suggestion, like triathletes they likely practice one sport over a single session at a time during the work/family week but need to be creative (like post-dinner) in their training.

Pete Kostelnick

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone nail nutrition on the first try of something like 100 mile ultras (meanwhile, I see the same seasoned geezers nail it every single time they’re out there). I think your body has to get used to the idea of digesting 300+ calories per hour nonstop. It took me probably 5-6 attempts at 100+ mile races before I stopped hitting a stomach wall at 60-70 miles where my stomach says “I’m done”. I also think part of it was not enough electrolytes, which I think most middle and back of the pack runners are not getting enough of.

I think protein is overlooked too often. I still struggle with how much is right, and maybe there isn’t a right answer and depends on the runner, but carbs only for 12+ hours will have you circling the drain pretty quick. There are a lot of typical race fuels out there that are great, but typically don’t consider (or care about) a niche amount of people going all day.

I usually do eat “real meals” like a sandwich, burger, or wrap, and usually try to time eating those things strategically, like during a long climb where I can just power walk, let the stomach take over digesting the food, and remind myself not to worry about getting passed. It’s also a good way to relax mentally for a bit and reset. You gotta spend energy to make energy!

Carolyn Stocker, RD, CSCS

Absolutely love your input Calum about gut training.  This is very true and I have found what works for some athletes is them training their gut the week or two up to their event with the nutrition they are planning to use (gels, bloks, liquids, etc.).  I also always emphasize the "use it or lose it" idea.  When you don't use your gut with a variety of fuel sources (especially solid foods), your gut will shut down and that's when you can run into problems.  Feed Zone Portables Cookbook has some great recipes for food to fuel with while exercising.  

For the science nerds out there, I have also attached a couple articles [Here and Here] in regards to gut training in athletes and the gut microbiome.  The Gut Microbiome paper was just published a month ago and haven't had a chance to dive fully into the paper yet.  The second article is written by one of the leading researchers in this area (Jeukendrup) and discusses how athletes can train the gut to influence gastric motility and gastric emptying.

To follow up on Pete's point about protein, during long races/adventures the goal would be to consume about 20g of protein every 3 hours.  20g is the magic number to start muscle protein synthesis to decrease muscle damage.  Fat is often overlooked too and keeping in mind fat provides double the amount of energy as carbohydrates, is more palatable for most, and is usually salty which could help with fluid balance (jerky, cheese, olives, potato chips)

I was also further brainstorming ideas in what I would tell someone who needs to play catch up.  Of course, I would hope an athlete never gets to that point by following a proper nutrition plan, but there is promising research (but inconclusive) on MCT oil and BCAAs in regards to getting out of a slump.

Also, caffeine in the later stages of a race may give an athlete an extra boost especially, if they monitor/limit what they are consuming in the earlier parts of the race. Research in runners is limited because most is done on cyclists or triathletes.  

I could go on and on about this as there are so many components to consider and think about!

— Carolyn Stocker
— Pete Kostelncik
— Kris Brown
— Cal Neff

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