Fueling Tips For Ultramarathons

Zandy Mangold is one of the Chaski Elite Coaches. He is New York City based photojournalist. During his photo assignment documenting the 250km Atacama Crossing race in Chile, Zandy was exposed to the world of ultra-running. He was inspired to start racing and coaching runners and has since helped runners to their first Boston Marathon, 100 mile finishes, 5k PR's, and more.

Paydays. Ultra-runner and transcontinental record-holder Pete Kostelnick chows down on Paydays and other gas station fare such as the ubiquitous breakfast sandwich to fuel his epic cross-continent runs. In cold weather, the two-time Badwater 135 champion can carry the chocolate-covered Paydays and “not have to worry about melting chocolate.” In warmer running temperature he chomps on the original Paydays - which have a melt-resistant coating of nuts on the outside.

(Photo courtesy of Zandy Mangold)

Pete Kostelnick raids a convenience store in California during his record setting TransCon run

When it comes to fueling for an ultramarathon, the choices are truly diverse and results may vary from runner to runner. For instance, Canadian ultrarunner and human rights champion Stephanie Case snarfed a can of whipped cream during the grueling 330km Tor De Geants for quick energy, and Ryan Sandes powered the latter stages of his 2017 Western States victory with a “50/50 Red Bull and water mixture and couple non-dairy shakes.”

While these are uniquely individual choices, the takeaway is that runners’ appetites and fuel choices can vary considerably and the onus is on the individual to figure out what works best. Race experience is key because what works one day may not work the next and during a competition, the runner needs to be comfortable adapting nutrition strategies on the fly.

(Photo courtesy of Zandy Mangold)

Ryan Sandes fuels with a RedBull and water mixture during his 2017 Western States victory

Fueling strategies for a runner can evolve over time depending on one’s ever changing gut biome and health in general. For example, while Sandes relied on gels heavily for over a decade of serious racing, he now consumes more whole foods during races such as sandwiches and fruit.

Individual preferences aside, there are some general rules which apply to most athletes that will facilitate the absorption of food during a race.

  • Always consume some amount of liquid with your calories because all metabolic processes take place in the presence of water, as water enables your small intestines to absorb carbohydrates. Insufficient hydration when fueling can result in gas, bloating, and nausea.

  • A reliable way to tell if you’re hydrated is the pee test - clear to light yellow means sufficient hydration, dark yellow to orange indicates you need to hydrate. Also, the right kind of hydration is critical - especially in hot races - and that means hydrating with electrolytes. Electrolytes, which are lost through sweat and urination, are essential for conducting nervous impulses, contracting muscles, keeping you hydrated and regulating your body's pH levels. Extra electrolytes will be filtered and expelled at no cost to your system, but the cost of not taking enough electrolytes can be deadly. In the most extreme circumstances a sodium imbalance will result in hyponatremia - a potentially fatal condition caused by an imbalance in sodium in the blood.

  • It is easier to digest food when you are working at a lower intensity, thus try to eat while hiking uphill, walking, at aid stations or simply reduce your effort for a few minutes.

  • Allow food to break down as much as possible in your mouth before swallowing as that is where the salivary enzyme amylase begins the breakdown of food starches into usable maltose, for example.

  • Another overlooked factor which directly affects race fueling strategies is the athlete’s acclimatization to the race day climate, especially during hot races. In a hot race, your body attempts to cool itself by moving blood away from the core to its extremities. Moving blood away from your gut limits the amount of food you can digest and runners often experience debilitating nausea when they consume more than their gut can process. The better acclimatized to heat, the less blood is drawn away from your gut and the easier it is to process fuel.

Effective ultra-race fueling requires dedicated and thoughtful experimentation and practice before the actual race. While training won’t ever exactly mimic a race, practice fueling in the conditions that you most likely will encounter on race day. For example, your body will react differently to the same food on a cold day vs a super hot day! Also, take notes on what worked and what did not in order to identify the best fueling strategy. The slowest runner can finish a race with good nutrition, while the fastest runner will be forced to drop with a poor fueling strategy.