Running requires fuel and nutrition holds the key to optimal performance during training runs and on race day. We all want to know the formula that contains the perfect amount of fuel for protracted energy levels to keep us running strong. More importantly, we want to avoid gastrointestinal problems, feelings of lethargy, and the dreaded bonk all caused by overeating or consuming the wrong type of fuel for our bodies.
Whether you’re a beginner runner, advanced or elite, nutrition is one of the most vital ingredients to a successful race or workout. Since I’m not a nutritionist or expert on the subject, I’ve pulled two of my good ultra running friends to help co-write this article. Both April and Mel Boultbee have run countless marathons and ultramarathons and are very well known in Toronto’s running community. I can attest that they are experts in the field of nutrition from years of practical application. We’ve compiled some of our top tips on how to fuel before races, during races, training, and then finishing off this guide with a list of some of our favourite foods and supplements. Let’s get started.
Fuelling for Race Types
There is no one size fits all solution to what to put in your body to fuel various runs, however carbs are the scientifically proven go-to. For pre-race nutrition, depending on the race duration, a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates are always a good choice. When it comes to fuelling during races (half marathons and marathons), an easy source for carbs taken within 10-30 minute intervals is typically recommended.
The exact foods you choose to fuel your runs are up to you. The answer is to trial and error different food combinations for yourself to see how your body reacts to various fuel sources. April and Mel both advise the importance of practicing your nutrition in training. April writes, “get your gut used to eating and figure out what works for you. You want to avoid Gastrointestinal (GI) stress during your race so figure out your nutrition and get your body used to the foods/supplements before your race. For shorter distances/time, it’s all about your pre-race nutrition. As long as your glycogen stores are full, you typically don’t need to consume any additional carbs until about 75 – 90 minutes into the race”.
For shorter distances (anything under 10k), I can usually get away with running fasted and prefer this method. However, if I’m on a cut and have been in a calorie deficit for a few days, I’ll need the calories and will usually just stick to a lighter snack pre-race. My go-to is an apple or pear with almond butter and a scoop of whey isolate in water taken 45 minutes to 1 hour before the race. If I decide to run fasted, I’ll drink coffee with almond milk and a 1 scoop of BCAA pre-workout. For the most part, this will get me through the race with no fatigue or hunger pangs.
As aforementioned, April suggests that nutrition is dependent on how long the run will take to complete. “For me, I won’t take any nutrition during this length of race; it’s all about the pre-race food. Depending on the weather of a 10K race, I might take water during the race.” Mel is in a similar boat, “No special nutrition is needed for this (including gels/chews along the course). Just eat breakfast before you go and drink water along the course if you’re thirsty”.
If you’re running a half marathon (21.1 kilometres/ 13.1 miles), a nutrition plan during the race is definitely needed. Even if you top off your glycogen stores 100% by carb loading prior to the race, you are going to lose some of that muscle glycogen and need to fuel up. April’s plan is simple, “I take one or two Endurance Tap gels.” Mel recommends, “1-2 gels of your choice. Enjoy the sport drink the race offers for the extra calories if you don’t want to carry all your gels with you. Make sure to drink water at the aid stations”.
For me, I typically take two gels; one around the 10 kilometre point and the second between 15-18 kilometres to get me through the final stretch of the race.
Fuelling for a marathon is similar to a half marathon, but because the distance is longer, you need to fuel more in order to keep those glycogen stores full. Mel and April both stick to their favourite all natural gel, Endurance Tap made from only three ingredients: maple syrup, ginger, and Himalayan salt. April takes one every 5 kilometres and Mel takes one every 30-45 minutes.
For me, I always take a piece of fruit if offered along the course (banana or oranges are the norm). I typically carry two gels and one packet of Cliff Energy Chews during the race. I eat a carb heavy breakfast, which typically carries me through until the 10 kilometre point and will then take a gel or piece of fruit (if offered at the aid station). After the 10k mark, I follow a similar strategy to April’s and will consume a gel every 5 kilometres or so. From 32-40k I’ll typically consume 3-4 energy gels to get me through the remainder of the course.
It’s also important to look up the course and water/aid stations prior to the race. Most races will outline what nutrition will be available along the course and at what mileage point. Don’t assume that all races will provide nutrition. In my earlier marathon days, I relied on gels provided by the race, but only received a ¼ of a banana 10 kilometres in. It was a really hot day, and albeit Gatorade was provided at most aid stations, by the end I was in too severe of a calorie deficit, felt light headed and like I was going to faint. I felt sick for hours after the race and learned an important lesson; make sure to come to these races prepared. Eating breakfast alone will not be sufficient.
Ultra Marathon (50-100k)
Fuelling for a marathon is one thing, but when it comes to ultra running, this is an entirely different game where nutrition needs to be taken very seriously. As Runner World in their article Fueling Properly for an Ultra puts it, “ultra running is a calorie-deficit sport. An average runner can only absorb about one gram of [carbs] per minute and about 240 calories per hour, while simultaneously burning around 100 calories per mile.”
To avoid the dreaded “bonk” and to run for hours on end, fuelling consistently is key to feeling good and finishing the race. Mel suggests aiming for 100 calories every 30 minutes. However, some people need more and some can get away with less, but you want to aim for a steady influx of calories. “Don’t go too long without consuming calories; this can be in the form of gels, bars, or liquid nutrition (ie. Tailwind or Maurten 320). See if there is something quick to grab at an aid station and take it to go. Walk and eat then keep running.” The slower you go, the easier it will be to digest food so follow Mel’s advice and keep it to a walk or very slow jog when eating solid foods that require more energy for the body to digest.
Most gels are around ~100 calories or so, which makes it easy to consistently take back the calories. From personal experience, however, I would recommend some solid food at aid stations. My go-to for my first 50-miler was fruit (bananas, watermelon, oranges), and ¼ pieces of peanut butter sandwiches. Some aid stations are equipped with soup, energy bites, burritos, trail mix, candy, coke, etc. If you have a sensitive stomach and are nervous about relying on what’s at each aid station, prepare a snack or meal in advance and leave it in one of your drop bags.
Another important supplement that some amateur ultra runners overlook (myself included) is the need for salt especially in hot temperatures where sodium loss in the body can occur rapidly. There are a lot of factors to consider when determining how much salt to take and how often, including weather, age, gender, weight, etc. Most aid stations will be equipped with salty foods (chips, salted peanuts, etc.), but it’s still highly recommended to carry your own salt tablets. It’s also vital to stay hydrated during long endurance events, but be careful not to overhydrate. Mel advises, “Drink to thirst and do not over consume water.” Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia (EAH) is an extreme case of overhydration, which can at the very worst lead to seizures, coma, and death. Ultra Running Magazine in their article The Basics On Hyponatremia writes, “Salt intake during exercise periods of 12 hours or less is probably unnecessary to avoid EAH, but it may be valuable during longer periods of exercise. In particular, if your weight is down at least 2-3%, some sodium intake is probably not a concern and may have some value in stimulating thirst. However, if your weight has increased or is stable, then sodium and fluid intake should be discontinued until fluid balance is corrected.” It’s important to note that some people do well with salt pill supplementation and others are okay with just consuming salty foods from aid stations. “Find what works for you and practice in training”, writes April.
Ultra Marathon (100 Miles)
For ultra races that are 100 miles or more, nutrition is vital. This distance can cause a lot of GI issues with runners which can lead to a big DNF (Did Not Finish). In Mel’s words, “For races like 100 miles, there may be long stretches between aid stations in which case you need to carry some nutrition yourself in the form of gels, bars or any other foods you have trained yourself to eat on the run.”
Mel has run some of the world’s hardest ultra marathons including the Fat Dog 120 Miler in the Cascade Mountains, Javelina Jundred in an Arizona desert, and the Haliburton 100 Forest Trail Race, among several others and has experienced both high energy levels throughout the race and on the adverse, severe GI issues that have made it nearly impossible to finish.
She recommends eating at a regular rate throughout the race. “It can be easy to forget to eat regularly because you are admiring the views, chatting with other runners, pushing hard up a hill or navigating a technical trail. I check my watch frequently during races and it’s mainly to keep track of my nutritional needs. Some runners even put an alert on their watches to remind themselves that it is time to eat. So eat every 30-45 minutes; consume a gel, part of a bar, whatever. For me, I always carry a baggie of Sour Patch kids because it provides a nice sugar hit (plus I love the amazing taste that makes me relive my childhood).“
Another consideration almost no one thinks about is palate fatigue. Mel writes, “In ultras, you may think you love your gel and plan to eat nothing but that gel the entire race, but then at some point you end up hating the taste and the thought of eating it makes you cringe. Try different types of fuel during your training and pack a variation of foods (either carry them on you) or in your drop bags. I know my stomach can tolerate a few different types of foods: Endurance tap, Sips of Maurten, Sour Patch Kids… repeat. Then I supplement with my tried and true favourites at the aid stations.”
For my first 50-miler and 100-miler, consuming gels, chews or bars between aid stations, then grabbing whole foods at the aid stations worked well for me. My go-to was PB&J sandwiches on white bread (I pounded back +12 of these on my 100-miler), fruit (bananas, oranges), energy balls, and towards the end, trail mix with M&M’s tasted heavenly.
Fuelling for Different Types Training Runs
Long Training Runs
April recommends eating breakfast then taking about 100 calories around 45 minutes and every 30 minutes after that. This is the time to practice different nutrition strategies to see what works best for you.
Most of Mel’s morning runs are done fasted. “I usually just drink some water before heading out. If they aren’t super intense or long, you can easily run in a fasted state.” For me, I like to drink coffee with some almond milk (not entirely fasted) with a scoop of BCAAs that also contain some caffeine. I find the BCAAs suppress my appetite.
For High Intensity Interval Training, a combination of simple and complex carbs 30 mins – 1 hour before the workout is recommended. For HIIT workouts, post-workout nutrition is even more important. Particularly during an intense HIIT training sessions, you’ll need to replenish those glycogen stores sooner than later. A meal with protein and complex carbs 30 minutes after the workout is a great choice. I’m not starving right after a workout so I need to wait about 45 minutes afterwards to eat.
Pre-Race Nutrition + What to Eat on Race Day
Proper day nutrition is crucial to a successful race, but what you ingest the night prior to a race can be often overlooked. Many runners have heard of the term Carb Loading, but it’s important to not overdo it the night before your race. Mel suggests, “Carb load a day or two before race day and just incorporate more carbohydrates at breakfast and lunch. Don’t overeat the night before or you may have a very unpleasant outcome during the race”. April agrees, “No need to go super crazy cramming in carbs. Just make carbs more of your daily intake (ie. 60% – 80%).”
Carb loading is a strategy to experiment with, but a word of caution from my own experience. Don’t eat too much too close to bedtime. This is completely dependent on the person, but for me, I need to give my body time to fully digest so I can have a few solid bowel movements pre-race. I usually stop eating around 7:30-8:00pm (latest) and will adjust my times based on the race start time. April recommends sticking to simple carbs (pasta, rice, gnocchi – my personal fave), and to avoid spicy and fibrous foods. No one wants the very unpleasant surprise of diarrhea on race day.
Race Day Routines (April’s, Mel’s, Emily’s)
April – My breakfast consists of two pieces of whole wheat toast or a bagel with PB & J, one banana, and two cups of coffee (to get the bowels moving). I eat at least 2-3 hours before the race so I have time to digest, pee, poo, etc. Before the race, I also top up my glycogen stores with a gel or sports drink.
Mel – Depending on how far away I am from the race start, I typically wake up 90 -120 minutes before the race start time. I eat breakfast a couple of hours before the race which usually consists of 1-2 cups of coffee, a bagel or two slices of toast with PB and banana. Simple, easy to digest foods that sit well with me. I load up my pack, put on my clothes, and continue sipping on water prior to the start. If I have a long transport time to the race start area, I will eat another banana or bar ~ 30 minutes before the race starts. The routine wouldn’t be complete without multiple washroom visits.
Emily – I’m going to mention my routine the night before because I find it just as important as race day. I’m a creature of habit (and slightly superstitious) so I stick to the same meal time and time again no matter the distance. A bowl of gnocchi with tomato sauce and ground chicken. For dessert, I have a jumbo size chocolate bar or a bag of some sort of chocolate bar “minis”. I lay out my clothes, race bib, and if I’m running an ultra, a last minute to bring list to make sure I don’t forget anything upon leaving (ie. for summer races, I leave early AM when it’s still dark out so I sometimes forget to put sunscreen on). On race day, I wake up at least 1.5 hours before I need to head out the door. I drink coffee almost immediately upon waking up to get the bowel movements going (I’m always successful). After the first cup goes down, I have a quick 5 minute body shower to wake my ass up, and make a bowl of oatmeal that consists of 1/2-3/4 cup of oats (depending on my hunger level), 1 scoop protein powder (Vega is my preference), 12 almonds, 1/2 cup mixed berries, and almond milk. About 30 minutes before I leave, I have 1/2 bottle of G2.
Our Favourite Foods + Supplements (Race Day + Training)
- Endurance Tap
- Gu Roctane pills (salt pills)
- Maurten 320 fuel mix
- Justin’s Nut butter
- From the aid stations: potatoes and salt, PB & J, Coke, perogies, pizza, watermelon, oranges
- Beyond Yourself Amino IQ BCAA’s/pre-workout (peach rings or banana ice pop flavour)
- GU Roctane Energy Gels
- GU Stroopwaffle
- Protein powders: Beyond Yourself Chocolate Peanut Butter Whey Isolate, Vega Sport Chocolate
- Maurten 320 mix
- Creatine (no brand favourite) – helps build muscle during strength training sessions
- Cliff Energy Chew (Black Cherry for half marathons and marathons)
- Cliff Energy Chews (Salted Watermelon for ultras)
If you take one point out of this article, it’s that you need to practice your nutrition strategy during training and not on race day. With longer distances, your body will be in extreme stress making it a less than ideal time to start experimenting with different foods. Every person is different so what you decide to ingest is completely up to you; you know your body better than anyone else. Experiment and stick with a simple plan that works.