“Eat Like a Horse, Drink Like a Fish…” | June 16, 2009
One of the big changes you’ll have to make when you step up to ultrarunning from the shorter distances will be your eating and drinking. Forget about polishing off a Big Gulp at the end of your workout and thinking that’s all the drinking you need to do. Ultras require drinking from start to finish and a lot of it, which means packing the water or sports drink with you. Also forget being all finicky about not eating before you run. Ultrarunners eat before a run, during the run, and after the run. If you don’t eat enough, something else you can forget about is having enough energy to finish an ultra feeling strong.
Staying well hydrated is a fundamental in ultrarunning. Dehydration is not your friend. It degrades performance, causes weakness and nausea, and invites more serious conditions such as heat exhaustion. At a strenuous event like the Western States 100, it’s considered the number one cause for failure. Generally you should be drinking from one to two 20 ounce bottles (standard size handheld bottle) every hour to replace the fluids you are losing through sweat. Many factors, however, will influence how much is necessary for a particular individual on a particular day. The temperature, the humidity, the difficulty of the course, your pace, and your own sweat rate will all affect how much you need to drink.
Thirst is not a reliable gauge. By the time you’re thirsty, you’ll be behind your body’s requirements for fluid. The urge to pee every couple of hours and a good, clear stream signal adequate hydration. Lack of peeing or a thick yellow stream should prompt you to boost your fluid intake. Significant weight loss (from 2 to 5% of starting weight; 3 to 7 pounds for a runner weighing 150 lbs.) is another indicator of dehydration. There are weigh stations at some ultras where runners are filtered out and made to tank up before continuing or pulled from the race altogether if their weight loss is too dramatic.
Sports drinks can supply you with the fluids you need and also provide electrolytes and a significant load of calories, although some runners find drinking only sports drinks is too much. A common practice is to switch between plain water and sports drink throughout a race, or take the sports drink and dilute it down. Try the various brands of sports drinks to find one that you can drink with no stomach distress. Some runners prefer one particular sports drink so much they will bring along the powder and mix their own drink at aid stations rather than settle for what is being offered. Replacing lost electrolytes and salt is critical during any long effort. Using an electrolyte replacement fluid and choosing salty foods is one way to combat the loss, but many runners use salt tabs or electrolyte tabs in addition to the other methods to be sure they are not falling short.
Drinking can become very disagreeable in later stages of big races. On a hot day, the water can get warm and unpleasant. Your stomach can go south making you feel like you are just compounding the problem by adding more to your already distressed GI tract. After twenty hours of constantly drinking, you may just lose the will to keep it up. But in fact, these are the very circumstances in which you need to maintain the discipline and force yourself to drink. The alternative is to follow a downward spiral to dehydration.
As you use your long training runs to practice the art of drinking continuously, you can try out the three basic hydration systems: handheld bottles, waist pack, or backpack-type hydration pack. Each method has its champions and detractors. Handheld bottles, used with a “fast draw” strap of some kind to make them easier to carry, seem to promote steady drinking since they’re so handy, but some runners don’t like having their hands tied up. The waist pack with a bladder or with a couple of pouches for bottles frees up the hands, but runners struggle with the bounce at their hips that can be hard to fix. A hydration pack gets the weight off the hips and onto the shoulders and is a great way to carry enough water for long training runs with no water sources, but in a race, the pack can be more time-consuming to get on and off and refill. A clear trend in races is to see the frontrunners mostly using handheld bottles for quick refills at aid stations and the hydration packs appearing on the midfield runners. Manufacturers are coming up with new designs for all three systems at a rapid clip, so you’ll have lots of options to explore.
It is a given that during an ultra race or a long training run, you are going to need to replace at least part of the calories you are burning if you want to have any energy at all for the later stages of the run. The question is what form those calories are gong to take. There are sports drinks, energy gels, energy bars, and of course the whole range of “real” or solid foods, such as, sandwiches, granola mixes, fruits, peanut bars, candy bars, bagels, soups, crackers, cookies, chips, baked potatoes, cheese, and on and on. Some runners find it hard to deal with any solid foods at all and rely on the carbohydrate laden sports drinks and gels. More common, though, is the practice of getting part of the calories from the sports drinks and gels and part from a variety of solid foods. As with so many aspects of ultrarunning, each runner needs to find out what works best for him or herself by experimenting with the foods, gels, and drinks under a variety of conditions.
Try to determine your preferences during your training runs. You are looking for energy products and foods that agree with you and still seem appetizing during the most strenuous segments of your workout; for example, when the sun is at its hottest or when you are several hours into a hard run. Sample the different energy gels at about one packet per hour. Take along different types of sandwiches, such as, turkey, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly. Try different energy bars. Load a cooler up with fruit, yogurt, tapioca, sandwiches, bagels, and any of your own favorite items and plan a long run that loops back to your car several times so you can tryout a variety of foods. Carbohydrate rich foods should make up a good proportion of the foods you eat, but some fat and protein (peanut butter, hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese, yogurt, ice cream) are also necessary especially in a very long event like a hundred miler.
You should also try eating a substantial breakfast just before a morning run or have a hamburger or hotdog half way through a lunchtime run. It will get you used to the feeling of running on a full stomach and give your body some experience in dealing with the food and exertion simultaneously. After all this experimenting, you should get to your race with a good idea of what drinks, gels, tablets, and foods work best for you. By bringing those things along, or selecting them from what is offered at the race, you can stick with things that have proven effective for you. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if a hard effort at a race uncovers some chinks in your armor.
If you do run into stomach distress, there are several things you can try to fix the problem. Slow your pace to lower the general stress on your system. Make sure you are drinking adequately and that your salt and electrolyte intake is sufficient. Electrolyte tabs will sometimes help with nausea. An antacid product could help, or some runners find ginger will ease stomach problems. Try some solid food if you haven’t been eating much, or try some soup which is often offered at later stages of longer events. Finally if you actually do get to the point that you throw up, take heart. Most runners claim the fresh start does them a world of good. Just be sure to keep up the eating and drinking afterwards as you will need to replace what you lost.
The process of learning what you need to eat and drink during an ultra can be lengthy and fraught with hits and misses. But exploring how your body reacts to different things when you’re under pressure is just the sort of self-discovery adventure that makes ultrarunning so intriguing.