Saturday, October 2, 2010

Everyday Nutrition considerations for an Ultra Runner

I've not posted on running nutrition before, and as I wolfed down a large slice of cheese cake after my run this evening I thought that now could be the time to talk food.
I’ve joked with people before that the only reason I run the amount I do is so that I can eat what I want, but as I have started taking my running a bit more seriously, that is no longer the case.  You’ve only got to look at the average build of the top 10 finishers of any ultramarathon and they are all lean, single digit body fat percentage types. You could argue that this is inevitable given the training they must do, which is probably true, but at the same time there is clearly an advantage of being lighter when on your feet for 12hours plus.

However, although you may be burning 5000+ calories a day with your normal training regimen, this does not mean that you can get away with eating your normal diet, and then making up the difference with chocolate, bacon, and cheesecake (if only). What you need to consider in your everyday diet is more than just calories.

Running for 10+ hours a week puts an enormous strain on your body’s systems, all of which need different nutrients in the form of Vitamins, Minerals, Proteins, Fats, and numerous other compounds as well as energy to enable them to function properly. The “normal” diets prescribed on every daytime TV show, and newspaper supplement may be fine for the average Joe (or Joan), but as you increase the intensity and volume of the exercises you engage in you will need to do more than just replaced burnt calories.

I’m not going to go into details of what you should eat, because as I have said many times before we are all very different, and you will need to adopt a bit of trial and error to find out what works for you.  The point is that you need to be aware that it’s not just about calories. Think of your body like a car’s engine (by the way I know next to nothing about engines as you are about to see!), it needs more than just petrol. You have to add oil to lubricate it, water to cool it, antifreeze to stop it freezing, and probably lots of other stuff to keep it running efficiently.

Personally I have just changed my everyday diet to help keep my engine running as smoothly as possible, and I am still very much in the experimentation stages.  I have taken to cutting out obvious sources of saturated fats, refined sugars, and anything that is likely to give me blood sugar spikes like coffee and chocolate (doh!). On the plus side I eat plenty of yoghurt (for the calcium and live cultures), oats (low gi and good for reducing cholesterol reabsorption), fruit, nuts and salads (full of vitamins, minerals and loaded with antioxidants) and green tea (again antioxidants and fluids – taste is pretty ordinary, but I’m getting used to it).

I do take a couple of supplements which is a vitamin C tablet in the morning before an early run to get the liver fired up and running, as it’s more practical when you only have 5 minutes before you head out the door.

I also have large dose of fish oil at either end of the day, and a combined Glucosamine and Chondroitin powder for general joint health. No matter how light you are or how efficient your running style is your joints are going to experience a bit of a battering, so you may as well give them as good a chance as possible.  The key thing to keep in mind is that need to provide your body with all the building blocks and energy required to enable it to recover and regenerate properly. I like to have these in the evening before I go to bed, as sleep is the time when your body repairs and regenerates all the damage from the day’s activities, so I want to have all that good stuff there at the right time, rather than it being flushed down the toilet!

The thing for me is that I have increased my training, and I am eating as much as I like (just being a bit more careful about what I eat) and I’ve dropped another 5 pounds. It may not sound much until you think about someone putting that in your backpack before you head off for 24 hours of running!

(That reminds me of a race last year when my support crew put an extra bottle of water in my pack for a long hot section. We forgot to remove it at the next checkpoint, so I carried any extra couple of pounds about 50 miles. It won’t happen again!!)

So just think a little before you tuck into your next meal, and of course you can always have the occasional treat, this sport is meant to be enjoyable. The best place to keep this in mind is at the supermarket. That way you’ll have plenty of the good stuff there at home when you need it.

Happy running!


“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol

Training 30-9-2010 (21.5km Trail)
Training 1-10-2010 (22.6km Trail)
Training 2-10-2010 (26km Trail)


  1. thats my sunday sermon then! totally agree with you and must be more consistent putting it into practice myself.

  2. Great article. A couple of other things which i take include calium magnesium powder. (bioceuticals brand) this helps with muscle tension. I also take deer velvet which is an alternative treatment made from the antlers off deer. This helps with many many things including muscle recovery. Just search deer velvet in google.


  3. Thanks guys, you are like my conscience making me practice what I preach!!

    Thanks for the heads up Clint on the other products, I'll have to look into those. The Calcium/Magnesium seems sensible from a hydration perspective too, especially for a heavy sweater like me.


  4. Good advice.... I actually gained weight and inches during the training for my first ultramarathon. I didn't realize that eating whole bags of oreo cookies and gallons of ice cream could make me gain weight during training.

    I tracked my calories taken in and my calories expended.... you can figure out the rest!

  5. 1 more thing andy add a few drops of lemon juice to your green tea to help u absorb the anti oxidants more effectivly

  6. Thanks Clint, That will make it a bit more palatable, as it still isn't a drink I really enjoy, more tolerate.

    Will give that a go.
    Let me know when you're heading up this way and we can meet up.

  7. It's important to take vitamins before you exercise to get fired up. Nice blog by the way.