Nutrition for ultra-distance athletes

Feb 8, 2020

With the growth of ultra-endurance events and extreme sports, many athletes are pushing their bodies to the limit. They train for three to five hours a day to compete for hours on end. Their goals might be to test their limits and try to finish an Ironman triathlon (2.4-mile [3.9 km] swim, 112-mile bike [180 km], and 26.2-mile [42 km] run), a double-century bike ride (200 miles [322 km]), a 100-mile (161 km) mountain run, an English Channel swim (28-plus hours), a trans-Atlantic row (50 to 60 days), an Appalachian Trail hike (2,160 miles [3,476 km]), or any number of other ultradistance events. Clearly, nutrition is a critical factor in being able to finish an event of this type. These athletes put sports nutrition principles to the test! Following these nutrition pointers will give you ultra-energy so you can complete your event successfully:

Long distance runners

Practice your event-day fuelling during training sessions

Your training should include creating and practicing your fuelling strategy so you can learn which foods and fluids settle best during extended exercise. Lemon or cherry sports drink? Gels or “real foods” such as bananas, dried figs, and baked sweet potatoes? Canned liquid meal replacements or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? By having a list of several tried-and-true foods, you need not worry about making the wrong food choice on event day.

Also consider the “taste bud burnout” factor. That is, how many gels per hour can you endure in a triathlon? When hiking, how many days in a row will you enjoy powdered eggs for breakfast? Will you get “sugared-out” on sports drink during the century bike ride? Think about variety, and how you can enjoyably and easily consume enough carbohydrate to fuel your muscles and your brain, and enough protein to repair and protect your muscles.

Optimise your daily training diet

All too often, in the midst of juggling work and school, family and friends, and sleep and training, endurance athletes have little time left to plan menus, shop for food, and prepare well-balanced sports meals, nor do they muster the energy to choose nutritious snacks. Hungry and tired athletes commonly grab cookies, nachos, and other high-fat comfort foods that fill the stomach but leave the muscles unfuelled. You must remember this: You won’t be able to compete at your best unless you can stay healthy and train at your best. That means eating a good sports diet every day.

Your goals are to constantly be fuelling up before workouts and then refuelling afterward by eating carbohydrate-based meals and snacks on a regular schedule. By feeding your body evenly throughout the day (as opposed to skimping on wholesome meals by day and then overindulging in treats at night), you’ll have steady energy all day, without lags. You need to develop an eating strategy that fits your training schedule. One triathlete devised the following routine:

  • He drank 16 ounces (480 ml) of juice (i.e., carbohydrate) before his morning swim. He refuelled afterward while commuting to work by eating a big bagel with peanut butter, a banana, and chocolate milk (in a travel mug).
  • At lunchtime, he ate a hot dinner-type meal from the cafeteria at work.
  • At lunchtime, he bought his afternoon snack, a bran muffin, yogurt, and orange juice.
  • At lunchtime, he also bought his evening meal (a turkey sub and a fruit salad), which he kept in the office refrigerator.

This food plan prevented him from haphazardly resorting to “junk eating” whenever he felt hungry.

Plan rest days

Rest is an essential part of a training program. Because ultradistance athletes commonly feel overwhelmed by their impending tasks, they tend to fill every possible minute with exercise. Bad idea. Rest days are essential not only for reducing the risk of injury and giving muscles time to refuel but also for allowing time to shop for food (and even cook a big pot of stew for the week, if so inclined). Remember, the bad things happen when you train, and the good things happen when you rest.

Take heed: Performance improves more with quality exercise than with an excessive quantity of exercise (i.e., pushing yourself to train longer and longer). Knowing this, one triathlete completed the Hawaii Ironman by

training only once a day, either hard or long. He took one day of complete rest per week. He finished midpack; his competitors were flabbergasted!

Drink enough fluids

Monitor your urine daily. You should urinate frequently (every two to four hours); the urine should be clear and of adequate quantity. Morning urine that is dark and smelly is a bad sign – dehydration. Drink more!

During training, you can estimate your event-day fluid needs by weighing yourself naked before and after an hour of event-pace exercise. For each 0.5 kg of sweat loss, you should plan to drink at least an additional 500 ml of fluid while exercising to prevent that loss.

Develop a defined feeding plan for the event

You should know not only your fluid targets but also your calorie targets. By working with a sports nutritionist or exercise physiologist, you can estimate your energy

needs per hour. Try to replace at least a third or a half, if not more, of the calories burned during the ultra event as tolerated. For example, a cyclist may need to consume 450 calories per hour during an extended ride. This is the equivalent of 1 litre of sports drink and five fig bars, or 1 litre of water and a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Pack snack bags that meet your calorie targets for a half-hour or hour. Eat and drink on a schedule. The goal is to prevent dehydration and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Be flexible and open minded

Although you should have a well-defined eating and drinking program that ensures adequate carbohydrate and fluid intake, you also need to be flexible. After all, your tastes may change during 18 hours of exercise! Your initial approach to consume wholesome fruits, juices, and energy bars may deteriorate into the ever-popular Coke, chocolate bars, and potato chips. Listen to your body’s requests during the event; hopefully, you’ll have the desired fuel available. Many ultradistance athletes crave sweets, and that’s okay. Sugar during exercise does a fine job of delaying fatigue. Your job is to survive the event; your daily training diet will help you thrive healthfully.

Reproduced by permission from N. Clark, Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 6th ed. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2020).

Sports nutrition guidebook

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