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Saturday, November 13, 2021

Fueling for a 41-hour 'long' run

Long runs are the pillar of training for the marathon and any other long distance race, but fueling them can be tricky. And if your mind is boggled at the thought of fueling a 3-hour run, imagine what’s required for more than a day on your feet?

Beautiful wilds of Spain's Galicia
I’m not a doctor nor a nutritionist but I’ve been around the block in foot races of all distances. Here’s my non-expert experience and some tips on fueling for endurance.

The Marathon

As crazy as it may sound, ultra runners consider the classic road marathon to be a fast race. It is a ‘relatively’ short distance, typically on good terrain, without much elevation gain or loss and the pace is at the high end of our aerobic capacity. Obviously the amount of calories that your body needs to take in depends on what you are burning. Are you jogging? Or running at your aerobic-anaerobic boundary? In general it is recommended that runners need to add in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates each hour that they are running longer than 75 minutes. I find that eating small amounts more frequently, such as every 30 minutes, is a better energy delivery than once an hour, with the added benefit of little or no consequence of GI distress. It is always best to eat whole foods if possible, but I find that when I go out on a 3-hour long run or compete in a road marathon I can get by on processed foods which are light and easy to carry, i.e. gels, isotonic drinks, energy bars, because the duration is short. But you need to be careful as energy bars can range in calorie content from 200 to 400 and in carbs from 30 to 70 grams! I believe that staying on the low side is much less of a risk than the bloated feeling and weight of having too much to digest. My own safe bet is my tried-and-true energy gels during a marathon that provide 100 calories and 22 grams of carbs at kilometers 8, 12, 15 and 18. I drink water at every refreshment station until about the last five kilometers where I may take an isotonic drink depending on how hot it is (how much I’ve sweated and whether or not I have cramps.) Yes, my carb intake during a marathon is below the recommendations, but it works for me. Everyone is slightly different and should test alternatives. 

The Ultra

The ultramarathon is a whole ‘nother ball game. Fueling for a road marathon is like apples and oranges compared to fueling for a 100-kilometer trail run in the mountains. Both require energy that can be used immediately but the latter has more long-term considerations. Chemicals and refined sugars may taste great and have immediate positive effects on performance, but how will they make you feel during that post-sugar-high crash? Or after many hours when your large intestine is trying to remove that garbage from your system? Here is where an effort should be made to eat whole foods as much as possible.

During the recent adventure racing world championships our first leg of the race was a 122-kilometer trek through extremely difficult terrain with 5,800 meters of elevation gain. With freezing temperatures and torrential rain, our team needed over 40 hours to complete it with only about 10 minutes of sleep. And I finished it feeling good. Well, as good as possible considering that I had three more days of MTB, trekking and paddling in front of me. That said, my nutritional plan couldn’t afford to be anything less than spot on. 

Half-way through a 40+ hour trek

This is what I had in my backpack:

Dry-roasted cashews in soy sauce. I roast them on low for over an hour then douse them in soy sauce. An excellent source of protein and salt.

Goodie bag. This is a zip-lock baggie with a self-made mix of my favorites: cashews, almonds, dried mango, dried figs, soy nuts, chocolate-covered espresso beans, Brazil nuts, dried cranberries, dates, raisins, and peanut M&Ms. I keep it in my front pouch and can snack on it constantly.  

A bag of fresh kale. It takes up some space but is light and loaded with vitamins and fiber, which may help to counterbalance those digestion issues with eating too many nuts. 

High-quality vegan energy bars. These provide dense calories eaten a little at a time. 

Potato sticks. During our last expedition race I was craving potato chips. Since they don’t travel well, I decided to go with their cousin the ‘sticks’ but it wasn’t the same. They’ll not be coming on the next one.

I was constantly on the look-out for fruit trees on the sides of the roads and trails. Along the way we were treated to some blackberries, apples and grapes. 

I also had red beet powder to add to my water. I had one banana with me but since they bruise so easily I didn’t take more but our team had a stash of them in our gear boxes for when we reached transition areas.

We each had a freeze-dried meal with us that we could have prepared by boiling water on our small portable cooker. But we never wanted to remain still long enough since it was so cold and wet, so we decided to look forward to that at the transition prior to the bike leg.  

Ok, and of course I had some Twix bars. I’m only human. 

Gear and bike boxes packed and ready at the 2021 Adventure Racing World Championships in Galicia, Spain

Other important considerations over longer events are electrolyte balance and hydration. Significant sweating can cause dehydration and deplete sodium reserves pretty quickly. Potassium, calcium and magnesium are also lost, but when considering that human sweat contains about 150 mg per liter compared to 2,000 mg of sodium, it’s clear that you aren’t going to get very far if you don’t supplement your salt loss. I always have salt tablets on hand to use as necessary and I also used electrolyte tabs in my water, as well as amino acid tablets to accelerate regeneration.

It is wise to eat regularly so that your body uses that immediate supply of fuel and prolongs and/or minimizes the need to tap into your fat stores. Leaving too long between snacks can jinx your system and make it really hard for it start back up again to process that food (think nausea and vomiting; constipation and diarrhea) and recover (mineral balance and optimal function). As we all know, a properly functioning digestive system can be a make-or-break during a race so it’s best to try things out beforehand so that you can reach that finish line still loving the sport enough to want to do it again.

Crossing the finish line at the 2021 Adventure Racing World Championships in Galicia, Spain

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