Getting your fuel intake right before, during and after your training and racing is as important as the event itself. Get it wrong and it can bring all the hard work undone! So we caught up with the master of athlete nutrition, Sophie Brown, to get the lowdown on what can be a challenging subject.
What’s the most common mistake runners make with nutrition?
The most common mistake runners make with nutrition is not practising. To be able to run faster and stronger we know that the physical training (i.e. running) is essential, and we don’t expect to improve over night. It is actually the same for our gut. We need to train our digestive system to be able to take on more fuel whilst running, and give it time to adapt. If you leave it to race day to chug down all the gels and food, chances are you will feel awful. Practise your race nutrition in training runs and build up to an optimal level over weeks, if not months. Even as an experienced ultra-runner I continue to refine and adapt my nutrition strategy depending on the race and conditions and by learning from previous races.
What are the pros and cons of natural Vs synthetic gels and sports drinks?
The pros of natural sports nutrition products or real food is self-explanatory really – there are no added chemicals or added sugars and therefore pose no risk to your health over the long term. The disadvantage of some natural foods is that they may result in GI distress if consumed in larger amounts. For example, honey is natural but it is high in fructose. Large amounts of fructose may not be well tolerated during a run. Trail mix (dried fruit and nuts) is also natural, but high in fat and fibre which could be problematic if consumed in large amounts whilst running. The benefits of processed gels and sports drink are that they typically contain simple sugars without any fats, fibre or protein, making them easy to digest and absorb for fast energy. This might be ideal for shorter, higher intensity events and races.
How do you calculate calorie intake for ultras?
This is not a straight forward answer as there are so many variables person to person and under different race conditions, distance/duration and intensities, but it is interesting to refer to the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position statement as a guide (published December 2019).
150 – 300 kcal per hour for ultra-marathons up to 80 km
200 – 400 kcal per hour for 100-mile races
I use these figures as a starting point to work out each individual’s tolerance level keeping in mind that those who finish races successfully tend to be those with the higher energy intakes.
For shorter ultras e.g. a duration of up to 6-8 hours, the focus is on carbohydrates for fuel, whereas in longer ultras foods will contain more fat and some protein as well. This is mainly due to the runner’s preference for higher fat, salty food options rather than sweetness. Additionally, the intensity is lower over longer distances and so 1) the digestive system is able to tolerate more food, and 2) there is a lower rate of carbohydrate utilisation and higher rate of fat-burning.
My favourite source of energy during a long run is…I have been enjoying the convenience and healthfulness of a ‘real food gel’ in training runs. They are gels made from things like rice, fruit, honey and nuts. Training runs are less-intense than races so the higher fat and fibre is not an issue. For longer runs I will also add a fuel and electrolyte drink.
My ‘go to’ post-race meal is… something with eggs, salmon and veg (could be an omelette for example) with sourdough toast and often a milky drink like a banana smoothie. A chocolate milk is up there for a convenient option if I am unable to eat straight away. The eggs, salmon and dairy all contain high bioavailable protein to help with muscle recovery and repair, and I aim for lots of carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen stores and avoid compromising the immune system.
For newcomers to ultra-running, what your number 1 tip?
Don’t believe everything you hear or read about other athletes and their optimal running ‘diets’, or diets in general for that matter. If you are thinking about changing your diet drastically, speak with a nutrition professional first. As an example, “Keto” and low carbohydrate-high protein diets are all the rage at the moment, but they could actually be more harm than good . Ultra-running brings with it multiple sources of physiological stress (think dehydration, muscle damage, mechanical strain, metabolic stress and immune suppression) and your nutrition can either help to attenuate or exacerbate these. Toying around with carbohydrate restriction, as these diets imply, poses a huge risk for people with high training loads as you can end up training in a chronically depleted state with low energy availability and put your health at risk.