Let’s face it, nutrition in races can be a bit hit and miss for most people. What worked perfectly in training, can often be thrown out of the window in races due to a variety of reasons. A change in weather seasons, running pace or simply a big unknown can throw most nutrition strategies on the sidelines, resulting in probably the biggest cause for a DNF – a stomach that can’t hold anything down. We’ve all been there I’m sure, so based on my ten years of running ultras and trying to get this right, here are five simple tips for trying to avoid that issue.
As usual, the following article comes with a health warning in that any change in diet you undertake should be accessed by a health professional before you do it. I am not a health professional, and the following tips/insights are based on my own nutrition experience having consulted with a variety of health professional prior who understand ultra running.
1.) Keep the race pace in check
Although we probably don’t like to admit it at the time, race pace is often a big contributor to nutrition strategies falling to pieces. Quite often, it’s all too easy to get carried away at the start of a race. You feel great, the legs are in prime condition and before you know it, you’re smacking out 4 min kms on the flat stuff wondering what all the fuss is about.
The stomach is a delicate thing however, and pushing too hard in an ultra while trying to keep down your food will have it in knots. Keep a lid on the pace throughout and if you’ve just eaten, it pays to bring it down a notch even further.
One thing I’ve done with a fair bit of success in racing is to keep food on the run small, but consistent with slightly bigger feeds at the aid stations. However I usually don’t sit on my arse stuffing my face, I’ll eat on the walk, that is grab some food already prepackaged, spending limited time at the checkpoint, before eating and walking for a few minutes. Not only does this mean you keep moving, but you’re walking while eating, making the whole affair considerably more manageable for your stomach – a few minutes walking is better spent than on a chair. That might not work for all I appreciate, as a sudden influx of food could render some stomachs a little worse for wear, but I’ve found it to be a good way to keep moving, while getting a decent feed in at low intensity and giving the stomach a bit of time to digest.
2.) Train the body to need less
A slightly controversial one, but have you ever noticed how some of the leading runners in our sport get away with eating very little during an ultra? It stands to reason that the more you’re eating in a race, the higher the risk of getting an upset stomach.
Now while I’m not advocating starving yourself or ‘bonking’, you can train in a way that means you don’t need to eat huge amounts of food in your race. Some caveats here include some of the really big races and also those with lots of climbing i.e. the body expends more energy, thus does need more food. But for shorter races, even some of the flatter, faster 100km races I’d argue, there’s an opportunity to understand just how much food your body needs to get it through the run. I liken it to the same approach we have with hydration. The thinking used to be that you should be drinking a certain amount of water regardless of what race / training you were doing. Now the advice is to drink to thirst.
With nutrition, it’s a much harder game to play, as there’s a very fine line between eating what you need and not eating enough – the body needs energy, but something I practice in training during my long runs is to use as little food or water as possible. In fact, during the winter when the temperatures are low in the Blue Mountains and on certain runs i.e. faster flatter ones, I’ll be running up to 3-4 hours with no food or water. Quite simply, I know my body can deal with it, while helping it to adjust to not needing as much food as I think it needs.
The big caveat here though is to build up to this type of thing and make sure you have a back up plan i.e. you’re carrying some food and water should you need it. Consider also the type of runner you are in respects of what food you usually eat during a run and build up to this over time – don’t head off into the mountains on a 50km with nothing!
3.) On the flipside, practice your nutrition strategy again and again and again in training
While this point may appear to be highly contradictory to the one above, one of the big reasons aside from race pace that people suffer with upset stomachs is by eating something completely new on race day. Doing this really leaves you race in the lap of the Gods.
In an ideal world, plan out your long runs as if it were your race. If you’re attempting a 100km race with checkpoints spaced out roughly 15-20km apart as most ultras in Australia tend to be, work your long run around this approach. Consider what you’ll be eating and when, if say you’re tackling a 50k long run in the lead up to your race.
A rule most people I know tend to stick by is to eat little and often and for the most part it’s probably in a liquid format like a gel or drink mix. Consider also the amount of ‘energy’ that needs to go into your body on an hourly basis, for example, the bigger you are (like me), the more ‘energy’ you need going in.
Factor in also the type of race and terrain you’re running. Is it fast and flat? Or will you be climbing considerable amounts? If the latter, your body’s going to use up more energy tackling those climbs, therefore more energy needs to go in.
There’s a huge amount of factors to consider prior to any ultra race you’re attempting and each one is going to be different depending not only on your body size and the terrain, but also the weather too. Be it baking hot or freezing cold. While it can often be possible to predict exactly how much food / energy you’re going to need on race day – practicing a variety of strategies during your long runs will pay huge dividends.
4.) Watch the caffeine
Perhaps another controversial one, but a few years ago I stopped having all forms of caffeine during an ultra until perhaps the last hour if I fancied a little pick me up to have a good hard last hour. I’ve also taken any form of caffeinated gels out of the mix too. Why? Because for me, what goes up, must come down. I’m sure some people don’t encounter any issues with caffeine at all, but the basic reality is that caffeine is a drug… it brings you up, but if you don’t keep having it, you’ll come crashing down.
Having removed caffeine from my ultra running race diet, I’ve noticed a massive decrease in the stomach issues I used to encounter. Was it the magic bullet? I’m not sure, but I’m confident it was a contributing factor – but as I say, each to their own. What works for some, might not work for all.
5.) Are all sugars are created equal?
Again, for a lot of people the type of sugar they’re taking in their food / gel is neither here nor there, but for others, it can be the cause of many a problem because they’re simply not aware that a particular sugar type (or volume) could be causing them an issue.
Now, there are many gel manufacturers who will tell you their way is the best. With maltodextrin often the primary carbohydrate in most, some go down the path of using fructose, others will go down the dextrose route. But quite often, it can be the balance/ratio of the sugars that could be causing the issue rather than the sugar itself. (Also see point number one about running pace!).
On a personal level, I’ve used both types of gel (fructose and dextrose) and it pays to look beyond the marketing fluff. Gel manufacturers will try to convince you by quoting various studies to back up their claims and to be honest, it’s difficult to know who to believe. The key is to practice with different types, but also practice at a variety of running paces too. I know for example, while I can stomach fructose for the most part, if I lift the pace, I start getting issues. If you find something that works, stick with it – until you come across an issue of course 🙂
There are many more things to consider with regards to your race day nutrition strategy, but I hope these five simple points help shed some light for those that might be suffering from the dreaded stomach issues!