The variety of race nutrition options these days is mind-boggling. From energy gels to isotonic drinks, chews, sports bars and real food, the list seems almost endless. However, experts are largely agreed that a solid ultra-race day plan should include enough carbohydrates, possibly some protein and fat, electrolytes and enough liquids to replace lost sweat.
There are exceptions, though, and some very memorable ones too. When US ultra-running legend, Camille Herron, broke the women’s 24 hour world record at the Desert Solstice in Arizona last month, she hit the “wall” just before dawn. “It felt like I was a zombie, like I was in a trance,” she recalled. However, a double-decker taco and beer from Taco Bell hit the spot, and she motored on to complete an incredible 262.2km before being wheeled off smiling in a wheelchair.
Scott Jurek is also famous for “anything goes” in ultras. This famously clean-eating vegan focuses on whole, plant-based foods in daily life, but has been known to down Red Bull, coke and gels during races and once quipped to Hong Kong runner, Janine Canham, that “people are shocked (and competitors are jealous) that I can eat a burrito at seven- or eight-minute per mile pace”.
Over in Hong Kong, the Trailwalker-winning Gone Running-Joint Dynamics team seemed to nail their nutrition plan. However, there were a few eyebrows raised when Michael Skobierski (from Hong Kong Sports Clinic) asked the support runners for his Austrian sandwich while shuttling along at 4:30/km pace after 95km on the last stage around Tai Lam Reservoir.
He explained, “The typical Austrian sandwich would use a white round roll, but this type of bread is not available in Hong Kong, so we use dark rye bread, two pieces of turkey breast and brie cheese. It has fat, protein and carbohydrates, so a little bit of everything, and it’s a nice change from using sugary gels, which my stomach can’t handle in high quantities. For Trailwalker, which is a long race and lower intensity, it does not lay in the stomach too heavy and is as close to a normal meal as you can get.”
Partner at law firm, Morley Chow Seto, by day, Hong Kong‘s Eric Tang is another ultra-runner who proves that unorthodox foods can be successful. Running UTMB for the fourth time in 2018, he was the second fastest Asian runner (and 59th overall) in 27:25, despite an unconventional race nutrition strategy that included drinking one litre of milk at all the supported checkpoints.
Katia Kucher is the founder of d.BeFit, which provides fitness and nutrition coaching in Hong Kong, as well as being a successful trail runner herself. She recognizes that everyone is different, noting, “It is quite common for ultra-runners to rely on, not only healthy foods, but junk foods for fuelling. Running 50K is about the maximum distance our body can handle “naturally” and, after that, it is mostly mental running! Once our body has had enough glycogen and sugars from gels and sports drinks, we start craving more real food because our body is unbalanced and out of whack.”
After helping many runners with their nutrition planning, Katia has heard it all, including “fried chicken, ice cream, pop tarts, Orea cookies, mayonnaise pizza, and burritos with hot sauce” but she warns that “the percentage of runners who can tolerate this type of diet is very low. It’s not easy for our body to process saturated and trans-fatty acids while we run and these weird junk foods don’t replenish our body with the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that get depleted during ultras.”
The turkey-brie-rye and milk strategies are new for Katia, but both have their plus points. “The Austrian sandwich is actually a good source of carbs, protein and fat, and it’s a sandwich Michael loves and that his body is used to eating. It refuels his body physically and mentally! About Eric’s milk, it is a great refuelling drink – if your body can tolerate the lactose – as it contains protein, fat, calcium, vitamin D and also B12, which is important for a runner’s energy levels to avoid fatigue. But most runners can have gastrointestinal issues with lactose including bloating and gas.”
Her recommendation is to listen to your body and indulge in the occasional craving but to stick with a foundation of “simple carbs, easy to digest foods, fresh and dried fruits, and nuts” for the best results on race day.
– By John Ellis at Gone Running