It’s difficult to predict how your stomach is going to react late in an ultramarathon. Even the best runners, when pushing their limits and faced with extreme conditions, can have an amazing race go down the toilet in a matter of minutes when their gut rejects calories.
There is a wealth of information on ultrarunning nutrition, what to eat in training and how to consume calories during your race. But not a lot is mentioned about how to practice eating in a way that simulates a race environment and introduces your body to the stresses you’ll be experiencing.
Some of us will never be able to fully overcome bad bellies. It’s another obstacle we must learn to deal with during endurance events. But for the rest of us, perhaps there’s hope. Below are a few ways to practice nutrition during training to better prep your gut for race day.
- Don’t always stop to eat
We often take breaks during long training runs to eat. We’ll stop at scenic overlooks, snap a few photos, and eat a gel or snack while taking it all in. This is fine, and it’s important that we enjoy our time on the trails. Admiring the vistas is a great reward for our efforts. But stopping for several minutes to eat doesn’t best prepare you for eating during a race.
If you’re going after a specific time goal or think you’ll be chasing cutoffs, you won’t have much time to linger around aid stations. Fueling and eating while walking or jogging out of aid stations can shave valuable minutes off your finish time. It’s good to practice eating and drinking on the move to train your stomach to accept calories while your heart rate is likely to be more elevated than when you’re standing still.
In addition, our cognitive skills are not at their peak late in a race. It may sound simple, but it can be challenging taking gels or chews out of your vest or handheld pouch while running at a decent clip, especially on technical trails that demand our full focus. You don’t want to catch a rock while rummaging through your pack or tearing open a wrapper. Practice where you’ll stash your nutrition, as well as eating and drinking on the run.
- Fuel during intense efforts
We put our bodies through tremendous stress during ultramarathons. Even at a low intensity during long endurance events, getting in the necessary calories can become increasingly difficult as the race unfolds.
In a perfect setting, we’d practice eating and drinking at mile 70 or 80 of a training run. But we don’t have that luxury since most of us won’t be (and shouldn’t be) doing training runs even close to that length. So other than during a race, there is really no way to replicate how our bodies will react after running for hours on end.
One training strategy to help prepare for fueling late in a race is practicing eating and drinking during intense efforts, such as trail tempo runs when your body is working hard to keep the pace. It’s important to remember that during the race it’s best to eat while your heart rate is lower, and not while pushing a climb, for example. But practicing eating while you are uncomfortable during a hard training run can help prepare you both mentally and physically for eating late in the race when you may not be feeling so hot.
- Practice with your own aid stations
Even if you are planning to bring your own nutrition, it’s a good idea to at least test out some of the items that will be available at race aid stations. There is always a chance your drop bags will get lost, your crew will miss you or you’ll simply run out of the calories you brought and will need to refuel from aid station offerings.
Research what will be available at the aid stations (listed on most race web sites) and then practice fueling with what they’ll have to offer. A good way to do this is to set up your car as an aid station and do multiple loops or out-and-back long runs that bring you to your car at similar distances as the aid stations will be spread apart. In addition to training with the food and drinks that will be available, this will also help you practice getting in and out aid stations efficiently.
- Eat early, eat often… in training!
We all know that we should eat and drink early and often in races to not fall behind on calories or hydration. But how many of us take in the same number of calories per hour during training runs that we plan to during our race?
This isn’t to critique training methods that increase metabolic efficiency or fat adaption, etc. It’s simply a good idea to use one or two long runs to practice fueling similar to how you plan to eat and drink during your race. You may be able to run 20 miles on a couple of gels and a handheld water bottle, but you’re likely going to need 200-plus calories an hour during your race. Don’t wait until race day to introduce your gut to the caloric intake your body will require.