One of the most common topics of concern from athletes doing long distance events is nutrition. Athletes constantly come to me asking questions about what to eat, what to drink, and how much to eat and drink. Let’s start to answer some of those questions.
The most important part of a complete training and racing nutrition plan is actually the hydration. Water. A lot of people skip over that and go straight to the latest and greatest bars, gels, gummies, or whatever else is out there. Water! Water by itself, or water in a sports drink. It has been shown that your central nervous system actually fatigues before your muscles fatigue. That means that your brain sending a message to your legs telling them to run breaks down before the muscles in your legs are actually tired. Proper hydration allows the signals in your CNS to continue to function. For more on hydration, check out this article on sweat rates to figure out how much you need to be drinking.
The second piece of a complete nutrition plan for training and racing is calories. Calories provide the energy that your body burns for fuel during exercise. During an endurance event, your body primarily relies on fat for fuel. This fat is already stored on your body – and yes, even the leanest endurance athletes have fat to burn. In order to access those fat stores, your body first needs to have some carbohydrates (stored in your muscles as glycogen) to burn. What that means for you is that you need to eat a little bit of food during exercise that is entirely made of carbohydrates and that will allow your body to burn its fat stores for the rest of the energy it needs. If you’re getting into ultra-distances, you can also add a little protein to that (5-10%).
For more on the differences between fats and carbs as well as protein – the third macronutrient – check out this article.
How many calories to eat
The number of calories to shoot for is dependent on your body weight. Smaller athletes need to consume fewer calories and bigger athletes need to consume more. Also, ultra-distance athletes can try increasing their consumption. Follow these guidelines.
Most race distances:
1.3 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.
1.8 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.
Once you get these numbers for your weight, compare that to the number of calories you’re burning per hour during exercise. Most people can find that pretty easily by using any of the many workout trackers that are out there. Make sure that the number you’re targeting to eat is less than half of the total number of calories that you’re burning. If you’re on the slower side, you may be able to cut back on the number of calories these equations predict.
What to eat
What to eat is an extremely personal question. I say that because what your stomach can tolerate is different than what my stomach can tolerate and is different than what your friend’s stomach can tolerate. As long as you follow the guidelines above in terms of carbohydrates and the number of calories, the rest is up to you when it comes to what to eat. In fact, Sarah often jokes with me that she’s going to try eating Nerds on her long runs. I don’t think she’s actually tried it yet, but at a basic level Nerds are really not that different than some of the sports drinks out there. You can probably pick something a little better than Nerds, but you get the idea.
Also keep in mind that I say this as an athlete and coach with no affiliation to any sports products. I don’t have any sponsors whose products I’ve agreed to promote and I don’t sell any products myself. There are a lot of sale reps out there that will tell you their product is the best for you and have a lot of reasons why. Try their samples, try some other samples, and figure out what works for you. The key is to find something your stomach tolerates and also tastes good to you.
Modifying the Plan for the Conditions
Fast forward to race day. You’ve been training and practicing with the nutrition plan and things are going great. Now you find yourself on race day and it’s 20 degrees hotter than what you’re used to, what do you do? This is the most common scenario that I see with endurance and ultra-endurance athletes. Especially for those of you doing Ironman, it’s going to be hot by the time you start that run. What do you do?
The most important thing is to drink more water (and more sodium in proportion). In extreme heat, you’re going to be sweating more and you need to stay hydrated.
You do NOT need to eat more calories. There is a limit to the rate that your body can metabolize calories. Do not eat more calories than what we already planned on. In fact, if it’s so hot that you find yourself slowing down and slowing down significantly to the point where you’re walking on the run, you can cut back on the number of calories you’re eating. At that slower pace, you’re burning fewer calories so you can cut back on your intake as well.
The final thing that I want to say about a nutrition plan is that all of this data and all these calculations gives us a starting point. It’s important that you find this starting point and then start experimenting with it during your longer workouts. What works, what doesn’t work? What changes can you make? Listen to your body and watch for the signals that it’s sending you and you’ll be ready for race day!