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Nutrition for ultra running

by Editor
Friday 29th August 2014
Tags  Emma Barraclough   |   Sports Nutrition   |   SiS   |   Science in Sport
 
 

Nutrition feature: Emma Barraclough, sports nutritionist at SiS (www.scienceinsport.com), gives some advice on nutrition before, during and after an ultra event

Ultra-running demands a very good level of cardiovascular fitness, and there’s certainly no room for not training properly with events lasting several hours or multiple days at a time. However, the correct nutritional strategy can make all the difference to how comfortably you can get through the event and perform to your very best level.

Just like your kit, every nutritional practice that you use for a big event must have been used multiple times in training to ensure that you are comfortable with it, to the point where the timing and use of fuel and fluid becomes second nature. Your ability to think clearly can be limited when struggling with fatigue and sleep deprivation, so you don’t want to have to think too much about your nutrition.  

In the build up to your event it is important that you build up your energy reserves as much as possible. This includes a proper rest and taper period, with acclimatisation if racing at altitude as in the MTMB. You must also employ nutritional strategies to maximise the amount of carbohydrate you store in your body as glycogen.

In the 48 hours before your event starts you need to base all of your meals around cereals, rice, pasta, bread and potatoes. Use carbohydrate snacks in between meals such as dried fruit, cereal bars, rice cakes, etc. to supplement your intake. You can use carbohydrate sports drinks in between meals instead if you’d prefer to avoid too much food bulk.

Making sure that you are well hydrated during this period is also key. You should always aim to have straw-coloured urine as a basic guide. You will lose a large amount of sodium as sweat during the event, so it is also worth considering increasing your intake of sodium the night before. Fluid is also better retained when it is taken with electrolytes, so it is worth considering using hydration tabs as part of your pre-race hydration strategy.

The pre-race breakfast is essential to get right. Whilst you fast overnight your body largely relies on your liver’s store of glycogen to maintain blood glucose levels, and you must replace this prior to the race start so that you have as much stored energy as possible. During your event, you will be able to maximally uptake 60g of carbohydrate per hour. This only equates to 240kcal, which will not meet the amount of calories you will burn as you run (likely to be between 400kcal-800kcal per hour). You therefore need as much glycogen stored as possible to prevent your energy levels dropping and you ultimately hitting the wall.

You should have at least two servings of carbohydrate with your breakfast. This could be two out of cereal, porridge, toast, fruit juice, cereal bars, etc. with at least 500ml of fluid from waking up to the starting the event.

During the event you will be using carbohydrate as your primary fuel source. You need rapidly digesting, high GI carbohydrate to give you fast energy. This could be in the form of energy gels, drinks, bars or food options such as dried fruit, cereal bars, flapjack etc. Sports nutrition products are usually easier to digest as they only contain the elements of food that you actually need. Too much fat or protein will only slow digestion down and make the food sit heavily in your stomach. Isotonic gels are the easiest to digest as they are already balanced with the right amount of water to aid their absorption. Whichever fuel sources you choose you should aim to have around 60g of carbohydrate per hour during the event to maintain your energy levels. Try and avoid simple sugars such as glucose and fructose that carry a higher risk of GI distress.

Your hydration strategy is also very important. You will need between 500-1000ml of fluid per hour. Carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks aid water absorption so they are the ideal choice for your hydration pack.

If you are comfortable with using caffeine it maybe worth taking some for the last few hours of the event when the fatigue levels build. Caffeine lowers your perception of effort allowing you to keep your pace up for longer.

After the race it is crucial to recover properly. Even with a nutritional strategy following the guidelines above you will still have a large energy deficit from racing, as you aren’t able to completely replace all of the calories that you are using on the move.

A recovery drink in the 30 minutes after finishing is the ideal strategy to deliver quickly absorbed carbohydrates to replace your glycogen stores with rapidly digested protein to help repair muscle damage.

Your metabolism remains lifted for at least 30 minutes after you finish, so it is good to make the most of this opportunity to replace some of what you have lost. Drinks are absorbed more quickly than solid foods, and sports nutrition products have all the required elements in the right format for the body to process quickly.

The drink should also contain electrolytes to assist in rehydration. Fluid balance is dependent on the body’s sodium level so you need to make sure you take steps to replace what is lost through sweat over such a long event.

You can absorb 20-25g of protein every 3-4 hours.  Ideally this should be a rapidly digesting one such as soy or whey. By delivering the protein alongside the carbohydrate it is taken up by the muscles much more quickly than it would be on its own.

High glycaemic carbohydrates are important to generate an insulin response. The insulin response to the rise in blood sugar that occurs drives the carbohydrate quickly into the muscles, to replenish the muscles’ glycogen stores. 

Within two hours you should try and have a complete meal. This should contain high GI carbohydrates (such as white rice, potatoes and pasta), lean protein (such as chicken, turkey or fish), and a good variety of vegetables for plenty of antioxidants. Keep rehydrating throughout the rest of the evening and try and avoid alcohol (tempting as it might be once you’ve finished!)

With such a large energy deficit it will be beneficial to take in some protein before bed to try and stop the body breaking down lean muscles mass for energy. Ideally you need a slowly digested protein, such as casein. Casein is found in night-time recovery drinks such as SiS REGO Night and milk. It takes 4-6 hours to be completely absorbed, feeding you gradually through the night.

Such a lengthy endurance event can depress your immune system in the 24-36 hours afterwards, which can leave you prone to picking up coughs and colds. Your immune system relies heavily on your carbohydrate intake for energy, so make sure you continue to include carbohydrate with every meal in the 3-5 days post-race. Keep feeding the body protein every 3-4 hours too to aid in the muscle tissue repair and counteract the effects of the negative energy balance.

Make sure you have at least five different fruit and vegetable servings per day to provide a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals to aid your recovery ready for your next challenge!


Emma Barraclough is a Sports Nutritionist at SiS (www.scienceinsport.com). She has worked with Great Britain Ice Hockey since 2006 and provided nutritional consultancy support to athletes in a range of sports including running, triathlon and rugby. She regularly represents Great Britain as an age group triathlete and has completed six Ironmans.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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