Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What to eat on your first 100 miler

I just got an e-mail from a friend who signed up for his first 100 miler. He asked me to give him some pointers on nutrition during the race.

I gave him the short and long answers.

The short answer

Real food, as often and as much as possible.

The long answer

This could go on forever, but I can make it a lot simpler. First, consider what foods you like to eat. What tastes good to you? Comfort foods, things that don't upset your stomach, but have lots of calories and are fairly digestible.

Make a plan

If you have special nutritional needs or food allergies, then you need to factor those into your food choices and remember that you might not be able to rely on the aid stations to provide what you need.

If you will have a crew during a 100 mile race, then you have a lot of options. You can use aid station food if there is enough variety and calories to keep you going, or you can have your crew bring, or even cook things for you. If you're running near a populated area, you might have the additional options of restaurants or fast food.

If you're used to running fueled by bars and gels, it's a different story in a 100 miler. You're going to be out there for 24 hours or more, and in that time you do need some real food.

A race is not the place to be a prima donna. It's where you need fuel, you need it fast, and it needs to work. That means staying down once you eat it. Don't worry about a healthy diet during the race. You can do that on the other 364 days of the year. Just eat what appeals to you, but most of all, eat.

Practice in training runs

If you're not used to eating on the run, you need to practice and test different foods during your training runs, or you'll be in uncharted territory on race day. Figure out a way to run a loop back to your vehicle, or home, and try the different foods you think you'd eat in the race, and see how your stomach tolerates them.

This all takes planning and extra work on your long training runs but it will pay off on race day. Don't neglect this important aspect of your training. Same goes for drinks you might use, electrolyte replacement products, medication, or anything you'll put in your stomach on race day.

Aid station take-out

In a 100 miler you're most likely going to have some walking stretches. What works best for me is to eat a good-sized portion of food- not so much that I'm uncomfortable, but a substantial meal, right before I anticipate having a long walk, like before a long uphill stretch. That way you'll be going slow enough to allow digestion to take place, and if you take the food on the walk with you, you can eat it while moving forward. Sandwiches, burritos, a slice of pizza, or soup in a cup work well for aid station take-out.

Little plastic sandwich bags with zip closures work great for portion-sized foods if you're eating "on the run".

Remember, aid stations are not fast food restaurants, they are staffed by volunteers and often will cook something to order, which takes a little while to prepare. If you can let your crew know ahead of time that you'll want something at an aid station, they can get there ahead of you and get the process started so you won't have to wait so long when you're there. If you're on a short loop course, you can always ask that they have something ready for you on your next pass through. Remember that timing is approximate and you might arrive to cold or not-quite-ready food depending on how fast or slow you're running.

How to eat throughout the day

Before the race, the biggest thing for new runners is getting over their nervous stomach before the race. If you have the jitters you won't feel like eating much, but this is the time you need a lot of calories. I find that eating a big breakfast helps me because I can't go out so fast, and the calories I take in pay off later in the first day of the race. Taking in a few hundred calories spread out throughout the morning can help if you're too nervous before the start to eat much.

Keeping a steady stream of calories going works for some people, eating little snacks along the way. Some people like to eat at the times of their regular meals. Some do both. That's why it's so important to practice this on a long run that lasts all day, or into the night.


At night, a lot of people like to use caffeine to stay awake. Coffee, caffeinated drinks, energy drinks, caffeine-infused snacks, caffeine pills, or whatever works for you. Again, try it in training before you do it in the race. I like to start with a little caffeine in the afternoon of the first day. I drink small amounts of cola or coffee drinks from about 3 pm on, every hour or so, unless I plan to take a nap at some point, where I'll let myself get sleepy enough to do that.

Be careful not to take in too much caffeine, because it can cause problems, for example, heart palpitations. You don't need that much, just enough to keep you from dozing off when you need to be moving forward. If you are unsure of what's in a product, especially energy drinks or pills, be very careful and do your research. Dosing is not tested in many of these products and you could end up causing yourself additional problems. Stick to the things you're familiar with- like coffee, cola drinks, or whatever you normally have if you're a caffeine user.

It's important to continue taking in calories at night, even though we're not used to eating during those hours. You might not feel hungry, but if you start to slow down, or feel tired, there's a good chance it's because your blood sugar is low and you need more calories.

Remember to stay hydrated at night even if you're not thirsty. Drinking caffeine drinks can cause you to lose more fluid, so replace fluid losses.

Don't forget

The most common reason for feeling poorly in an ultra, if you're adequately trained, is running out of fuel. Eating a few hundred calories with some carbohydrates will perk you up within 15 to 30 minutes. Keep moving forward, and eat. That's why it's important for a new ultrarunner to have a pacer at night, someone to keep an eye on you and recognize when you're starting to bonk. They are your brain when your brain shuts down, they can remind you to eat and drink and keep the calories going.

If you're running when it's cold outside, or at night, staying warm will help you conserve your energy. Wear adequate clothing, don't let yourself get chilled. It's easy to get cold when you've burned up all your energy all day. A little warm food or some hot drinks will help you warm up, but don't stay in the heated tent or aid station too long, keep moving!

And most important of all, always thank the people who give you food! They are keeping you going, and they are there to help you succeed.


SteveQ said...

Good advice, but I've never overcome my body's deciding blood flow between exercise and digestion. I can swallow anything and not get nausea, but it passes straight through me - I've had to do 100 miles on liquids only! I've tried everything in training; the type of food doesn't matter. (and yes, always thank the aid station crew!)

Alene Gone Bad said...


Are you saying that everything you eat causes diarrhea? Some people do well on liquids only, if they can get enough calories that way. You do have to figure out where your own body makes that decision to use blood for the GI tract or the muscles. Everyone is different there, too. That's one of the more challenging aspects of figuring out what to eat and how much you can exert yourself. It's art and science, and it can be different in every situation. Trial and error is the only way to learn, it seems. I've found certain foods that seem to work most of the time, but I always have a backup plan in case something doesn't work.