Fueling Ultramarathons: Real Food vs. Gels for Endurance Performance
Article

Fueling Ultramarathons: Real Food vs. Gels for Endurance Performance

Published on Thursday, July 04, 2024
by
Kari Tallent

Nutrition
Wellness

Understanding Nutritional Strategies for Endurance Races

For many endurance athletes and ultra-marathon racers, gels and goo are training and race-day staples. Having an adequate nutrition source while running for hours is extremely important for maintaining strength and endurance. Something portable and lightweight is also crucial when performing at a competitive level. 

Generally speaking, you are not moving at a high-intensity pace when participating in a more extended event since you must pace yourself for long durations. Because of this, your body may tolerate a higher protein and fat concentration, but carbohydrates remain the most critical macronutrient due to their efficiency in energy production. This is why many racers like to use hydration mixes or gels: They are so convenient, easy to transport, and loaded with electrolytes and carbohydrates.

Real Food vs. Processed Gels: Pros and Cons

What happens when you do not like or want to use a processed nutrition gel, GU, or block? Have no fear—you can use whole foods to fuel your endurance endeavors. This article will explore gut-friendly, energy-dense, real-food strategies for training and race day. This method promotes digestive comfort and maximizes performance.

Let me clarify by stating that if you choose to use gels or other commercially processed products, that is okay. These products have been designed to contain the key ingredients your body needs and manufactured for proper absorption and performance fuel. It comes down to the preference for holistic fueling vs commercial. Remember that commercial products mostly contain Carbohydrates (starches), some electrolytes, and sugars.

If you are looking for holistic fueling, you also want to keep track of what goes on with your body throughout an endurance run. If you are like me and sweat a lot, you will want to find foods with a higher sodium content. Other things to pay attention to are the temperature and energy you exert. These factors will affect the amount of carbohydrates you seek from fueling sources. 

Commercial gels sometimes fail to meet the extended needs required to fuel an ultra-marathoner. Natural or whole food also contains additional vitamins and minerals and low amounts of fat and protein. Using gel or goo at the beginning of a race or during a long training run can be handy. Looking at whole-food sources may be the better option when going the distance of an ultra.

Gut-Friendly Strategies: Choosing the Right Foods

Just like your muscles break down after running for an extended period, so does the lining of your digestive tract. Because of this, you want to focus on food items that are lower in fiber and take less effort for your GI tract to digest and absorb. Using whole food as a fuel source works best if you choose high-carbohydrate foods that do not cause turmoil in your gut.  Whole food fueling is logistically easier if the ultra you run has aid stations or a team crewing you throughout the event. (A crewing team is a group of friends or family who will be your support, carrying your hydration, fuel, supplies, etc.)

Knowing the total carbohydrate content of whole food sources allows you to appropriately portion items for easier ingestion. For all-distance running, you want to train like it's race day, so there will be trial and error in figuring out what food works best for you. This also includes determining which food works best at a particular time or distance. The following list contains some popular whole food choices among endurance athletes.

Practical Tips for Portable Whole Food Options

When using whole food options as your fueling choice, you also want to figure out how to make them portable. One tip is to take foods like bananas and potatoes and mash them in a sandwich bag. That way, when ready to eat them, you can tear off a corner and quickly squeeze the food into your mouth. Baby food pouches come in their own container, and sandwiches/Uncrustables can be frozen and allowed to thaw as you run. This way, they stay fresh and can keep you cool if they are in a pack or your pocket.

Remember how much you should plan on eating based on your planned time on foot. This applies to training runs and racing. 

Meal Planning for Ultra-Marathon Success

Like all activities, fueling for an ultra-marathon takes planning and practice. Research the race you choose to see if they have whole food options at the aid stations. Pack your food in the order that you plan to eat it. Keep smaller, simple foods easily accessible in your pockets and nutrient-dense foods in your pack. Plan out your pre- and post-race meals to best support your fueling needs. If you have a crew assisting you, ensure they know the fueling plan so the foods you need are readily accessible. 

Taking on an Ultramarathon is an impressive feat that involves more than just running. Make sure you have a solid plan for fueling and hydration. Practice this plan and determine what works and what does not while doing your training runs. Whether you choose to fuel with real foods or commercial gels is entirely up to you. If you have any ideas, comments, or tips, please add them below!

 

  1. Bearden, S. (2020, November 8). Ditch the gels?. SCIENCE OF ULTRA. https://www.scienceofultra.com/podcasts/109  

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