Virtually lost fuelling an ultra

I am sure I am not alone in letting my mind wander to the point of distraction while running and it is no different in the time of coronavirus. However, as I weave around other runners and walkers while trying not to trip on any rebellious dogs that defy social distancing rules, my thoughts tend to revolve around one topic. Where am I going?

Now this is not to say that I am lost again, per se, although I cannot count the number of times I have had to backtrack or resort to GPS to get back on route on a long run. But as I plod on, I cannot help thinking that I am unsure about my destination. Every event that I have signed up for this year has been postponed then cancelled due to the same havoc-wrecking coronavirus. Nevertheless, I have stubbornly stuck to my training plan and have been running them ‘virtually’. After all, I still want the t-shirts. But running virtually is somewhat different from doing the real thing where everything is meticulously organised and well-supported. Doing it virtually means it is literally up to you to get it done.

There won’t be any jaunty bunting announcing your arrival in a virtual race or a team of smiling marshals helping to guide you along the course and stop the oncoming traffic. When you run virtually, there won’t be any cheering spectators to clap you by or children waiting to give you high fives. Running virtually means sorting out your own chip timing to prove you’ve run the distance because dramatic screenshots of your blisters will not be enough. But no matter how challenging a virtual race may seem at first, it is still very doable if you have the willingness and motivation to triumph. However, where I am still virtually lost and not sure where to turn to is when it comes to running longer races, where willpower and sweat are not enough. How can I run an ultra marathon, virtually, without a single pit stop of support? Simply put, I was lost in a fuelling paradox.

Most runners will know about the importance of carbohydrates even if they can’t remember exactly why pasta power rules. Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred fuel, used to power our muscles, brain and central nervous system. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles and when we exercise, these stores begin to deplete. Which is not a problem in itself because any carbohydrates lost from exercise can be easily replaced again when we eat after a workout. However, once you start running for longer than 90min, you need to start topping up your carbohydrate stores while exercising or you will begin to have less energy, get muscle fatigue and become less mentally alert. If you carry on without refuelling then eventually you will ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’, when you are absolutely spent and cannot go on. Fuel aside, running longer also means that you need to remember to drink to replace some of the fluids and electrolytes lost in your sweat to prevent dehydration and cramping.

Now once a time ago, before Coronavirus reared its ugly head, any decently organised race that was longer than a half marathon would have all of this refuelling and rehydrating taken care of for you. You could count on there being several pit stops strategically placed on the course to support every runner with sweets, gels, isotonic drinks and water. In general, the longer the race, the greater the number of pit stops and the variety of foods on offer because without them, many runners simply wouldn’t make it to the finish line. When it came to ultra marathons, the number and size of the pit stops increased exponentially because the distances you are expected to run are insane.

In effect, running an ultra race, or anything over the 42.2km distance of a standard marathon, is known as ‘an eating and drinking competition with a bit of running thrown in’. Some of the longer and multi-day ultra events are even renowned for the epic spread they put on. As a result, you only need to carry very little with you when you run most ultras in terms of fuel and drink, which is pretty important considering the mammoth task at hand.

But back to the unsupported lonely reality of running virtual races…I had signed up to do my first 2-day 100km trail ultra this summer and was planning on running it virtually. How could I possibly run it self-sufficiently, without having to carry the entire contents of my kitchen with me? I normally wore a small backpack on long runs that could be crammed with a small number of snacks and drinks. But could I pack in enough to fuel my first 50km? I knew that I had to come up with a nutrition strategy to do the distance but maybe there were already some tips out there to doing it self-sufficiently. I then began on a quest to discover which foods and snacks made the best ultra fuel and just hoped that I could fit enough of them into my backpack…

After delving into the ever expanding world of ultrarunning and getting somewhat sidetracked by the number of ultra races I had earmarked, I uncovered something that surprised me. It turned out that the infamous ‘eating and drinking competition’ of ultras is not actually a contest amongst the other runners. Instead it’s a very personal battle that each runner must face against their own stomach. The challenge is to try to get in enough energy to keep yourself running without succumbing to any gastrointestinal issues. But these ‘issues’ are not just a few nervous butterflies fluttering about in your stomach or the sudden urgency to do an inconvenient wee. I am talking about stomach cramps, projectile vomiting and rampant runner’s diarrhoea among other symptoms. In fact, gastrointestinal distress is the main reason that ultra-runners have to pull out of events and are landed with a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to their name.

This means that it is absolutely vital to get your nutrition strategy right for longer races. Ultimately, your success depends on it. But the key to achieving this is that whatever you plan on doing during an ultra to get enough calories and fluids into yourself, you must practice it in training, well in advance. In other words, you need to train your gut to run an ultra as much as your legs. And crucially, stick to whatever works for you and never try anything new on race day.

With that caveat now firmly put in place I am happy to share some tips about which foods and snacks rate highly for fuelling an ultra. The solution to doing it self-sufficiently is to pack energy-dense foods to economise on space and weight but only foods that are easy to digest to prevent any gastrointestinal upset. Primarily, the best foods to pack are both high in carbohydrates to refuel for energy but also low in fat and fibre to prevent digestion ‘issues’.

At this point it is also worth mentioning that there is a school of thought among some in the ultra-running community that the addition of a little protein in foods and snacks can help to compensate for all of the muscle wear and tear of an ultra. Undeniably, most ultras – especially multi-day events – will inevitably result in some muscle damage for which protein will be needed to repair and rebuild. However, as foods containing protein take longer to digest than high carb foods it can cause indigestion as you literally eat them on the run. So unless you know that you can tolerate a snack containing some protein because you’ve practiced it in training, it’s better to focus on refuelling an ultra with energy in the form of carbs. Which leads me to…(drumroll, please)

The top 10 list of go-to foods and snacks used to fuel self-sufficient ultra events are:

  1. Sports gels
  2. Sports energy bars
  3. Flapjacks
  4. Sweets
  5. Bananas
  6. Dates
  7. Pretzels
  8. Muesli or granola bars
  9. Sandwiches – sweet (jam or honey) or savoury (marmite or peanut butter)
  10. Fruit buns

Of course, not included in this list but absolutely essential to running an ultra is to carry sufficient water and an isotonic drink.

Now that I have the top 10, my work has really begun as I eat and run my way down the list. It’s early days and not every snack has worked out but at least I know they will fit inside my backpack. Although I may not know which snacks will make the final cut for the virtual ‘big day’, at least I now know where I am going with my ultra plan. And as I’m no longer lost when it comes to fuelling an ultra, the only thing now left to plan is the virtual route, itself…

Now for the recipe, I will be fuelling my first ultra with some Banana flapjacks although they taste just as good as a snack!

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