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About 30 years ago, I started running to maintain my weight and improve my fitness. I stayed fit through high school and college by playing team sports such as tennis and taking step aerobics classes. But now I was graduating from University of Oregon, and easy access to classes would be more challenging. I turned to running, the activity with the lowest barrier to entry. All I needed was a pair of good shoes and I could do it right from my apartment front door.

Fast forward through the next decade and running became an essential part of both my mental and physical fitness routine. I have written articles about running’s importance in my life in Trail Sisters Journal. I even started dabbling in running races, testing myself in triathlons, half marathons, 24-hour team relays and road marathons. But it wasn’t until the last 10 years that I stuck my toe into the increasingly popular world of ultra marathoning. According to a study by RunRepeat, I am not alone. The study concludes that, “Participation in ultra running events is on the rise. There has been a 1676% increase in participation since 1996.” That is especially true among women, in fact, “23% of participants are female, compared to just 14% 23 years ago.”

When I was younger and training for shorter distance races, I never thought much about nutrition. I did most of my runs early in the morning before work, usually on an empty stomach. I may have eaten a quick banana or piece of toast before a longer run on the weekend, but I wasn’t running for more than a couple of hours at a time. That all changed when I started training for trail ultras. An ultramarathon is any distance longer than a marathon, typically a 50k, 50, 100 or even 200+ miler, usually on single track trails on public lands and in the mountains. Running for more hours, or even all day gaining thousands of feet of elevation demanded that I focus on how to properly fuel.

Every running magazine publishes articles about fueling for running. UltraRunning magazine has an entire section focused on health and nutrition. As industry trends demand, even magazines like Runner’s World have focused more on ultra running nutrition. These stories often focus on getting the proper balance of carbohydrates and hydration while training, suggesting specific caloric and grams that should be consumed to train the gut and keep your energy up. Then there are the thousands of athletes on platforms like Instagram who share their own experiences or plug specific brands in exchange for sponsorship. The amount of information out there is overwhelming and it’s hard to decipher what is actually going to work for your own individual goals and routine.

My biggest takeaway from studying, reading and researching fuel sources and nutrition, is that I need to find what works for me through trial and error. For example, I used to love a good breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast on the weekends. But when my training schedule calls for longer runs on a weekend day, I have to reconsider. Eggs do not agree with me before a run. Instead, I might still have the toast and bacon, but add some peanut butter to the toast for a boost of protein. On weekday mornings, I start out with a protein smoothie that includes almond milk, fresh banana, Ka’Chava protein powder and frozen berries, and some black tea. I can usually run within an hour of consuming this.

To fuel during my runs, I’ve experimented with dozens of brands of gels, gummies, trail mixes, protein bars and hydration mixes. I have personally found that consuming about 200 calories an hour of easily digestible gels or gummies and about 6 ounces of water with electrolytes added keeps me going without upsetting my stomach. For really long runs of 20 miles or more, or if it’s a hot day, I also need a few salt pills* and a heavier snack about every 3 hours. This is usually a bar, but is sometimes a piece of leftover pizza. In my first ultra marathon race, a 55k on the Continental Divide trail in Idaho and Montana, I reached an aid station about two-thirds of the way through the race that was offering small cheese quesadillas. To this day, I believe that quesadilla got me to the finish line.

While keeping energy up during the race is often the focus of training articles, recovery nutrition is just as critical. Trailrunner magazine has touched upon this topic. Not only is post-race refueling important to replace the energy you burned, but it is critical to prevent Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), dehydration, and short-term suppression of immunity that is thought to occur after endurance exercise. Running an ultra can take a toll on your body’s ability to fight off illness and fatigue and what you put into your body, along with good sleep, can help give you a boost.

I have found that running nutrition is personal and it takes a lot of trial and error to find what works for your body. There are great products on the market that balance carbs and protein to really take the thinking out of fueling. Real foods can also do the trick and may be more palatable when your stomach is rebelling. What works for you one day may not on another day. It’s not a perfect science, but it will keep you on the trail for hours or days of adventure.

*Editor’s Note: With regard to ingestion of salt tablets during prolonged exercise, see the section “Prevention: Supplemental sodium and oral intake” in the WMS 2019 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia.”

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