Fueling the Ultra-Distance Athlete

author : Nancy Clark
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By Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD

If you are an endurance athlete who is training for an Ironman triathlon, century bike ride, or a swim across the English Channel, you need a food plan. Don’t be the fool who comments, “My training program is good, but my eating is bad.” Performance starts with fueling, not training! This article provides nutrition tips for ultra-endurance athletes as well as ordinary exercisers who want ultra-energy.

Tip #1. Acknowledge the power of being well fueled. I counsel many already-lean athletes who are convinced they will perform better if they lose just a few more pounds. They fail to realize that they will perform better by eating, not dieting, and by being properly fueled. Despite popular belief, the lightest athlete may not be the best athlete. The best athlete tends to be well fueled, well trained, and genetically gifted.

If your hours of exercise have not resulted in the loss of those last few pounds, listen to what your training buddies and loved ones are saying about your body. If they agree you have fat to lose, perhaps you do. But if your mother or spouse complains you are too thin, listen up! It’s time to stop dieting and focus more on fueling better to perform better.

Tip #2. Optimize your daily training diet. Your goals are to constantly be fueling-up before workouts and then re-fueling afterwards by eating regularly scheduled carbohydrate-based meals and snacks (that also include some protein). By feeding your body evenly throughout the day (as opposed to skimping on wholesome breakfasts and lunches, then overindulging in “junk” at night), you'll have steady energy all day with no lags. The trick is to make your breakfast and morning snacks bigger and your evening food intake smaller.

When I counsel athletes, I sketch out sample meals that fulfill their energy needs. One ultrarunner needed at least 4,000 calories a day to fuel his 15-mile daily runs. I divided his calories into four 1,000-calorie meals/food buckets. The first bucket (6:00-10:00 a.m.) was to fuel-up and refuel from his morning run; the second bucket (10:00-2:00 pm) was for an early hearty lunch; the third bucket (2:00-6:00 pm) was for a second smaller lunch plus energy bar and sports drinks to energize his 5:00 pm workout; and the fourth bucket (6:00-10:00 pm) refueled his muscles after the second workout of the day. Knowing his calorie goals for each 4-hour block helped him maintain high energy so he could train hard yet still enjoy the training sessions.

As a hungry athlete, you need to develop a similar eating strategy to fit your training schedule. One triathlete devised this routine: he drank 16 oz. of juice (i.e., carbs) before his morning swim, refueled afterwards while commuting to work with breakfast in his car (big bagel with peanut butter, a banana, milk in a travel mug). He ate a hot dinner-type meal at lunchtime (from the worksite cafeteria). He also bought at lunchtime a yogurt to add to his second lunch (granola and raisins, stocked in his desk drawer) and his evening meal (turkey sub, chocolate milk). He kept those items in the office refrigerator. This program ensured healthful food would be conveniently waiting for him and prevented him from overeating fatty take-out food at night.

Tip #3. Create a feeding plan for during exercise. Knowing your hourly calorie targets can help you maintain high energy during exercise. A sports nutritionist can help you estimate your energy needs per hour. You should try to replace at least one-third or more of the calories burned during the ultra-distance event. A good target is about 240 to 360 calories of carbohydrate per hour (60-90 g carb/h). For example, during an extended ride a cyclist could stay well fueled by consuming 1 quart sports drink (200 cals/50 g carb) + 3 fig newtons (165 cals/33 g carb) per hour, or a Clif Bar (240 cals; 45 g carb) + a gel (100 cals, 25 g carb). The goals are to maintain a normal blood glucose level; if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, you are failing to consume enough calories!

Tip #4. Practice your event-day fueling. An essential part of your training is to train your intestinal tract so you can minimize undesired pit stops. During long training sessions, you want to determine which food and fluids you prefer for fuel during exercise. That is, you need to know which settles better: Gatorade or Powerade? Energy bars or gels? Liquids or solids? By developing a list of several tried-and-true foods, you need not worry about making the wrong food choice on race day.

Also think about "taste-bud burn-out." That is, how many gels per hour can you endure in a triathlon? When hiking, how many days in a row will you enjoy oatmeal for breakfast? Will you get "sugared-out" on sports drink during the century bike ride? Plan to have a variety of options available.

Tip #5. Good nutrition starts in the grocery store. All too often, in the midst of juggling work, family, friends, sleep plus training, endurance athletes have little time left to plan, shop for, and prepare balanced sports meals. By having the right foods ready and waiting for you, you’ll eat better.

Tip #6. Plan rest days. Because ultra-distance athletes commonly feel overwhelmed by their impending task, they tend to fill every possible minute with exercise. Bad idea. Rest days are essential to reduce the risk of injury and provide muscles with time to refuel. (Remember: The bad things happen when you train; the good things happen when you rest.) Rest days also allow time for you to—tah dah—food shop!!!

Tip #7. Drink enough fluids. Ideally, you should learn your sweat rate by weighing yourself naked before and after an hour of race-pace exercise with no fluid intake. One pound lost = 16 ounces of sweat. You can then target the right amount to drink/hour so you don’t get into a hole.

On a daily basis, monitor your urine. You should be voiding a light-colored urine every 2 to 4 hours. Morning urine that is dark and smelly signals dehydration. Drink more!

Tip #8. Be flexible. Although you will have a well-planned fueling program that ensures adequate calorie and fluid intake, you also need to be flexible. Tastes change during extended exercise! Your initial approach to consume “healthy foods” may deteriorate into gummy bears and Pepsi. Worry more about survival than good nutrition during events. Any fuel is better than none, and sugar can help delay fatigue.

Eat wisely and have fun!


Nancy Clark, MS, RD offers personal consultations to athletes of all abilities at her office in Newton MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook is filled with great tips. See www.nancyclark.com for more info. Also see sportsnutritionworkshop.com for online education.

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date: September 8, 2013

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Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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