Planning is key: Race-day fuelling

Author: Thomas Wagner


What should your nutrition plan be if you’re doing an ultra trail-run?

If you’re doing an ultra trail-run – be it a 100-miler or a seven-day stage race like Transalpine Run – sufficient fuelling throughout the competition is crucial. Eating well beforehand and afterwards won’t be enough.


60g of carbohydrate per hour

As a rule of thumb, one way of ensuring adequate fuelling for a long-distance run or competition is to have a carb intake of about 60g per hour of the race, which means about two gels or smoothies every sixty minutes.

It’s advisable to try consuming this amount at this rate before the race, while you are training, so you can find out in advance what will work best for you: solids or liquids.


Personally, the hotter the temperature, the more likely I am to go for liquids. But you need to check for yourself, while you are training, how well you handle the various types and combinations of fuel. That will tell you whether you will be better off purely consuming carbs or whether a mix of high-protein and slightly more fatty foods will work for you. 

Corinne Mäder-Reinhard, PowerBar Nutrition Expert

"The ideal race-day fuelling strategy depends on a whole range of factors: your performance level, the intensity and duration of the run and your personal preferences. For well-trained athletes the current recommendation is to consume up to 90g of carbs per hour for contests lasting three hours or more. Having the right strategy for the run not only helps you deliver peak performance; it also helps to prevent stomach issues. It’s not unreasonable advice to work on both your body and your digestion if you want to succeed. To find out more, go to: "Carbohydrate intake during race performance""

Also important: how you handle your fuel. 

Dragging large amounts of gels, smoothies and bars with you on your race is a drag! So it’s best to try and make use of the aid stations to keep your energy levels topped up and possibly to pop an energy bar or two into your rucksack as you go (race rules permitting).

If I eat en route, I tend to do it on stretches that are technically less demanding and where I’m running at lower speeds – uphill stretches, for example. Alternatively, I just have a bite when I need something to take my mind off the race, or just for a bit of a change.

The faster you run, the more difficult it is for your system to digest solids. So depending on your speed, you may need to opt for more liquid foods, such as tomatoes, instead of peanuts and the like.

Either way, it’s best not to eat more than a small handful during the actual race.

Corinne Mäder-Reinhard, PowerBar Nutrition Expert

"So as not to put your stomach under any unnecessary strain or jeopardise your performance, remember the golden rule: don’t experiment during the race! Instead, find out beforehand what the aid stations will provide. Also, when you are training, find out how much fuel or liquid your system can handle best at what particular point in the race. For more on how to prevent stomach issues on race day, go to: "How to avoid nutritionally induced gastrointestinal problems""


External factors 

Ultras are a long haul, and there’s a whole range of factors that can affect your stomach, from hot weather and high altitudes to your personal form on the day. 

 In hot conditions, you need to take care of your electrolyte levels and/or salt intake by consuming high-salt sports nutrition, tomato or cucumber with salt, potato chips or peanuts, for instance. If you are not sure how much salt you need, salt tablets can be a simple way of keeping track of your intake. You might choose to take one tablet an hour, for example. You will need to take it with sufficient liquids, of course, although your thirst will help on that front! I still find my hunger levels less reliable, though, and so I often have to keep tabs on my fuelling by regularly checking my watch.

Corinne Mäder-Reinhard, PowerBar Nutrition Expert

"Salt or sodium loss through perspiration can be particularly severe if you are running a long or intensive race, or if you are a salty sweater. As an electrolyte, sodium is essential not only for muscle and nerve functions but also for water retention. According to a new study*, sodium is especially effective when consumed as a drink rather than via salt tablets. "

* Savoie et al. 2016, (J Strength Cond Res., Epub ahead of print): Comparison of Sodium-Chloride Tablets-, Sodium-Chloride Solution- and Glycerol-Induced Hyperhydration on Fluid Balance Responses in Healthy Men.


When your stomach becomes an issue

Even though I know I can manage very well on smoothies, wafers and shots, I sometimes have days when my nutrition just doesn’t work the way I want it to. On days like that, a Plan B is the minimum requirement.

That’s why drop bags should contain a range of different fuels. A varied palette of flavours, for instance, can make a difference. And if you are opting for gels, adding them to the water in your bottle or flask can make them easier to consume.

If none of those ideas works, you may even need a Plan C – which is when I pick up some peanuts, potato chips and tomatoes from the aid station to take with me on my run. Sometimes I do it just to fight my hunger pangs a little. 

On occasions, rather than taking isotonic drinks, a soup or black tea – and possibly even an alcohol-free beer – can work wonders.

Basically, have a few different flavours as well as solid and (more) liquid alternatives at the ready in your drop bag. And above all, expect the unexpected: make sure you have enough calories to help you on your way.

Corinne Mäder-Reinhard, PowerBar Nutrition Expert

"On long distances and when you need plenty of energy, variety is more than welcome. A combination of solids, liquids and different flavours will keep things from getting too monotonous."


Insider’s tip 

I’ve done a few long runs at competition speed in my time and normally start off with gels and smoothies. For stage races like the Transalpine run, that tends to be sufficient. But a little later on, when I start to get slower, I often find myself reaching for solid fuel, and the two minutes I lose at the aid station are recouped later on in the race.

There isn’t really any secret fuelling recipe I follow during races – quite simply because I have not yet found one! Or possibly because I doubt that there is such a thing. So let me share my not-very-secret tip with you: be prepared for all eventualities and respond calmly. That way, you’ll be fine. 


 Thomas Wagner Austria’s Thomas Wagner turned professional in 2005. His achievements to date demonstrate his passion for trail running and comprise 32 completed ultras, including 5 victories and 15 top-ten finishes. His most recent accomplishments include the 100 Miles of Istria 2016 in Croatia and the Azores Columbus Ultra Trail in Portugal.

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