When it comes to ultramarathon trail races, your race day performance will be influenced not only by your fitness and training, but also by your nutrition and gear choices. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the race (or more adventurous the route), the more benefit you’ll have from creating race-specific nutrition and gear strategies. As the duration of your runs increases, the potential for something to go wrong such as gastrointestinal distress, unexpected changes in weather, and general fatigue or “bonking” also increases. Optimizing your nutrition and gear can keep you on pace and minimize, though probably not completely eliminate, some of these stresses on your body that you will endure at any ultramarathon competition.
In the following article, I share my top three nutrition, gear tips and an interview ultrarunning legend Michael Wardian about the gear and nutrition strategies that he used during his 3200 mile run across the entire United States this past Summer.
How Do I Create a Nutrition and Gear Strategy?
Nutrition and gear strategies vary greatly on personal preference and race type. What works for one runner might not for another and designing your optimal strategy is all about practice. Spend time getting to know your personal gear and nutrition preferences and your race route. You should begin planning your nutrition and gear strategies as soon as you start training for your next race. Listed below are a few of my top considerations when designing your race day nutrition and gear strategies.
Never Try Anything New On Race Day
For starters, you need to be accustomed to and enjoy everything you intend to use on race day. From a nutrition standpoint, all gels, electrolyte mixes, bars, protein powders, etc., that you plan to use on race day, you should practice using in your training. This will help minimize the risk of ingesting something that doesn’t work well for your body. If you know something works well on training runs, it is more likely that it will work well on race day too. Keep in mind that race day nerves can wreak havoc on digestion so practice some meditative, calming exercises prior to getting on the start line and use mantras to help relax you during your race.
As for the gear, only use gear that you’ve used in training. It’s not uncommon for runners to use their racing vest or belt for the first time on race day and discover that it causes chafing, discomfort or other issues. Know how everything fits and works before you have to use it under race day circumstances. Getting yourself equipped with gear best suited for you (and understanding how to use this gear) will save you time and create a better experience. This tip is especially important for races that have mandatory gear requirements. For these races, you should practice running with all required gear during training runs to familiarize yourself with how it feels to run carrying your required gear and how to most efficiently place each item to easily find/use them.
Know Your Race Environment
Every race environment will have unique nutrition and gear needs. For example, racing in the heat and humidity of Southern states such as Georgia would likely require much greater electrolyte/hydration needs because of increased sweat rate. You might also consider changing shoes and apparel more frequently to minimize chafing and other issues caused from sweating and humidity. Similarly, racing at altitude in mountains could increase overall caloric intake and you might need to carry extra safety gear such as rain jackets or an emergency blanket in case of volatile mountain storms. Ideally, you should spend time training in your race environment (at different times of day) to familiarize yourself with how your body responds to its specific terrain and conditions. You can also contact the race director if you have questions about what the experience is like running their course.
Even the best nutrition and gear strategies will not be able to prepare you for everything that could happen during ultramarathons. Always be prepared to make changes if something isn’t working. For example, a gel that you may have been using consistently in your training might suddenly start giving you GI pains halfway into the race and you may need to stop using it. Perhaps colder than expected temperatures will require you to spend longer at an aid station warming up than you anticipated. Always make decisions for the health of your body and mind first, even if this means changing plans. Also, know that even if your gear and nutrition strategy fails, it doesn’t mean the end of your race. Ultramarathon races are all about embracing the ups and downs and even if you find yourself in a low where nothing is going as planned, know that if you can just ride out the low you may find a second wind.
Here’s my conversation Michael Wardian
[TAYTE POLLMANN] Hello, Michael. Congratulations on completing your run across the United States. Could you tell us about what role your gear and nutrition choices played in completing this amazing feat?
[MICHAEL WARDIAN] Gear and nutrition are two of the most important pieces of any run, especially a run lasting 61 days and a distance of over 3,200 Miles. During May and June of 2022, I ran an average of 12 hours a day covering 52 miles for 61 days, without a single rest day. This wouldn’t have been possible without proper gear and nutrition.
[TAYTE] Let’s talk specifically about the nutrition strategy you used during your run across the country. How much and what types of foods and drinks were you consuming?
[MICHAEL] Each day on the run, I was burning about 7,000 calories and trying to eat between 5,000 and 7,000 calories. That meant I’d be carrying much of my food with me. My crew also set up aid stations. I was trying to eat about 300 to 1,000 calories at each aid station and those calories consisted of: almond butter-jelly, honey and banana sandwiches, vegan grilled cheese, pickles, vegan pizza, spaghetti and red sauce, burritos, tacos, fruit, GUs, coconut water, avocados with salt, soda, and engineered foods.
[TAYTE] What were some of your most essential gear items during the journey?
[MICHAEL] For sure my Nathan hydration vests/belts. I liked the Nathan Pinnacle 12 Liter for long sections where I knew I wouldn’t see my crew for a few hours. When I had access to my crew, I was using the Nathan Pinnacle Hydration Belt. This belt was always on my person and had a few snacks like GUs, crackers, nuts and granola bars in it along with my Garmin InReach Mini Tracker, some money and my iPhone and air-pods.
[TAYTE] How might some of the same principles you used to run across the country apply to someone running their first first ultramarathon?
[MICHAEL] I think that for someone doing their first trail race or ultramarathon some of the same principles should apply, which are, if you can keep eating and drinking anything is possible. Also, remember that you don’t have to eat everything. Many times, I would start a sandwich and not finish it but just eat as much as my stomach could stand. I think knowing that you can always eat more later, because you have capacity to carry food and drink with you, eliminates a lot of the stress of feeling like you have to eat at an aid station.
I also think that I tried a lot of the products I used before the run and I would suggest that for anyone doing their first ultramarathon. Have some stuff that works for you and most of the time any calories are “good” calories, you just need fuel and something that is not going to upset your stomach. Don’t worry so much about the amount of carbs versus fats versus protein, just eat and drink and you will be amazed by what is possible.
[TAYTE] Do you have any other “pro tips” for gear and nutrition you’d like to share?
[MICHAEL] Some watches like my COROS allow for an alarm that you can set to remind you to eat. I find these really helpful. If you have already eaten then just ignore the alarm but if you haven’t and it rings it will remind you, “Oh yeah, time to eat/drink.”