A Refresher Nutrition Course for Ultrarunners

by Sunny Blende, MS, Sports Nutritionist

As ultrarunners we usually are meticulous, even obsessive, about our training regimes; logging in every workout and having a plan for fueling during our long training runs and races. We know what we are going to eat and how much we are going to drink during each hour of these sessions, making adjustments along the way to account for fatigue, night running, length of the race and changing weather conditions. Are we as knowledgeable and careful about our eating habits the rest of the time? As we head for some rest and recovery during the winter season, it’s time to review some basic nutrition to help us establish healthy eating habits and a sound foundation for next year’s training and racing. Whatever our goal – whether to get a bit leaner by losing some body fat or just to stay as healthy as we were at our peak training – here are some lifestyle changes that can make a real difference. And they will NOT include eating carrot sticks and drinking water with lemon at parties. You deserve to enjoy those holiday specialties after putting in all that training!

Food is fuel for energy to function and perform. All food can be broken down into six essential nutrients – the macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat, and the micronutrients: vitamins and minerals, and water. Endurance athletes should aim for a diet that is approximately 60 percent carbohydrate, 25 percent fat (20 percent when the goal is to lose body fat and up to 30 percent under heavy training conditions), and 15 percent protein. Vitamins and minerals contribute to our nutrition, acting like catalysts to help regulate body processes or combining to form structures such as calcium in bones. Many ultrarunners, thinking if some is good, more is better, take vitamin and mineral supplements in excess. And while moderate amounts may be beneficial for the active individual, studies show that mega-dosing does not help. The possible exception may be vitamin C. Some studies found that taking 600 milligrams per day for three weeks before an ultramarathon reduced post-race cold symptoms while other studies found that vitamin C supplementation made no difference. Water is essential for stabilizing body temperature and for transport – carrying nutrients to cells and waste products away.

So if “leaner” is your goal, pay attention. Most people don’t realize that to burn fat, you actually have to EAT. Not just anything, but a balance of healthy foods at the right times. To help increase your metabolism (and thus burn more fat), there are several things to do and to keep in mind. First, eat breakfast. It helps rev up your engine first thing in the morning when you awaken and are low in stored calories and metabolism. This can be a huge boost to burning more calories during the day. Second, eat foods that are close to the source. An orange is closer to the source than orange juice. And orange juice is closer to the source than orange-flavored marmalade. It takes approximately four oranges to make a glass of orange juice. You could easily drink a glass of orange juice, but could you eat four oranges? A whole orange has fiber and bulk. It costs you more calories to break down that fiber through chewing and digestion and it keeps you feeling fuller than just drinking those blended calories. Better for you to be the blender! Third, eat foods with variety and balance in mind. Include the following in each meal: unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, avocados, fish), moderate protein, at least one vegetable and/or fruit and a whole grain source (100% grain bread, wheat pasta, whole cooked grains or brown rice).

Since basal, or resting, metabolic rate burns 65 – 75 percent of the calories you eat, it helps to have a high metabolism. Running in particular and exercise in general will increase your rate naturally but nutrition timing and the type of foods you eat can go a long way in helping to change your body’s ability to burn more calories per hour. See the following tips to fine tune your food habits.

How Nutrition Helps Increase Metabolism/Fat Burning

  • Breakfast revs up metabolism by recovering liver glycogen from “overnight fasting” (sleeping).
  • Eating one – two hours before exercise increases your body’s ability to burn fat.
  • Consuming lower glycemic index (GI) foods post-exercise will help to burn fat longer. Or you can add protein, fiber and/or unsaturated fat to your high GI foods. Good snacks include small nut butter and fruit spread sandwiches on whole wheat bread, low-fat or non-fat yogurt, complex cookies like plain or wheat Fig Newton’s™, whole fruits, less-processed grains and cereals, a few nuts or fat-free chocolate milk. Try to keep the ratio about one part protein to four parts carbohydrate.
  • Eating fiber (and water) with higher GI foods. Try to get three grams of fiber per serving. This will keep your blood sugar from “spiking”.

How Nutrition Can Help Decrease Metabolism/Fat Burning

  • Skipping breakfast keeps your metabolism low.
  • Low-carbohydrate diets will “starve” your cells of energy
  • Cycling calories — eating “high calorie” days alternated with “low calorie” days teaches your body to be over-efficient and store more calories (as fat) on the days the calories are there.
  • Higher levels of body fat create a situation where your body stops listening to the hormones that regulate metabolism. • Carbohydrates can act very differently depending on their GI; the higher the GI is, the more your blood sugar will spike and the less fat you will burn for energy.
  • And finally, carbohydrates can get stored in your fat cells or your muscle cells depending on when you consume them. Missing your 30-minute window following strenuous exercise will send those carbs to your fat cells instead of your muscle cells!

If your goal is to maintain your peak training health, then, at the risk of stating the obvious, eat a healthy diet all the time. The key is to maximize the big three – fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For long-term health, limit your intake of saturated fats such as red meats, butter, palm oil, and high-fat dairy products. But remember that a moderate amount of fat in your diet is good for healthy nerve fibers, for your immune system, and to help you make hormones. Use nuts such as almonds and walnuts in salads, cereal, and on yogurt for their Vitamin E and protein. They are high in monounsaturated fats, which lower your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad type) in particular. Use olive and canola oil when cooking and baking. Polyunsaturated fats found in fish, soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseed oil are essential to proper immune function. Include these to get the benefits of omega fatty acids, especially omega-3 fatty acid.

Low-fat protein is needed for building and repairing muscles, red blood cells, tissues and organs. Protein is digested into amino acids, which are then rebuilt for the specific tissue needed. Good sources are fish, skinless chicken and turkey, dried beans and tofu. Be attentive to your choices, as some meats carry a large amount of saturated fats along with protein (processed meats, red meats).

If you are eating a fresh, varied and close-to-the-source diet, you probably are getting plenty of the vitamins and minerals you require. Several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, E, and C, and the minerals zinc and iron, are essential for normal immune function. Vitamins C and E, in particular, are also powerful antioxidants. It is a fact that long-distance endurance running can increase the production of free radicals—molecules that oxidize and cause damage to cells, including immune cells. But again, the key is moderation. The body produces and recycles its own antioxidants to counter free radicals and oxidative stress. You only need what’s necessary, not more. Check out the tips below to help you make positive changes to your eating habits. It is a lot easier than purging your running t-shirts or reorganizing your file drawer.

  • Stop Skipping Meals. Eat breakfast because, as the name implies, this meal is designed to “break the fast” after sleeping. Without jump-starting your metabolism, you will be burning fewer calories.
  • Make Your Lunch a Nutritious Meal. You can pack your own lunch, save some bucks and probably eat a lot healthier than eating out. Sandwiches are easy and can be anything from leftover salad on whole wheat bread to peanut butter and jelly. Add a piece of fruit, some cut-up vegetables and one or two cookies. Try some soup if you have access to a microwave.
  • Keep Hydrated. Monitor your fluids for better athletic performance and a healthier body. Fluids can help us feel full as well as move nutrients in and wastes out of our bodies. Keep a bottle of water handy at work, at home and in your car.
  • Make Over Your Refrigerator. Keep plenty of fresh, tasty foods on hand and not too many high-fat convenience foods. Fill up your refrigerator with yogurts, fresh cut-up vegetables, hummus, soybeans, nut butters, fruit spreads, chocolate low-fat milk, marinated tofu, fresh fruits, and salad fixings. And keep only a small container of frozen yogurt or ice cream in the freezer along with a spare loaf of whole wheat bread and some frozen vegetables that take only minutes to prepare.
  • Decrease the Volume and Increase the Fiber. Americans have come to like feeling full. Our portions have become larger and larger and so have our waist sizes. By just paying attention, you can stop eating when you are satisfied, instead of when the food is gone. Fiber adds to the fullness feeling as well as maintaining a healthy gut, so choose less-processed foods. Remember that whole grain carbohydrates will fuel your muscles better than refined ones.
  • Forget All Fast Foods. Just don’t go here. The leanest states have one thing in common — a lack of fast-food restaurants. A few years ago in Montana you would find just one fast-food joint every 170 square miles. That made it hard to drink a double-size cola at a whopping 800 calories from a drive-thru restaurant between meals while doing errands. (Think you never do that? Ever drink a vanilla “frappuccino” coffee at the local coffee chain for 430 calories?)

You can cover up a lot of bad nutrition habits with miles and miles of running, but what happens if you run a bit less, spend more time with work or the family, or even find another hobby? Lifestyle changes, especially eating patterns, are hard to make so apply the 80/20 principle. Try to practice the new habits 80 percent of the time and be easy on yourself the other 20 percent. If you had something less than healthy for a snack, fine. It’s the total intake that matters, not just one food. Now eat something healthier the rest of the day. With practice, changes become habits and healthy habits will help you start the new season with a solid nutritional base.