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Ultra Natural Nutrition: 5 Tips for Running an Endurance Race on Whole Foods

16‐12‐14

I’ve been an ultra-marathon runner for over 8 years. In that time, I’ve consumed massive numbers of sports gels, heavily processed sports bars and sugar-laden energy drinks. Marketing had told me that this was the best way (nay, the only way!) to fuel my endurance nutrition requirements. But at the age of 40, my body was rebelling, and I had to work out why. Was the problem in my food?

Eating My Way To Injury?

I’d had a difficult 18 months with injury, with a slow recovery from a knee arthroscopy in October 2013, and constant niggling injuries that hampered even the shortest of runs after that. I was seeing a physiotherapist, massage therapist and podiatrist, but these were having little impact. My doctor told me that I should cease running; else risk an early hip replacement. Scans had shown the onset of arthritis in my knees, ankles and feet. Maybe my non-ultra friends were right, that the body just wasn’t designed to run such long distances. Maybe I should have been thinking of more leisurely pursuits?

But ultra-running gets into the veins. Its an addictive drug that has people running for hours on end, at all times of the day and night, questioning the very meaning of existence! I wasn’t ready to give it up. I was desperate. So I turned my thinking upside down and questioned the very thing that strikes at the core of our day-to-day existence. The food that we put in our mouths. It all has an impact, one way or another, so was it part of my injury problem?

Food has been a passion of mine for a long time and I’ve always eaten fairly well. But, being a long-time lover of all things Italian, I’d had a long-term relationship with gluten, a love affair with gelato, and a crush on fine Italian wine (and then there’s chocolate….). These things were normally consumed in moderation, but they were constant and ever-present in my diet. This wasn’t quite the Mediterranean diet, but it wasn’t so bad, or was it?

The Role Of Inflammation

Inflammation is part of the body’s normal healing response that occurs immediately following tissue damage. Pain, swelling and redness are all indications of inflammation. As endurance runners, we know that our bodies are constantly battling inflammation given the physical stress we subject ourselves to in training and competition.

There’s also chronic inflammation, which occurs when the body is constantly under stress from various factors. Left unchecked, chronic inflammation can have severe health implications, being linked to rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

There are many causes of chronic inflammation, including being overweight, excessive stress, smoking and lack of sleep. There is also growing awareness of the impact of certain foods on the body’s inflammatory response.

High sugar foods, trans fats, vegetable oils, dairy, refined grains, gluten, processed meats and alcohol have all been targeted as inflammatory foods by various scientists. Anti-inflammatory diet guidelines are just that at present, more research is needed to truly understand the relationship between diet and inflammation. But it seems a sensible conclusion that whole foods with minimal processing would help fight against chronic inflammation.

Armed with this information, and after further research and numerous discussions, I took the plunge on October 1st and embarked on an anti-inflammatory diet. I divorced myself from all things containing gluten, refined sugar and alcohol. Key to this dietary plan was also to steer clear of processed foods, sticking to a diet of simple ingredients such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fresh fish and meats.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

green vegetablesThe reason this all came to a head, was that I had planned to race the Blackall 100, which was to be a challenging 100km jaunt up and down the trails of the Blackall Ranges in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. The race was scheduled for November 8th, but with my constant niggling injuries, I’d given up on training in mid-August and had withdrawn from the event. I’d had plenty of encouragement to still give the race a go. But with my injuries not responding to physiotherapy, I felt I had to try something from outside the box. It was a long shot, but was my diet change going to get me back on the trails?

As my ‘anti-inflammatory October’ progressed, I inevitably began eating greater quantities of salad and vegetables, as well as deliberately adding more ginger and turmeric for their known healing powers. I also focused on eating plenty of oily fish and avocadoes for natural anti-inflammatories and good fats. Alcohol was also off the list, although I did allow myself the very occasional glass of red wine, which paradoxically, is considered by many to be a powerful anti-inflammatory!

At this point, I didn’t consider that I’d made any significant changes to my diet, and therefore was not expecting any major changes in my running. But, within 2 weeks, I was able to extend my running in both distance and regularity. Whereas in the previous month, I’d struggle to get to 10km and then need a couple of days off for my niggles to recover enough to run again, I was now able to run 15km and recover in half the time. In fact, in the final two weeks of the month I completed trail runs of 21km and 26km without any major discomfort. This was the furthest I had run for 18 months.

These results may not have been all diet related. I had continued physiotherapy and had a good stretching and strengthening program in place, and my body now seemed to be responding to that to some degree. But I have no doubt that my dietary changes had an impact. How could it not, with lots of fresh and nutrient rich foods going into my body, and fewer stresses from sugar-driven insulin spikes, digestive issues and alcohol? How big an impact, it didn’t matter, as it was on! I was now absolutely committed to toeing the start line on November 8.

Race Nutrition Plan

Having seen great results from these dietary changes during October, I wasn’t about to throw it out the window come race day. So that meant the usual gels, electrolytic drinks and sports bars were a big no-no. The highly processed nature of most of these products, often with high levels of processed sugars, refined grains and gluten, meant that these were strictly off-limits. The real challenge was to come up with alternatives that delivered in the heat of battle. And hot it turned out to be!

Having competed in multiple ultra-marathons in the past as well as a 7-day endurance race in 2012, I was used to eating whole foods whilst running. Yes, there are products on the market that aim to provide complete race nutrition needs in a simple powdered sports drink, but my preference has always been to use a combination of real foods. The benefits for your digestive and immune systems are huge; it really is worth the extra effort.

So I devised a whole food nutrition plan that targeted 200 calories per hour over a 15-hour period, consisting completely of whole foods. Click here to see the plan. Some key points to come out of the plan were:

  • My electrolyte drink recipe worked brilliantly. See the recipe here.
  • There are many different whole food options. I look for simple flavours, reasonably high carbohydrate levels, high moisture foods and convenience. I like things like sushi, porridge and fruit.
  • Snack bars are a great option for their carbohydrates, convenience and flavour. Many sports bars are heavily processed, but there are a few good options out there. I’ve used Hammer bars, which are a good option, but I now use At One raw superbars, which are all-natural and have a very similar nutritional profile to Hammer bars. You can checkout the nutrition details of the At One Cacao Incaberry bar here.

ultra marathon nutritionOf course things rarely go to plan in a 15-hour endurance run, so did I stick to my plan? Mostly. I did experience some cramping at around the 50km mark. I carried salt tablets in case I felt I was lacking salt at any point, and I did take some at various points throughout the day, and this definitely helped when I was experiencing some cramps. I also struggled to consume the required calories in the last 3 hours of the race. As I’ve experienced in the past, I tend to lose my appetite towards the end of a race, so to counter that, I was conscious to ensure I was consuming enough calories earlier in the race. My experience has been, and was again in this case, that its possible to push on through the final few hours on less than 100 calories an hour if you’re not too depleted of calories initially.

On what was a very hot and challenging day, I completed the race in 14 hours 14 minutes, well within my 15-hour target. Given my limited training, I was over the moon with this result. I can only conclude that my whole food diet, both in the 5-week lead-up to, and during, the race, was critical to my success on the day.

5 Tips for Running an Endurance Race on Whole Foods

 From my experience in this race, my 5 key points to planning an endurance event on natural, whole food nutrition are:

  1. In the race lead-up, remove processed foods from your day-to-day diet as much as you can, in order to limit inflammation. Refined sugar, processed grains and alcohol all add to the stresses that your body needs to deal with each day. Do your body a favour and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds and, if you eat meat, free range meats and oily fish.
  2. Use a home-made and completely natural electrolyte drink on race-day. If done right, this will deliver on your electrolyte needs and it will be so much better for your digestive system.
  3. Aim for around 200 calories per hour, with foods relatively high in carbohydrates forming the bulk of your nutrition plan. Things like bananas, porridge oats, grapes, quinoa, white rice and fruit bars are good options. Many people will argue that you should only consume simple carbohydrates, but I’ve had no problems with complex carbs. Carry some sweets as a back-up for when you might need immediate energy.
  4. Have a variety of different foods in your race plan. Over an extended period, your stomach and mind both need variation, particularly a mix between sweet and salty.
  5. And finally, a plan is just that. In a 10+ hour endurance race, circumstances will change, so keep your head and adjust your plan as required. If you have a crew, run the changes by them, as they will likely be in a much better headspace than you.
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  • Comment

  • 21/04/16

    Monica Brisband

    Awesome article for people looking at completing a challenge with whole foods.
    Thank you
  • 04/03/15

    Amanda, South Melbourne

    What a insight into an ultra endurance event, not only from a training point of view but from a nutrition point too. We got so much out of this blog, thank you for sharing your story of struggles and success. A cracking time for a 100km event and I too hope my plant based diet soon to be fuelled by At One bars will see me complete my first ultra, The North Face 100 in May with a star jump over the finishing line!
  • 16/12/14

    Gail, Bundaberg

    Hi, I've been using your bars for a while. This is an awesome blog - it's nice to see some real info in a blog which other people can incorporate into their own plans!!

    Thanks,

    Gail

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