Race Day Nutrition for Trail Runners

Race Day Nutrition for Trail Runners

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You have put in the hours of training, made sacrifices, motivated yourself at the end of long days, and now race day has finally arrived. There is nothing more frustrating than having your expectations for your next trail running race dashed by poor nutrition. Meticulously training your body is a tough enough process without having to work even harder by running on “bad fuel,” or no fuel at all.

The Basics of Race Day Nutrition

I tend to use analogies when explaining basic principles of training. I used them as a coach as a way to connect with athletes – putting ideas in a context that was familiar. I have been trying to think of a great analogy for fueling your body, and haven’t been able to come up with quite the right match. Race day nutrition is not like a fuel tank on a car. With a car, you add gas and immediately have what you need to get up and go!

Instead, proper nutrition while running a trail race is a bit like a bottomless hourglass. Imagine turning the hourglass over when the race starts – you need to have plenty of available energy, and be well-hydrated right away. The less energy or water volume that you have to work with, the less time you have before that hourglass runs out.

The reason this analogy works is that food and water are like the sand. When you add more of either, it takes a while for them to be put to use (or fall through the hourglass.) Your body can only process so much water, and so many calories at a given rate. So eating and drinking large amounts at one time is not helpful. You need to add that sand (food and water) at a steady rate that matches how quickly it is flowing out.

The Right Balance of Electrolytes

Every athlete is different, and has different nutritional needs. For instance, I perform best when I have lots of magnesium on board, which is why I love Sport Legs. No matter who you are, you need calories to burn and blood volume to get that energy to your muscles to flush lactic acid.

Which leads me to electrolytes. You need electrolytes to keep your muscles working properly. Correct gradients of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium make for happy, high functioning muscles. There is a downside to overloading on any particular compound, however. If this gradient swings too heavily in one direction, cells can struggle to retain water.

Overloading your body with too many electrolytes at one time, such as chugging a bunch of PowerAde or eating too many gel packets, can also cause your gut to flood with fluid leading to the infamous, “gut rot” that some trail runners experience. This phenomenon happens because some electrolytes are hydrophilic, and pull water into your stomach, which flows down into the upper tract of your intestines.

Think about drinking one quart of liquid per hour, spread out evenly. I once set my watch to beep every 15 minutes during a race to remind me to drink eight ounces of my sports mix. After about four hours this was kind of annoying, but hopefully this drives the point home that chugging a quart of drink mix all at once is not going to help your body perform. Using a few Salomon Soft Flasks can help regulate how much you drink at one time.

A runner jogs along a trail

Carbs Vs. Fat – Which is Better When Racing?

Carbohydrates are your rocket fuel, giving you readily available energy, but flaming out quickly. For long race days, fat is your friend. This is your slow burning backup source for energy. Not too many nutritional products pack a lot of fat, so be ready to improvise. If you are planning on competing in the upcoming North Face Endurance Challenge, or any other distance trail running race, I suggest packing your own source for fat.

My go-to on race day is a Snickers bar or two. I can hear nutritionists and diet purists gasping right now, but I’m more worried about having enough fat than too little.

Another great, and honestly better, option would be a ProBar Core bar, available at White Pine Touring on Bonanza Drive in Park City. These have plenty of fat, and also provide a healthy hit of protein, which leads me to the third caloric component of your race day diet.

Protein – What and How Much When Racing?

Protein is a key part of post-race and training caloric intake, but you still need protein to help keep your muscles functioning and recovering during a long race. The key to consuming protein is to make sure you don’t overdose on sodium. Pay attention to how much sodium is in your protein, carb and electrolyte sources, so you don’t overdo it when using multiple products.

Having a big hit of protein doesn’t need to happen often – mostly during longer races (more than four hours), and then you only need to take on protein every few hours. Make sure you’re thinking ahead and not trying to fill up when you’re already tapped.

Since the right mix of protein and sodium is hard to find, check out the Honey Stinger Protein Bar with 10 g of protein, also available at White Pine. It’s a quick way to get protein in your body during a long trail running race.

Be Smart

There are many nutritional products on the market aimed at the training athlete, which leads to an enormous number of choices. Be sure to test out nutrition plans before race day. Look at labels to make sure that you do not overdose on any particular category. This means picking products that agree with your body, and that have a specific role in your caloric and electrolyte intake. I have said it before, but I am a fan of eating your carbs (or in a larger scope, calories), and drinking your electrolytes. Longer races take more planning to keep that hourglass full without running out before you see the finish line.

Patrick Coffey, Summer Programs Director, White Pine Touring