How the Elites Eat
Top trail runners share their strategies for fueling before, during and after a race
Western States 100 champ Rob Krar prefers a large lunch and a small dinner before race day. Photo by Ian Shive.
Figuring out what to eat during a trail race is almost as crucial as training for it. Fueling differs from one athlete to the next, but we can all learn from the successes—and failures—of seasoned trail runners.
The Night and Day Before
Keep it simple and familiar. “I try to avoid anything new or different to prevent stomach issues in the morning. Usually my meal consists of white rice, eggs, sweet potatoes, avocado and sometimes salmon,” says Stephanie Howe, a coach and nutritionist who won the 2014 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Carb up. “Carbs, carbs and more carbs,” says Sage Canaday, three-peat winner of the Speedgoat 50K in Utah. Of his preferred method of topping off his glycogen stores, he says, “I like to keep it simple with pasta and tomato sauce, garlic bread and a nice
Eat a large lunch and small dinner. This allows food to fully digest before you get to the starting line. Rob Krar, winner of Western States in 2014 and 2015, is partial to pasta or pizza for lunch, a small salad with bread for dinner and yogurt and granola close to bedtime.
Race Day Morning
Less is more. Keep your pre-race breakfast light, so you’re not running with a full stomach. Choose simple foods, such as oatmeal, fruit or a bagel, and don’t overdo it on the calories, especially before a shorter race. Says Karl Meltzer, who currently holds the record for the most 100-mile victories, “Yogurt and a banana—I don’t typically eat a lot for breakfast. And sometimes this is too much if the race starts real early.”
Distance can matter. Before tough 50- or 100-mile races, some ultrarunners pack in the calories, preferring mild discomfort early in the race to ravenous hunger a few hours in.
Eat an hour or more before the gun. “My go-to is coffee and steel-cut oats with nuts, raisins and brown sugar about 90 minutes before the race,” says Krar.
During the Race
Aim for 200 to 300 calories an hour, says Howe. This is the amount that your body can digest per hour. Also take in sodium and, to a lesser extent, other essential electrolytes. The amount will vary by athlete, conditions and the nature of the event. (More on electrolytes here.)
Adapt your fuel according to race distance or time. Devon Yanko, a consistent winner of 50-mile and 50K trail races, sticks mostly with gels for races up to 50K. “The shorter the race, the easier I want the fueling to be,” she says. “If it is a gnarly 50K in the mountains, I might supplement with some aid-station food or bars, but generally it is gels all the way.”
Find alternatives if gels and other standard endurance fuels disagree with you. Jen Segger, an endurance coach and winner of the 2014 Zion 100K, says, “I tend to lean toward dates, dried fruit, et cetera. If it’s hot, I use baby food, as the pureed fruit tastes awesome!”
Stick to a schedule. Meltzer takes a gel about every 24 minutes and an electrolyte supplement every hour. Segger sets her watch to beep every 15 minutes, as a reminder to eat and drink.
Start simple. Immediately after a major effort, it can be hard to summon the appetite for a hearty meal. Pre-mixed recovery drinks are an easy, immediate source of calories.
Don’t wait too long for a full meal. “Within the hour I have a real meal that contains a lot of good nutrients,” says Howe. She likes to include grains, sautéed veggies, greens, sweet potatoes, avocado and turkey or lentils.
Eat a well-rounded, protein-rich meal. Ian Sharman, winner of this year’s Leadville Trail and Rocky Racoon 100-milers, looks for a balanced diet of fresh, organic foods immediately after a race. He adds, “I try to get more protein in my diet than usual and eat more meat—including steak, which I rarely eat.”
“Take in lots of fresh fruit and vitamin C,” says Michael Wardian, a prolific runner who completed 54 races in 2014, often placing top-10 or winning outright. “I also like to try to eat whatever my body is craving.”
Reward yourself. Canaday starts looking for a beer as soon as he crosses a finish line, even before water. Then, he treats himself to something filling like pizza or a bean burrito.
This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.