For longer adventures and races, your nutrition can make or break your experience. For some, figuring out what works for you can feel like a guessing game. While the body can somewhat adapt to a particular fueling plan, it makes sense to try to dial in the specifics ahead of time so that you feel prepared and confident.
Thankfully, there are some basic guidelines you can follow to try and dial in fueling, while tweaking it on an individual level to try and figure out what works for you. Keep in mind, there is no one best way to fuel!
#1) Figure out Your Hydration: Fluid wise, the general recommendation is to aim for 16-20oz per hour of exercise. That can vary greatly from person to person due to different sweat rates and environmental factors. Many runners rely on plain old water while running, but that can cause gastrointestinal issues down the road. The body requires sodium to help transport sugars across the intestinal lining. If you aren’t readily replacing the sodium lost in your sweat with the food you are eating, you could end up not using the carbohydrates and water you are taking in.
I usually recommend finding a hydration mix that works for you and practicing with it. The hydration mix does not have to contain calories and carbohydrates, but it does need to contain electrolytes. The advantage of having a hydration mix that does contain carbohydrates and calories is that if your stomach goes south and you can’t eat, you have a backup option as it is sometimes easier to drink our nutrition.
#2) Figure out Your Food: This one can take a lot of trial and error. You can train the gut to handle a certain nutrition plan … to an extent. Because digestion is slowed when running, practice makes perfect before and during your run. Keep your snacks simple—lower fat, a small amount of protein and low fiber. White rice, white bread, bananas, honey and jam are good choices.
Timing is equally important. For extra-sensitive stomachs, eat at least two to three hours before exercise to ensure the gut’s heavy lifting is done before the workout. A simple carb snack or sports drink can be used to top off the carbohydrate needs an hour before.
Choose products that maximize your uptake of carbohydrates during activity. Go for snacks that mix carbohydrate sources: glucose, fructose and sucrose. Running-store shelves are stocked to bursting with a plethora of different gels, chews and bars.
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual and takes a little trial and error to know what works best. There aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but these gentle guidelines will help you steer clear of a mid-run disaster: easily digestible carbohydrates with a small amount of protein and little to no fat tend to work best. Some athletes can tolerate real-food options like boiled potatoes or rice cakes, but many runners prefer the portability of liquid and pre-packaged options.
I recommending finding a dependable gel alongside a couple of solid food options. If you choose a hydration mix with no calories, you will want to aim for about 200-300 calories of food per hour (women can take in slightly less than this), and if your hydration mix does contain calories, you’ll want to subtract the hydration mix calories and use that to guide your food intake.
Gel options are great due to their convenience factor. Standard gels can be hard for some to get down and tolerate, but real food blend gels are another option for those with a sensitive stomach.
Real food options like boiled potatoes with salt, fig newton cookies, PBJ, and pretzels are all great choices. In general, you don’t want to take in too much fat and fiber per hour (<5G/hour) due to their slower digestion in the body. Protein wise, you can start taking in about 8-10 grams per hour after the first 3-4 hours.
#3) Put it All Together: Once you figure out your hydration and food, you just need to put it all together. Figuring out a realistic pattern to fuel for yourself can be tough, but having a reminder on your watch can help dial things in.
Peanut Butter Sweet Potato Real Food Blend Recipe:
Puree ½ cup roasted or steamed sweet potato (peeled) with 1T peanut butter, a dash of salt, and ½ cup water until smooth. Add more water 1T at a time to achieve the desired texture. Store up to 3 days in the fridge. Transport in a ziplock bag or reusable flask.
Nutrition Facts (Per Serving):
Do you have a question for our RDN? Send your trail-running-nutrition quandaries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kylee Van Horn is a licensed Sports Registered Dietitian and competitive trail runner.