Eating on the (long) run

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people over the past couple of years – through playgroups, my husband’s business ventures, when I visit my brother at work, etc. When I’m introduced to someone, the introduction usually goes something like this: “Meet my [wife, sister, cousin, friend] Kristen. She is a crazy runner. She runs, like, 100 miles and stuff!”

I kid you not; this is how I’ve been introduced to many people.

Very often that new acquaintance blinks once or twice, takes a moment to ruminate over what they just heard, and then says something like, “What? How long did that take? Did you sleep? Did you stop? What did you eat? What did you do when you had to poop?”  (Seriously, the poop question comes up all the time, even from complete strangers.) I don’t mind answering their questions at all, but I feel like on some sort of crazy news program as I get pelted with questions. “What do you eat?” is probably my favorite one.

After the recent Harrisburg Mile, my husband introduced me to one of his former kickball teammates. She is a casual runner and a dietician by profession. He introduced me as his ultra-running wife and she started asking me a bunch of questions. When she asked me what I ate, she explained why she wanted to know. She told me she was a dietician, and was very curious to hear about how I fueled my runs. Before I divulged my “secrets”, I told her that not only was I running lots of miles, but I was doing so on a plant-based diet. She was very, very interested. We spent quite a while talking, amidst all of the crazy people drinking around us.

I’ll tell you what I told her, and what I tell everyone: It’s actually not as hard as you would think to run ultras AND follow a plant-based diet. It seemed like it would be when I first started, but then I realized it just wasn’t.What works for me is this:

  • 90 minutes before my run, consume a carbohydrate-rich breakfast with a fair amount of protein. Currently my go-to breakfast is a sliced banana, some blueberries, and 1/4 c. granola, all topped with a protein shake (soy-based) made with almond milk. This meal comes in at about 400 calories, and is quite tasty, which is always a plus. I make sure to have in early enough, so I don’t experience stomach distress. I drink 16 oz water and (usually) a cup of coffee.
  • On a normal run of 2+ hours (not a super hot day), I try to drink a couple of ounces of water every mile or so. I eat a Medjool date every hour. Every couple of hours, I’ll eat some cashews or almonds as well. If I’m running longer (6+ hours) AND have support for the run (aid stations or lovely friends), I like to have boiled potatoes dipped in course salt. If cold watermelon is available, I’ll have some of that too. Sometimes I’ll grab some Fig Newtons as well. (Two weeks ago I took an ill-advised Nutter Butter cookie. I used to love them as a kid. The HFCS called my name. I knew it would bite me in the butt, but I popped it in my mouth anyway. About 20 minutes later, my stomach was upset and I regretted it. But boy did it taste good on the way down.)
  • On cooler days, I’ll take an electrolyte replacement capsule every 90-120 minutes. On hotter days, I’ll take one every 45-60 minutes. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. One some recent long runs (6+ hours), I found myself taking them less frequently than planned, and still feeling okay. Like I said, these are not hard and fast “rules”.
  • When I do races longer than 8 hours or so (50 miles, 100K, 100 miles), I do look for some heartier food. The problem is that I can’t process those types of foods during my runs. It just doesn’t work. I go for glucose-rich foods like dates, raisins, figs, grapes, nuts (limited quantities), pretzels, Fig Newtons and broth. I got through my 100 miler last fall with only those foods, plus an almond butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat. I ate half of the sandwich at the 50K mark, and the other half at the 100K mark. My crew insisted I chase the half sandwich (at the 100K mark) with some grapes. I protested, saying it was too much food. She had the 100 mile experience, so I went with her recommendation. Two miles later I was sick. I ended up at the 67 mile aid station for 20 minutes trying to feel better. The remaining 33 miles (13 hours) were fueled by only a fig newton and a cup of Ramen broth at each aid station. (I might add that I had a twisted, swollen ankle which left me walking much of the rest of the race, so it took me forever.)
  • Within 30 minutes of finishing the race, I drink a protein shake (the same soy protein mix from breakfast, mixed with either almond milk or coconut water). About 30-60 minutes later, I eat something with protein and salt. I don’t indulge at this point; it’s just a light meal. I have to watch it because my stomach is typically prone to irritation at this point. Usually about 2-3 hours after that, which makes it about 3-4 hours after the race, I’ll eat a big, hearty meal. I make sure it’s rich in protein and veggies. And then a beer. And then some chocolate. After all, I have to reward myself!

Honestly, I don’t know that what I eat during a race differs all that much from my carnivorous counterparts. I know there are often turkey and cheese sandwiches at aid stations, but I don’t know if they are hot items or not. People tend to shy away from dairy during races, so that’s not usually a popular item (aside from grilled cheese sandwiches).

When running long distances (beyond 90 minutes or so), the body needs its carbohydrate stores replenished. The key is to start doing this before you really need it. Since every body responds differently, there really isn’t a hard and fast rule for what to eat and when. I know some people who rely solely on energy gels. I know some people who eat hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and other heavy foods. I know other people who survive on PB&Js. All of these people have tried lots of combinations of foods and drinks, and have played with the intervals at which they consume them. It’s a highly personal thing. I have lots of new runners ask me what they should eat and drink on a long run. I tell them what I do, but then tell them that they need to play around with it on their own. They should really pay attention to how they feel during and after the run. Heat and cold play a part in it as well, as does the intensity of the run and the type of terrain. It’s a complicated formula, fraught with variables. You have to do what is right for you, not what works for your friends.

So that’s it. Those are my ultra-eating secrets. Earth-shattering, right?

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