How I Eat One Week Before an Ultra

One to two weeks before a long-distance race, there are some pre-race tactics I employ to ensure I am ready on race day. In this post, I’ll share some of my strategies with respect to eating in case some of my tips can help you, too.

Carbohydrate Loading, or Carb Loading, is popular among ultra-marathoners, although not everyone is convinced it works. The bottom line is, if it works for you, keep doing it! If not, you should feel free to try alternative pre-race nutrition regimens.

Carb loading seems to work for me, so I thought I would share a little info about the science behind it and how I plan on implementing it this week, one week before my first 12-hour endurance event.

According to Mueller, Reek and Schantzen (University of Minnesota, Duluth), “Muscle glycogen is the main fuel muscles use in order to perform work on a day-to-day basis. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body and turned into glycogen; which is stored in muscles. Carbohydrate loading is believed to place high amounts of glycogen into muscles in turn aiding in physical performance and long-term endurance.

The truth is, about ninety minutes into your long run, your muscle glycogen levels start to run low. So if your event is going to last a lot longer than this (as most ultras do), it stands to reason that you’d want to fill up your glycogen reserves as much as possible prior to your race (think “topping off a gas tank”) and do whatever you can during the event to keep them as full as possible. In fact, research has shown that “normal carbohydrate stores are insufficient for completing a marathon without hitting a wall”, according to a study conducted by Benjamin I. Rapoport.

It was just a 5K, but I got on the podium in my age group this week!

There are several different methods of carb loading that might be worth noting.

The first, and original, (known as the Ahlborg Method) involved first depleting your reserves by working out really hard and eating mostly fats and proteins for a few days to first fully deplete your reserves. Once depleted, you would then load up on carbs a few days before your long event. This method has been proven to increase overall glycogen stores, but the depletion phase makes people feel horrible and places fatigue and stress on their digestive systems. I am not sure I am ready to try this one yet!

M. Sherman modified Ahlborg’s Method by eliminating the depletion phase. In Sherman’s method, three days before your event you would simply reduce your level of exertion/training volume while gradually increasing the amount of carbs you eat. This method ensures that you don’t let too much “run out of the tank” while piling in as much as you can at the same time.

Other methods take a hybrid approach that include some depleting activities combined with some loading.

I will not suggest you try one of these methods in particular, or any of them for that matter. I’ll just let you know what I’ve been doing that seems to be working for me, as a point of reference. Also note that some people can digest certain types of carbs better than others, so what works for one person may not work for another. Find what works for you and stick with it. I am one of those rare individuals who can eat gluten and wheat, for example, with no gastrointestinal issues whatsoever. In fact, whole wheat bread and pasta is something I truly cannot live without…maybe it’s because of my Italian heritage!

And after the 5K, I enjoyed a nice trail run with some friends.

Here’s what I’ve found has worked for me prior to the 50k’s I’ve completed in the past year, and what I’m doing right now as I prepare for my 12-hour event next week.

  • First, I taper, or reduce the total volume of my running 1-2 weeks prior to the event. Tapering, for me, involves running fewer miles, overall, with a few short, high-intensity workouts (such as intervals) thrown into the mix. The final taper (4-5 days before the event), however, includes only walking and/or low-intensity, short jogging. I guess from a glycogen standpoint, this ensures I’m not depleting my reserves right before the event. But I also do it to rest up my legs for the big day!
  • From an eating standpoint, in my mind, all carbs are good carbs! The more whole-grain, the better. I like popcorn, whole wheat pasta, but even regular pasta and bagels will do if I find they’re readily available. I simply eat as much as I can, within reason. I also balance the grains out with fresh fruits and vegetables, including bananas, one of my favorites. I don’t overeat per se, I just eat as much as I want to, as long as I feel comfortable.
  • Alcohol: Since I love beer and have been known to enjoy a nice glass of cab with my dinner, I try to refrain from all alcohol consumption at least five days before my event…sometimes even longer. I just don’t want to do anything that might dehydrate my body unnecessarily. (But I’m not going to cover dehydration in this blog post.)

In summary, one-to-two weeks before my event, I taper my running intensity and volume, and increase my carb consumption.

But what about the day before the big event? The night before my race I eat a high-carb meal (usually pasta) somewhat early in the evening (around 6 PM). I might even have some bread with this meal! And since glycogen is stored in both the liver and the muscles, while sleeping, my liver glycogen will deplete-that’s just the way it is. This is why I also eat first thing in the morning before my race. If the race is early (and which races aren’t?!), I get up as early as I can and usually have a bagel and sometimes a bowl of cereal with fruit. And since I have a strong stomach, I am not afraid to eat right up until race time if there’s food readily available. But please note-I am very cautious about eating restaurant food before a race-I almost never do it for fear something won’t agree with me. Knock on wood, avoiding food prepped by others has worked like a charm for me so if you have to travel for your race, consider bringing your day-of-the-race breakfast foods with you and avoid the local iHop at all costs!

I have taught myself how to eat during a long race as well. While racing and doing long training runs, my food of choice is whole grain raisin bread with peanut butter and banana. I usually make sandwiches the night before, cut off the crust, cut them into small pieces and freeze them in a baggie. I keep them in my cooler or take a baggie with me in my hydration vest while running and eat the sections when I start to feel fatigued. To ensure I don’t choke, I always walk while eating, and consume lots of water or sports drinks at the same time. I know I can’t fill up my glycogen stores this late in the game but I certainly can increase them a little and keep my blood glucose high (another energy source) by using a good eating and drinking strategy like this. A good rule of thumb for someone of my height and weight is to eat/drink 100-200 calories per hour during a long distance event. This is a lot so I have to work hard at not forgetting to do so or else the results could be catastrophic! I also prepare easy-to-consume juicy fruits to eat along the way, such as watermelon and mandarin oranges.

So, if you’re running in a long race next week or later in the year, keep some of these pre-race tips in mind and let me know what’s been working for you. I would love to hear from you!


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