How the running elites eat

Figuring out what to eat during an ultramarathon or trail race is as crucial as your training. Fuelling differs for all runners, but there’s a lot to be learned from off-road runners who have run the trail ahead of us. 

The night and day Before Stick with Simple Ellie Greenwood, from Dundee Scotland, is a two-time winner of the Western States 100 mile ultramarathon. She eats something simple and plain. “I am a vegetarian so this might be rice and veggies with some tofu or beans, or a pasta with a tomato sauce and beans.”

The night and day before

Keep it normal

Many trail runners rely on pre-race carbohydrates and stick with the food that they are accustomed to. Robbie Britton competed for Great Britain in the 24-hour Running Championships and finished 3rd in the World. He says: “The day or night before a race I try to keep my diet as normal as possible, avoiding things like steak, which takes too long to digest.”

Holly Rush is a UK Asics Athlete who recently won the 200km multi-day Mustang Trail Race in Nepal. “I eat normally but add in a few snacks between meals like bananas or toast. I drink an electrolyte drink throughout the day. I don’t have a set meal for the night before, but it usually includes potato or gnocchi,” she says.

Race day morning

Go minimal

Holly has her morning meal dialled. “Black coffee, one bagel, almond butter and a banana,” she says. Paul Giblin is an international ultrarunner and coach from the UK. Paul has run at world level for Great Britain both on trails and tarmac. He has won the famous West Highland Way race three times in row.

Giblin says: “I keep it simple, usually porridge with chia seeds, blueberries and almond or coconut milk, and maybe some nut butter on top.” race

Fuelling strategy

Eat early

Greenwood says: “My main goal is to start eating early and often, eating something at least every 30 minutes.” Giblin has found that in 100-mile races you need to incorporate real food, otherwise you will get sick of gels.

He says: “Early on I’ll try to stick to solids like homemade energy bars, bananas, some nuts and chews, and if there’s a good option by halfway I’ll have some sweet potatoes or porridge. I try to save the gels for much later in the race.”

Count those calories

A runner needs energy, and your energy will be provided by calories. Most ultrarunners aim for 200-400 calories per hour. A good tip is to set your watch to remind you to take something in every 15 or 20 minutes.

In gels we trust

Holly Rush says: “During faster races where I might be running quite fast for six or seven hours, I will take on fuel in the form of liquid (I am currently using Tailwind) also gels and shot blocks. I’ve tried to eat solid fuel during fast ultras but struggle to keep anything down.” For a faster event like a 50 mile race, Britton also likes quick release sugars like gels.

He says: “I know I only have to eat them for a few hours, and my body is working at a higher intensity.” Things change when Britton goes longer. “For 100 miles or 24hr racing, I will make my own rice cakes and eat them regularly from the start.”

Race recovery

Quality, Balance and protein power

“I take some sort of protein in soon after a hard session to help the body start rebuilding. It might be a snack like yoghurt and berries or a proper meal,” he says. “I eat a plant-based wholefood diet all the time, so I find it helps me recover from training more quickly than I did previously. Lots of greens and I won’t shy away from the carbs as well as ensuring I get a good amount of protein,” says Giblin.

Race recovery drinks

At times, the last thing a race-fatigued trail runner wants to figure out is what to eat. Recovery drinks can save the day. Rush will have a pint of full fat milk post-race and then a quality protein and carb meal. Every trail runner will have unique nutritional and fuelling needs.

Do as the elites say and do, test your fuel out before the race and find what propels you to the finish line feeling strong.


Mistakes to avoid

You don’t have to be a first timer to make a mistake.

Last year I tested out some sweet potato spiced balls for a 3-hour long run and then took them on race day. Later I was in the bushes, thinking about how stupid I was to be eating that many spicy balls.” Robbie Britton “find two or three things that work.

Don’t be tempted to start using the latest sports powder, gel or drink.

I coach a lot of new ultrarunners, and race nutrition always seems to be an area of concern – keep it simple.” Paul Giblin

Over drinking

“This can potentially be dangerous so make sure you are taking on enough salts too.” Holly Rush

Under drinking

I would work out how much water you need to be taking on per hour according to your body weight and increase this if the weather is warmer.” Holly Rush

Start eating early

you can’t afford to get yourself into a calorie deficit too early as it is hard to dig yourself out of that mid race.” Ellie Greenwood

Words Clint Cherepa