Race Nutrition with Kilian Jornet

Kilian Jornet Western States 100 2010Elite American ultramarathoners treat race aid stations like NASCAR drivers use pit stops: in, out, and on the trail again as fast as possible. While a runner may drink their way through an aid station or grab a handful of snacks as they head out, they consume the vast majority of their food and water on trail.

In longer and more technical American ultramarathons, elite runners sometimes spend a little extra time at one or two aid stations. There, they eat more than usual and change their clothing, shoes, or other crucial gear. Even at these stops, which last four, five, or perhaps 10 minutes, time is still of the essence.

Elite European ultramarathoners have an alternate aid-station ethic. Even at a long race’s early aid stations, they linger for a couple minutes, eating and drinking as much as they can in that short period of time. Most elite Euros carry some food and water with them on trail to enhance their aid-station intake. That said, these runners still consume most of their calories while in aid stations.

Kilian Jornet shopping 2010 Western States 100

Kilian grocery shopping before the 2010 Western States 100.

I’ve had the opportunity to closely watch Catalan endurance freak Kilian Jornet race the 100-mile distance three times. At the 2010 Western States 100 (WS100), I watched him race Euro-style, eating and drinking in aid stations, leaving only a couple of them with a water bottle. The day was hot and he became dehydrated before slowing to a third-place finish.

At the 2011 WS100, he ran with some sweet, custom-made water bottles, a half liter for each hand. He raced American-style, taking his food and drink on the trails. He stayed on top of hydration and won.

At the 2011 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), Kilian chowed down in the aid stations. When it was time to leave, he headed out with a small pack containing the race’s mandatory equipment and little in the way of food and water. Sometimes, I saw him leave with a small, plastic flask containing liquid. That’s all it took for victory there.

Late this summer, I chatted with a group of runners about Kilian’s ability to adapt to this array of racing conditions. That is, they said, to consume hundreds of calories at once and to consume those same calories over a few hours of running are two different, digestive animals. And, to run 100 miles without carrying water must mean that Kilian drinks less liquid than most runners. What gives, we all asked?

My interest was piqued, so I chatted with Kilian about his nutrition strategies. I trust that what he shared, especially what he ate and drank during his first win at the 2008 UTMB, will surprise you as much as it did me. There’s inherent value and fascination in learning how one elite man propels himself to victory. Though I know that you’re going to eat and drink more than Kilian does, some of his general principles are also applicable to each of us who takes to the trail.

iRunFar: I gotta’ know, during a mountain ultramarathon, how many calories do you consume? Are there certain foods you rely on?

Kilian Jornet: I have no idea. I never count calories. I eat a lot more now than when I first started. At my first UTMB, I drank maybe three liters and ate two sandwiches!

For food, I eat Overstim’s Aliment Liquide 640, a glass every four hours. I eat small sandwiches with jam and Nutella. And I eat gels during the last four or five hours of racing.

iRunFar: That’s pretty crazy, your first UTMB! Do you ever have stomach issues in getting certain kinds of food to digest or in food not tasting good?

Kilian Jornet eating 2010 Western States 100

Kilian Jornet eating normal food during the 2010 Western States 100.

Jornet: If I eat normal food, for me, it is not a problem. Too many gels are not good for my stomach. I sometimes have a problem with hydration if I drink a lot of very cold water. That gives me digestion problems.

iRunFar: How much fluid do you take in during a mountain ultramarathon? Do you drink just water? Or do you drink some sort of sports drink?

Jornet: For the drink, it depends on the conditions of the race. This year, I drank 13 liters of water at WS100 and five liters at UTMB.

I drink just water in long distance. How much depends on climatic conditions. Under normal, cool, European racing conditions, I drink one liter every two or three hours. The maximum I will drink if it’s very hot is between .7 liters and one liter per hour.

If I’m racing at night or in the last hours of a race, I maybe also have Coca Cola or Red Bull.

iRunFar: A Red Bull-amped Kilian is a fun image. At some races, you don’t carry much food or water with you between aid stations. And, once you’re in an aid station, you eat and drink a lot. What’s up with this?

Jornet: When I train, I never carry water or food. The mountain gives me everything I need, the rivers and fruits. Normally, I train for five or six hours with nothing. I am used to not having it.

In races I eat a lot at aid stations! They are every one to two hours on the trail. This is not long time to go without eating.

iRunFar: At this year’s WS100, you carried water and food between aid stations. How did that work out?

Jornet: Yes, that race is really different than Europe’s races. Really hot. It is for the heat that I carried one liter of water between every aid station. I also took salt pills every one hour at first and every 30 minutes at the end.

Why? I remembered every moment of last year’s experiences!

iRunFar: Do you notice that runners in the US and runners in Europe use different fueling and hydrating tactics? When you go to different places to race, is it hard to adapt?

Jornet: Is important to study every single race, the temperatures, rivers, aid stations. It is important to plan a strategy and to adapt to what happens in the race.

European races are more cold and you don’t need so much water, and the backpack is mandatory. In the USA, there is no mandatory equipment but you need to carry a lot of water.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
What do you think of Kilian’s fueling and hydration strategy? Any lessons that you’ll take from it?

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 56 comments

  1. swampy

    Great interview! This just affirms my belief that each person fills their nutrition needs a little differently. I would be stoked to have Kilian's constitution, as it stands I carry gel. water and solid food to keep myself properly fueled.

    1. geoff

      assuming that you are training for "typical", single day races in which you can pretty much eat as much as you want, whenever you want, there is nothing about this strategy that makes sense biologically. then again, it's hard to argue against how well kilian has made this work for him.

    2. Guy

      It depends on the training ground, like he said. I've gone on similar runs (but not so minimal) with a single bottle and maybe 3 gels (as a precaution), just filling up at streams and eating blackberries and things like that, which I can find all over in the right months

    3. David T.

      He does write, just before your quote, that: "The mountain gives me everything I need, the rivers and fruits." So it is not clear to me if he is saying that he eats and drinks nothing, or if he is writing that he carries nothing but is making use of what is naturally available.

  2. Jeff

    THREE liters for 100 miles??? I drank almost four in my last 50K! – although Killian could probably have finished it twice in the same amount of time…

  3. Maurice Politis

    Kilian is no ordinary human. Plus racing intensity for non-elites is nowhere near that to require continuous food (=carbs) supply. I just run the last 5hrs of a ~40h trail 100 miler (www.rout.gr) with only water and was actually faster than before in the race. So, caveat runners: don't do as they do, do as it works best for you but don't buy into the 'gel every xx-mins' mantra.

  4. pat

    i think we might be misinterpreting his "i carry no water or food" comment. i think he literally means he drinks water from the rivers and eats fruit from the land, but does not carry bottles of carb drink or gels in his pocket. remember that in europe, its practically standard to leave for the daily run with twice as much gear as what we might be accustomed to in the states. so to say that he carries nothing may be sort of relative.

    now, all that said: i have gotten the impression from his interviews in spanish that he does, in fact, eat very little during training runs. however, that seems to be the case with a lot of n. american ultra runners, too. what is definitely most unbelievable about his training is that he frequently logs 30-35 hours per week of mountain running. that's a lot of time in the mountains…

    1. Meghan

      Pat, I think your interpretation of Kilian's food/drink situ when training is correct. I think he does drink from rivers and the water spigots that are all over the mountains of Europe, and I think he does eat berries when he encounters them. Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Dean

    I find myself wondering — given that he has lived his entire life in the mountains, running like this — if he just hasn't super-tuned his body into being able to use fat as an energy source to a degree that a person who hasn't done this for 20 years simply can't. From what I've read about Kilian (besides being a genuinely fine person) he has literally spent his life "training"… albeit calling it play. And by running for hours on end as a child, foraging for food and drink as he goes, always at altitude… It honestly sounds like about as close to you can get to being trained as an endurance athlete from conception. With the added super-crucial bonus that the guy freakin' loves every moment of it.

  6. Dean

    One other thought — in terms of his pausing for an extra beat in aid stations — one can only imagine how much recovery his cardiovascular system may squeeze out of 5 minutes of being at-rest. It might be like me lying down for a 45 minute nap.

  7. Phil Jeremy

    I still can't get my head around 3 litres for UTMB! I am always fascinated at how little elite athletes seem to take with them. I've usually got a suitcase, 2 rucksacks and a saline drip with me…..no wonder I'm nearly always last.

  8. Mark Cooper

    I ran 129 miles in 24hrs in July this year and I drank somewhere in the region of 10-12 litres of many different drinks. That was indoor on a treadmill with fans blowing on me etc, could never get by on just 3 litres for a race like UTMB. Crazy

  9. gary

    a while back, i read this article by scott jurek and have used that info personally, and incorporated into strategy as crew for a buddy's first 100 and it works magnificently…

    my wife even made a spreadsheet to calculate carbs per hour for my buddy. when his carbs were right, he was right. when he dipped below what was needed he bonked. very simple. i had the same experience… carbs in range = good. carbs below range = bonk.

    http://running.competitor.com/2011/06/inside-the-

    1. KenZ

      Nice interview, and nice link Gary. Thanks for that.

      I usually go by the Hammer Nutrition guide, whether or not I use their products (usually not).

  10. Ben Nephew

    One of the craziest exercise physiology papers I've read reported beneficial effects of just rinsing your mouth with a carb containing solution at regular intervals. The positive effects were independent of sweetness, and effect size was 2-3%, which is substantial. The associated MRI work is equally interesting. While making sure you have enough calories is of primary concern in an ultra, making sure your brain is happy seems to offer some benefits as well. The paper is summarized here:

    http://jp.physoc.org/content/587/11/2425.full

      1. Ben Nephew

        Close. The fact is that separating the two is artificial, your metabolism is constantly being regulated by the brain. I haven't seen anyone look at the effects of mouth rinsing over an ultra length, but I'd be surprised if it didn't translate from hour efforts to ultras. Since this effect seems to operate in the metabolic range where most of us hope to spend much of the race (normal blood sugar levels as opposed to very low levels present while bonking), it may have a more signifcant effect on many runners performances.

        I think an interesting parallel can be made to shoes. While it is obvious that you will be slowed trying to run down a sharp, rocky downhill barefoot due to painful sensations in your feet, I think there is a broad range to this effect. Feeling the trail is good to a certain extent, and dependent on the trail. With the mouth rinsing, your calorie intake may be fine, but if you are spreading it out too far, you may be slowing down more than if you were taking in calories at regular intervals due to changes in your brain. With shoes that are a bit too thin, you run technical sections slower due to the sensations coming through the thin shoes causing you to slow down even if you don't register those sensations as pain. We are not concious of most of the effects that the brain has on performance.

        Getting back to Kilian and his diet, the beneficial effects of mouth rinsing are from carbs convincing your brain that you are not as tired as without the carbs. For a normal person with normal levels of motivation, these signals from the brain cause a normal decrease in performance. Someone who is abnormally motivated may be able to override this signals. Another possibility is that Kilian could see some performance enhancement from increasing his freqency of carb ingestion. Before WS last year he thought his fluid intake was entirely adequate.

            1. Thierry

              Hi,

              Concerning Kilian, he had the luck to be controled all year long. I am french and were working in sport nutrition with some of the top athlete (Kilian include). Kilian is controled a lot during winter period ( pierra menta, mountain world cup ski mountainering series…)and on all the main event the summer ( western, utmb, sky serie,…). It's easy to trace back clear control during all this live because he were controled as junior,senior and adult. Control in Europe are hard to escape except if you have medical approvement due by cancer or other very bad seeckness like…American champion in cycling… I was working whit a lot of top athlete in different sport and never , really never saw someone so humble and easy going. For the people that can keep the pace whit him, i assure that is a amazing experience. for go up it's not the best, in speed maximun he is not the best but when the trail is difficult for us it's a child place for him ( he go down like hell).Kilian is from Cataluna… place where sport is everywhere and at every age. Last time i where running there i saw every age enjoying the lot of trail and girl are also from the party. He really love mountain and protect it… simply that!!! when you are 7/7 on a big mountain at 1700 meter altitud you come harder, the body adapt himself…most of us discover trail running late…and in europe most of the best runner in trail were beginning by cycling and a lot of people have VO2 max up 88.

              A lot of people try to give bad reputation at someone else , a lot of comparing this own capacity with a top athlete, in general the same person that is not going to train when it's raining, snowing, freezing…All trail runner top athlete train for pleasure, and philosophie, some earn money but i assure you that is best to work as bank responsable than to have what get trail runner champion.

              Kilian is nice person and i only hope that he will follow this quest as long as possible. Time will said if i did two much. But i am pretty sure that he is the best trail runner ever born on earth (Sorry Tim and Scott).

  11. Eric

    I attempted my first ultra this fall and was surprised to see non-packable foods at the aid stations. To cut down on trash, they didn't want to hand out gels (and probably costs prohibitive), but I was struck by the finger food. (M and M's, pretzels, tiny turkey rollups), etc. Because I didn't want to linger too long, I probably didn't eat enough. I am accustomed to eating 250 calories an hour — think Cliff bar or a couple gels. So, I bet I should just pack my own goodies that travel well. I also thought the quality of calories were really low – sugary junk food. Has anybody else found aid station food surprising? I guess I should have trained with similar food. Next time…

  12. Dave

    Meghan,

    Thanks for the great article. I am glad that you could interview Killian and officially record his eating habits. I ran Euro style at Grindstone this year- carried no water and 100grammes of gel, and everything worked out perfectly. People were flabbergasted! I stopped at each aid station for 3-5min and drank 500mL of gatorade and ate two or three PBJ sandwiches. I like the strategy for cool races like Grindstone, but am interested to see if I could maintain this in warmer conditions.

  13. Will T,

    I'm still trying to determine if Kilian is human or machine. The man is amazing on and off the trail. We couldn't ask for a better person to be the "face" of trail running.

  14. Sam

    A great interview and some very amusing comments from you all! I met Kilian recently – he's so normal and lovely – but yes somewhat super-human and honed to do what he does so well thanks to his upbringing and training. But I'm happy being near the back and just loving it :)

  15. maria t

    very interesting article and I agree, Kilian is an amazing human being. if you haven't seen this video yet, have a look:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXjZrfupKN4&sf
    he is taking a break from the races to go back to his roots, to the mountains.. even though his young age, he has a very mature outlook on life.

    When it comes to what he eats and drinks during the races and training, its difficult for me to have an opinion as I have never run that far. Completed two marathons on asphalt and I have never run any trail run – I have my first race scheduled in a month time (only 16k) and really looking forward to that.

    Usually when I run I carry some water, depending on the distance, and for the marathons I drank at every station, but just two-three cups of water. The temperature was quite ok, not too hot.

    There was one comment in this thread, if Kilian has tuned his body into using fat as a energy source – I think its interesting, anyone of you prepare and eat fat and proteins instead of carbs before training or races? I eat a diet that is very similar to low car high fat (LCHF) and for my second marathon I had a big omelette with lots of eggs, cream, cheese and minced meat. No pasta and no bread at all, I felt no hunger whatsoever. I have been avoiding carbs for years and gradually started to increase my intake of saturated fat and it has not been in any way negative for my training or the progress I have made.

    Anyone else eating a diet like this and also running ultra marathons? Any thoughts?

    Thanks for an interesting article and comments thread!

    //M

  16. Wes

    If you guaranteed me that eating bear poo would make me *half* as fast as that dude…I'd seriously consider it (but I'd want that guarantee in writing)

  17. Greg Waite

    I agree with Killian. At races I see lots of people with stomach troubles from electrolyte product. Sucked in – its just product. Eating normal food suits endurance runs and suits your stomach. Have fun, enjoy what tastes good, enjoy your surroundings. Trail running IS NOT ABOUT THE STUFF YOU BUY, its about what you do.

  18. mrmjb

    I thought he cramped at his first Western States due to lack of slat not lack of water. I'd heard that the biggest change he'd made in his second year has salt tablets every 30 mins.

  19. Jason

    To each their own. you have to find what works for you and be able to adapt to different situations and what the race and trail throws at you.

  20. schlarb

    Europeans don't drink much water. Period!

    Any North American that has spent more than a day in Europe knows that Europeans don't drink water like we do.

    No nalgenes, no water bottles, no Gatorade, Big Gulp, et c… MAYTBE a 10oz bottle of carbonated water with lunch, wine or a beer… Crazy! Even at European marathons, water is hard to come by and isn't supplied every half mile like here in the US.

    Europeans and how much water they consume during an ultra, or lack of it, is culturally ingrained into their lives from the get go. The huge water disparity certainly isn’t because the temps are SO much cooler in the Alps than the Rockies, or that Killian is a mutant being, it is because they train to go on less water from birth.

  21. Meghan

    Dave, thanks for the comment and thanks for helping to spur this article with our discussion in Italy. :) Supercool to hear that Euro-style nutrition worked for you at Grindstone. If you continue to race this way, I'd love to hear more about your experiences. Happy running!

  22. Meghan

    mrmjb, check out this interview that Bryon did with Kilian after the 2010 WS100, http://www.irunfar.com/2010/06/kilian-jornet-post…. He talks about wanting to carry both water and salts with him on the trail in future WS100 races.

    As we trail and ultrarunners know, hydration and electrolyte balance are intertwined. If one is off, the other is, in almost every case, out of balance as well. Who knows, for certain, what ailed Kilian that 2010 day in June, but it was likely a combination of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

    Check out the second half of this article's interview. Kilian says that, at the 2011 WS100, he took salt every hour at the beginning of the race and every 30 minutes at the end.

    Thanks for the comment!

  23. Mike Papageorge

    It's interesting hearing him talk about the heat at WS, seeing as he is Spanish. I'm a Canadian and been in Spain for 10 years. Its hot here!!

    Racing last year's Al Andalus (http://www.alandalus-ut.com/) in southern Spain we had days where we saw close to 50C (122F) in the mid-afternoon. Perhaps he should get South away from the Alps and Pyrenees.

    @schlarb, I disagree there. At Al Andalus this summer people were very well hydrated, carrying upwards of a litre of water between 10km aid stations…

  24. Jared Friesen

    I drank about 3 liters in a trail marathon I did this summer. I tend to get really thirsty after a period of about 4 hours (I completed the race in 5). I know that Anton doesn't drink or eat much either and I agree with him that you can train your body, but only to a point. You need to do what is best for you as a runner and not what is best for someone else.

  25. Digby

    Its all in the training! I used to be a guzzler and a muncher and couldnt understand why a freind of mine only ate half a pack of sweets and 3/4 litre on a 9 hour run compared to my eating and drinking fest!

    After reading an article about training your body to utilise fat instead of relying on carbs, I started my new training methods. Train on empty and drink less and sure enough your body adapts. Now I eat half the amount and drink half the amount but do not suffer any more. Obvious benefit is not having to cart it round! Have I turned into killian… only in my dreams!!! Picture a Kalahari bushmen running for hours in a persistence hunt, living off the land, eating and drinking minimal amounts; that is all that Killian has lerned to do. Its natural; Our reliance on high energy drinks etc is not natural and is just in my mind a con by all the companies which we readily believe.

  26. Anonymous

    Ok.. He said 13 liters everyone…. Also there are people who need much less due to efficient metabolisms… I once ran 40 miles (chilly weather) on 1.5 liters and 50k on 1 liter (chilly weather). And I routinely run 3 hours on nothing if the weather is chilly… If above 50F I'll take half liter or more. Training in a state of slight deprivation trains the body to become efficient.

  27. Francis

    he said that he gets everything he needs from the mountain. on his training runs he picks berries and drinks from streams in the mountains. i don't think he's necessarily running on empty if he's doing this throughout his runs.

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