Ultras or Eating Competitions: Eating for Ultramarathons

You’ve likely heard the adage, “Don’t try anything new on race day.” But if you’ve run a long ultramarathon, you’ve probably also experienced having to throw nutrition plans A, B, and C out the window, which leaves you, well, trying something new. I personally have discovered the wonders of a mile-80 quesadilla when nothing else tasted good, and run on banana halves and Coke because my stomach was doing what felt like backflips. More often than not, it is your nutrition strategy that goes wrong when you’re racing.

The reason why is multifactorial, but simply put, your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is incredibly complex and chock-full of individual nuances which can make it your secret weapon and worst enemy. In fact, one out of every two to three runners experience GI distress during training and/or racing (1). So how do you make sure GI distress doesn’t stop you in your tracks? In this article, we discuss how our incredible GI system works in general as well as during training and races. With this article, we aim to provide you with the tools to train and fuel your gut so that come race day you don’t spend half of your race in the bushes.

Figure 1. Author Corrine Malcolm enjoying a mid-race popsicle with her crew during the 2017 Leadville Trail 100 Mile, her first 100 miler. Photo: Kayla Dalle

Follow the Food: The Gastrointestinal Tract and How it Works

 The importance of carbohydrates in endurance-sports performance has long been established in the scientific literature, and becomes particularly important when we run past the two-hour mark (6). However, the journey of the carbohydrate from your lips to becoming effective fuel for your working muscles is not so simple.

Your GI tract is a massive, winding system that starts at your mouth, includes your pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and finally makes it all the way to your anus. (The final is something I never thought I would type in a publication.) For the purpose of this article, the most important features are the stomach and small intestine as they are the two most crucial digestion and absorption organs.

Digestion is the process of breaking down complex food into much smaller pieces, including water-soluble molecules that your body absorbs in different places in the GI tract. Two main forms of digestion occur, mechanical (or the physical breaking apart of food) and chemical digestion (which involves chemical enzymes to help break the food down to the molecular level). Mechanical digestion primarily takes place in the stomach but also continues all the way to the end of the line. Chemical digestion starts on a small scale in the stomach and finishes in the small intestine where incredible amounts of nutrient absorption takes place.

Figure 2. Digestion and absorption through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract has several steps from the time food enters your mouth to when it is absorbed in your intestines. Image courtesy of Alevelbiology.co.uk.

Humans, on average, have 21 feet of (really cool) small intestine! Additionally, the small intestine is lined with villa, or tiny finger-like projections, that increase your small intestine’s surface area, making it the literal hotbed for molecular absorption. Once carbohydrates are broken down into their molecular form, they are called monosaccharides–specifically glucose, galactose, and fructose (which are all simple sugars). These monosaccharides move across your small intestine’s cell membrane (lining) via transporters, into your circulatory system, and on to your muscles. Transporters are exactly what they sound like: they physically carry these molecules across the small intestine’s cell membrane.

The transporter thought to be responsible for the vast majority of ingested sugar absorption is the sodium-dependent glucose and galactose transporter (SGLT1) (2). What’s interesting about SGLT1 is that, as its name suggests, it’s also the transporter for sodium across the small intestine’s cell membranes, which influences hydration status and sodium blood-serum levels. Essentially SGLT1 works double duty.

Fructose, or the sugar commonly associated with fruit, has its own transporter, glucose transporter 5 (GLUT5) (2).  This is why even when your body has reached its maximum capacity for absorbing carbohydrates in the form of glucose or galactose, the body can continue to absorb fructose.

The final transporter is glucose transporter 2 (GLUT2). GLUT2 is the primary glucose transporter between our liver and blood, however, GLUT2 is also found in the small intestine and when it senses that the body is in a fed-state it will upregulate and enhance the capacity for glucose to be transported into the bloodstream.

Figure 3. Galactose and glucose utilize co-transport to cross the small intestine’s cell membrane with sodium via the sodium-dependent glucose transporter 1 (SGLT1). Fructose is transported via glucose transporter 5 (GLUT5) which is not sodium dependent and is highly specific to fructose. All three use glucose transporter 2 (GLUT2) to be transported into the circulatory system. For your information, enterocytes are cells making up the intestine’s lining. Image courtesy of Asker Jeukendrup, 2017 (2).

When you put it all like this, digestion and absorption seems pretty straightforward. Eat food, make food so small it’s microscopic, piggyback transporters to move food molecules from our small intestines into our blood circulation. Unfortunately, despite having feet upon feet of digestive surface area, the system is still fickle (but trainable!) at best. With carbohydrate intake, there is a complex interaction between numerous other factors such as the macronutrient makeup of your day-to-day diet (how many grams of carbohydrates you normally consume), environmental conditions (like heat and high altitude), sport type (stress from jostling of running, for example), the concentration of carbohydrate solution you’re consuming (which we will discuss in just a little bit), the types of carbohydrates being consumed, and even the carbohydrate source’s acidity (1).

Bloating and Other Unmentionables: The Basics of GI-Tract Distress

There are four main causes of GI-tract distress:

  1. Volumetric discomfort or upper GI issues (you have too much liquid and/or food in your stomach);
  2. Splanchnic hypoperfusion (there’s decreased blood supply to the tissues and organs of the GI tract);
  3. Decrease in enteric nervous-system activity (there’s decreased GI tract nervous-system activity; this is not fully understood but essentially it seems like there is a decrease in ability for food to move through the system because of decreased neural activity); and
  4. Nutritional-intake hindrance (you’re eating too little, too much, or the wrong kinds of food) (6). 

Some symptoms of GI distress are inconvenient and/or performance limiting; it’s hard to win a race from the inside of a port-o-potty. But other GI symptoms are more serious and can lead to longer-term health implications including impacting how your gut absorbs nutrients and minerals and the potential for microscopic blood loss in your stool (which would in turn have larger impacts on anemia-prone individuals). Milder symptoms include bloating and flatulence, whereas more serious symptoms include mucosal erosion and ischemic colitis (acute damage and inflammation to the GI-tract lining and injury to the large intestine/colon due to lack of blood supply which can cause post-event blood loss via your stool) (1).

The most common symptoms of GI distress in runners competing in races 67 to 161 kilometers in length are nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. In a study looking at two different 100-mile races, the most common reasons for dropping out were nausea and/or vomiting, and it was the second-most-common problem impacting the race-day performances among finishers in the study (3). Clearly GI distress can be a day-ender when it comes to finishing an ultramarathon.

Why is This Happening to Me: Digging Deeper into GI Distress

Bloating, belching, and regurgitation are the most commonly reported symptoms of upper-GI distress and are thought to be caused by volumetric overload, or taking in a larger volume of liquids and solids than what your GI tract is used to. This physically ‘stretches’ the stomach and causes discomfort (6). Think about competitive eaters: they don’t absorb any more food than normal people; rather they physically ‘fit’ more food into their stomachs. The same can be said for runners. Studies involving trained runners have shown that repeated food challenges over a two-week period (this can even be consistent or slightly more intake than usual of plain fluids) creates a significant decrease in gut discomfort and upper-GI distress symptoms during subsequent runs and races (6, 1, 2).

Maybe the largest known contributor to GI distress is called splanchnic hypoperfusion, which can be anything from a mild change in blood circulation in the GI tract’s tissues to a more extreme GI ischemia, or a total lack of blood supply (1,6). During exercise, blood flow to your GI tract normally reduces by up to 80% as compared to being at rest (8). This is because blood is being shunted away from the gut to the active muscles and skin. More blood goes to your muscles during exercise to deliver oxygen to them, and more blood goes to the skin to help dissipate the heat generated by exercise. This process can become more extreme in hot weather when more heat dissipation by the skin is needed and at altitude when your working muscles require more oxygen (1).

When blood is shunted away from the GI tract for an extended period of time during hard exercise, like while running an ultra, you can sustain a ‘gut injury.’  This gut injury causes a change in the permeability and function of the small intestine’s cell membrane, or how carbohydrate transporters (SGLT1, GLUT5, and GLUT2) function. The most common symptoms of splanchnic hypoperfusion are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and iron loss through microscopic GI bleeding (1).

Most of these symptoms are short lived and improve as blood supply returns to the GI tract. However, just like any other injury, inflammation is not short lived, and similar to your sore quadriceps post-ultra, it can take a couple of days to weeks for that inflammation to go away completely. The biggest impact of inflammation is malabsorption of nutrients and minerals post-race as your gut heals, so take good care of yourself after you cross the finish line. Avoid eating foods that are hard to digest such as processed and high-fiber foods because they irritate your gut; focus on foods that reduce inflammation and restore your gut bacteria such as fermented foods, good fats, and bone broth; sleep a lot; stay hydrated; and consider supplementing with probiotics and fish oil.

Figure 4. Hard exercise leads to a reduction in blood flow to your GI tract, or splanchnic area. Ischemia, a lack of blood supply, leads to hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, and causes damage to that tissue. This causes injuries to your stomach and small intestine which can affect the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients. Some of the function returns with the return of blood flow, or reperfusion, but other functions do not completely recover until inflammation returns to normal, or resting, levels. Some more definitions to note: ATP depletion is a lack of an energy source, acidosis is an acidic gut, ROS is reactive oxygen species, mucosal injury is an injury to the mucus membrane of the GI tract’s organs, increased permeability is issues with transporters, and bacterial translocation affects your microbiome. Image courtesy of Van Wijck K, Lenaerts K, Grootjans J, Wijnands KAP, Poeze M, van Loon LJC, Dejong CHC, & Buurman WA. Physiology and pathophysiology of splanchnic hypoperfusion and intestinal injury exercise: strategies for evaluation and prevention (8).

The other significant factor, and maybe the thing we can influence the most, is how our own nutritional strategies work for and against us. Some of this is influenced by our day-to-day nutritional habits, and the other piece is our caloric intake on the run.

Things that we know can cause GI distress and even ’emergencies’ on the run include diets that are high in fiber, fat, protein, and fructose as they all alter the gastric-emptying rate, which means they slow or speed food’s passage through your GI tract (1). Foods that are high in fat can cause gastroparesis, or ‘stomach paralysis,’ and slow the rate at which food leaves the stomach. Foods high in fiber result in similar issues but additionally can cause blockages in the stomach called phytobezoars made from the indigestible food fibers like cellulose. On the other hand, foods that move through the stomach more quickly include liquids and simple carbohydrates because they take much less time to digest into small-enough molecules to be absorbed in the small intestine.

Additionally, carbohydrate oxidation, or your ability to utilize the carbohydrates you ingest, is directly related to your daily carbohydrate intake. This is because the more carbohydrates you eat (moderate to high levels in your diet) the more SGLT1 transporters you have readily available in your small intestine. Remember, SGLT1 is the key transporter in moving glucose and galactose from your small intestine into your bloodstream. This might not sound like a big issue, as you oxidize other macronutrients for energy after all. But if you eat a low-carbohydrate diet regularly and try to only up your carbohydrate intake during a race, you do not have the transporters needed to move glucose into your circulatory system and to your active muscles. This is important because despite how well you oxidize fat you still utilize and only have a finite amount of carbohydrates stored in your body, so if you cannot absorb enough ingested carbohydrates you will eventually ‘overdraw’ your carbohydrate bank account.

This is also the same reason we should practice our race-day fueling strategy during our long training runs. The stomach and small intestine are trainable organs. Studies have shown that even three days of moderate-high carbohydrate intake is enough to upregulate your SGLT1 transporters (2). This would best be implemented on your intensity and long-run days when your body needs carbohydrates the most and at times that are most analogous to race day, at a minimum of four to six weeks before a goal race.

The other major cause of dietary-related GI distress is strongly linked to osmolality, or in this case concentration of the solution (the combination of all food and liquid) you consume. This is might be the most common race-day mistake. An osmolality issue could be from either the concentration of the beverage you ingest or a combination of the food (gels, bars, oatmeal cream pies) and fluid you take in.

Osmolality is important because hydration (and secondarily absorption of nutrients in your small intestine) relies on concentration gradients, or the moving of solutes (the solids in a solution) from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. In the case of nutrient movement, we are comparing the ingested solution (which includes all solids such as carbohydrates, electrolytes, branched-chain amino acids, flavorings, and more) to the concentration of our blood. Our bodies’ fluids have a natural concentration of about 280 to 300 mosm/kg (milli osmoles or solute per kilogram or liter of water). If we ingest something more concentrated than that, instead of hydrating and fueling ourselves, we instead pull water out of our body’s fluids and into our small intestine, causing GI distress and dehydrating ourselves in the process. This most commonly happens when we add whole-food calories or sports foods on top of higher-calorie sports drinks.

For most efficient absorption, ingest a solution that is roughly equal to the body’s natural blood concentration. If that sounds complicated, it is, sort of. But this is where running nutrition comes into play, as numerous endurance-nutrition companies have created products specifically containing optimal concentrations. Read on to learn more about this.

Figure 5. The methods of gut training and their positive physiological effects and subsequent performance improvement. Image courtesy of Asker Jeukendrup, 2017 (2).

How to Win the Eating Competition at Your Next Ultramarathon

  • Utilize a mixed-carbohydrate approach. It’s believed right now that the upper limit of your ability to ingest carbohydrates via one source and likely glucose is approximately 60 grams/hour. For your reference, GU Energy Gels contain 20 to 23 grams/gel, CLIF Shot Energy Gels contain 22 to 24 grams/gel, and Spring Energy Gels contain 12 to 20 grams/gel. Going much above that 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour from a singular carbohydrate source (all glucose) can lead to GI distress. However, if you combine glucose with another carbohydrate like fructose, you can ingest up to a combined total of about 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour (2). Use caution and self-experiment (preferably before race day) as too much of anything can be bad and 30 to 40% of people can have fructose malabsorption which will have you rushing to the bushes. Your body doesn’t know the difference between gels, chews, chomps, bars, and liquid calories. True, liquids and gels move through your GI tract more quickly because they take less mechanical breaking down, but everything is broken down into its individual parts and processed through the stomach and small intestine. The most common mistake is simply creating a solution that is too concentrated. If you need solid foods to help maintain that satiated feeling, I recommend ingesting them with water instead of a medium- or high-calorie drink.
  • Avoid prolonged dehydration. Shifts in concentration gradients inhibit your body’s ability to transport both fluids and nutrients from your small intestine to your bloodstream and therefore your muscles.
  • Avoid unnecessary ibuprofen use. Ibuprofen has been shown to aggravate exercise-induced small-intestine injury, increase rates of gut-barrier dysfunction, and can lead to increased risks of upper GI issues and mucosal bleeding (caused by ischemia-induced gut injury). Athletes who experience persistent or recurring GI symptoms should consider avoiding use of non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, Aleve, and Aspirin (1,4,5).
  • Avoid consuming high amounts of fiber, protein, fat, or fructose before and during your run as this food leaves the stomach generally more slowly or quickly and can lead to GI distress.
  • Practice your race-day nutrition plan. This means practicing how many grams of carbohydrates you consume per hour and preparing to troubleshoot on race day. Create an aid station during your long training efforts to practice your Coke, quesadilla, and potato-chip habit.
  • Train in adverse conditions and the conditions in which you will race, such as in the heat or at altitude. Different environmental conditions create new demands on your GI tract and require tweaking your nutritional needs and practices. Practice makes… for better prep!
  • Give yourself enough time to have a normal bowel movement before racing, and if not be prepared to carry some toilet paper, dig yourself a hole (of the literal variety), and pack out your used toilet paper.
  • Prepare for the worst. It might involve a puke and rally or a rest break, but you can reset your stomach following GI distress. Give yourself permission to slow down so blood can return to your gut, sit down and eat some solids, or nurse some liquid calories. Don’t let a rough patch ruin your day!

    Figure 6. Carbohydrate quantity and type and their effects on potential GI-tract distress. Mixed carbohydrates (glucose and fructose) allow for higher carbohydrate uptake with less risk of GI distress. Exogenous carbohydrate oxidation is carbohydrates ingested as opposed to using carbohydrates stored in your muscles and liver. Image courtesy of Asker Jeukendrup, 2017 (2).

    Figure 7. A graphic how-to for avoiding GI distress in your next ultramarathon. Image courtesy of Mysportscience.com/single-post/2016/1/20/Prevention-of-gastrointestinal-problems-in-athletes.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What has been your most successful nutritional strategy for shorter trail races, and what about your longer ultramarathons?
  • Can you share an example of a time when your nutrition went wrong in a race, what you think happened, and if and how you were able to recover?
  • What nutritional tips and tricks work for you?


  1. de Oliveira EP, Burini RC, Jeukendrup A. Gastrointestinal complaints during exercise: prevalence, etiology, and nutritional recommendations. Sports Med. 2014;44:S79–85.
  2. Jeukendrup A. Training the Gut for Athletes. Sports Med (2017) 47 (Suppl 1): S101–S110 DOI 10.1007/s40279-017-0690-6
  3. Hoffman MD, Fogard K. Factors related to successful completion of a 161-km ultramarathon. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2011;6:25–37.
  4. Gabriel SE, Jaakkimainen L, Bombardier C. Risk for serious gastrointestinal complications related to use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. A meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 1991;115:787–96.
  5. van Wijck K, Lenaerts K, van Bijnen AA, et al. Aggravation of exercise-induced intestinal injury by Ibuprofen in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44:2257–62.
  6. Costa R, Miall A, Khoo A, Rauch C, Snipe R, Camoes-Costa V, & Gibson P. Gut-training: The impact of two weeks repetitive gut-challenge during exercise on gastrointestinal status, glucose availability, fuel kinetics, and running performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2017. apnm-2016-0453.R4
  7. Jeukendrup A. A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise. Sports Med. 2014; 44(Suppl 1): 25-33. doi: 1007/s40279-014-0148-z
  8. Van Wijck K, Lenaerts K, Grootjans J, Wijnands KAP, Poeze M, van Loon LJC, Dejong CHC, & Buurman WA. Physiology and pathophysiology of splanchnic hypoperfusion and intestinal injury exercise: strategies for evaluation and prevention. American Journal of Physiology. 2012: 303 (2). https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpgi.00066.2012
  9. Fedewa A & Rao S. Dietary fructose intolerance, fructan intolerance and FODMAPs. Current Gastroenterology Reports. 2014 Jan: 16(1): 370. doi: 1007/s11894-013-0370-0

There are 34 comments

  1. Brian L.

    Great writeup, Corrine!
    But Kelly Agnew would correct you on one point: winning races from the port-o-potty is tried-and-true!

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Brian L., as editor to Corrine’s article, I almost edited that line out about 72 times because I *just knew* someone wouldn’t be able to resist commenting to this effect. :-)

  2. Michael P

    Is there any scientific evidence in regards to different body type/weight/size playing a factor into some of those numbers such as 60-90 g carbs/HR? Obviously runners, and especially trail runners come in all shapes and sizes. I’m on the lower end of that range myself (let’s just say Men’s size small for all my gear) – and I find that what works for me is always on the lower range of most of the recommendations I see online or hear on podcasts. That goes for both fuel and water intake. To me it would logically seem that naturally bigger runners (not overweight) would need to take in more calories. I know everyone needs to experiment and practice on their own, but would you say that is true, somewhat true, or totally false? I.e. all things being equal (training, nutrition, fueling practice, etc.) would there be any difference on average between smaller vs. larger runners in the amount of fuel intake that can or should be taken in?

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Michael,
      Thank you for your thoughtful question! Yes this can vary by size, the maximum capacity known is that 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour but you’re right there are generalized by kg guidelines as well. The consensus appears to be approximately 0.7 grams of carbohydrate/kg of body weight/ hour. So for example I weigh approximately 59kg (130lbs), and that would put my base recommendation around 41 grams of CHO/hour. This recommendation holds down to about 30grams/hour (42kg person, 92 lbs).

  3. Andy M

    Super to have some science behind the infamous GI ultra disasters! Maybe I missed this in the article, but is there an explanation for why sweet carbs (including drinks, gels, etc) stop being palatable (at least for me) after maybe the 50k to 50-mile mark, after which only solid and/or savory foods do not elicit immediate puking? I’ve survived the back half of 100s on nothing but broth and noodles, and at other races beyond 50 miles have wretched instantly on Coke but can then scarf down grilled cheese like its school lunch. I did share some miles with a physician at one race who insisted that some fat and protein helped the carbs to digest better (maybe by slowing absorption?).

    1. Nick D.


      You might try Tums. I had the same problem as you – and to me, it was a problem because those fulfilling foods are hard to eat, transport, and digest. The Tums prevent the acidic/sour stomach that makes carbs seem puke-y and whole foods seem attractive. Pepto pills also work, if you’re not into the chewable antacids.


    2. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Andy,
      This could be linked to something as simple as palate fatigue from that overload of sweet sweet sweet for a long period of time.

      Additionally, ingesting only carbohydrates (which are often sweet for sports nutrition) you can try to use products that have a little bit of added fat or protein which would create a savory flavor and can aid in feeling more satiated as well. Fats and proteins are both digested and absorbed differently that carbohydrates because fats and proteins are not water soluble like carbohydrates. This is why carbohydrates absorb more easily. The Dr. was likely referring to the effects of ingesting fat and protein with carbohydrates to potentially improve glycogen synthesis (post exercise primarily). Glycogen synthesis is how your body restores it’s muscle glycogen post exercise, and there is research to support that taking in a mixture of fuels post activity can help boost the rate at which that is completed, but that is slightly different than how your body is actively utilizing glycogen/carbohydrates during exercise.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      That’s wild Nick! There’s almost always a tipping point for me in a race where Coca Cola becomes my only option. I’ve fueled many of the last 10 miles of 100km+ races on soda. I also find bananas really easy to eat when everything else fails.

  4. Steve bain

    Very interesting read. It is mentioned regularly that you should not eat high fat food as your gut will struggle to break it down. I’m assuming this advice is not the same for a fat adapted ( keto ) athlete as it’s common to fuel on things like fat bombs, nut butters etc. Is there a formula to work out the different rate of carbs needed as a fat adapted runner ? Especially one who has carb refed prior to the race so they will still be fueling on endogenous ketones and carbs for food simultaneously. Is there any articles written about this that you know of . Thx Steve

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Steve,

      Thank you for this great question! I’ll wager a question to start. Your body has approximately ~70,000 calories of fat stored in it and only about 2,000 calories of carbohydrates. As a fat adapted athlete you still utilize a % of your energy from carbohydrates every hour, I think on average fat oxidation rates at sub maximal (aerobic or below 65% of Vo2max, some very very fat adapted athletes have been able to exercise as hard as 85% of Vo2max and still burn more fats than carbs) is ~0.6 gram/min, ~36gram fat/hour, ~324 calories fat/hour. So running a 24 hour race at that rate would only burn 7,776 calories of fat. So does at a fat adapted athlete even need to take in calories of fat during a race if you are not going to run out? I do realize your body likes to digest what is most readily available Additionally, you are still utilizing carbohydrates during that time, but with only 2,000 calories stored in your body, when will you run out? You still have to deposit carbohydrates into your bank or you overdraw that account, you will run out independent of how efficient you are at oxidizing fat for energy. I say this all mostly because absorption and oxidation are not the same thing. And even if you oxidize fat really well it still takes them much longer than carbohydrates to be broken down and absorbed to then be oxidized and used for energy. My advice for keto athletes would be to find out how efficient at fat oxidation you are individually at your ultra marathon/race intensity and how many carbohydrates you utilize still an hour. The likelihood is you will need much less per hour (Which is great because that likely means less GI distress), but that still might be 30grams of carbs/hour instead of 60, which still require transport across the system. Essentially as a keto athlete I wouldn’t focus on consuming exogenous fats during your race (they don’t absorb fast and you you have ample stores), but know precisely how many carbs you need still, and practice with it ~1 per week during your build up.

  5. Jonathan Gardner

    If splanchnic hypoperfusion is the “largest known contributor to GI distress,” as you say, is the only solution to it just to slow down to allow the blood to return to the GI tract?

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Jonathan,

      The answer is, sort of. Really anything to redirect blood flow to the gut. In a hot race keeping your core temp as cool as possible can keep your nutritional strategy alive, proper acclimation for altitude does the same thing. Or even selecting more easily digestible sources in the high heat of the day, or the high point of the course can help, allowing you to take in different sources at lower elevations or lower temps throughout the day (i.e. morning calories vs mid-day etc I’ll switch from gels, whole foods, to liquids, and then back as temp cools down). To save your race if it’s gone south sometimes taking that extra sit down at the aid station (maybe even 1-2 hours) to reboot get blood flow back and then carry on can restart your GI tract and turn your day around.

  6. Kim Gradwell

    Great article and excellent information. I’m curious – what would your thoughts be on the possible effect of food additives (like colouring) to the GI system? For example, is ‘blue’ Gatorade going to affect a runner differently than ‘orange’? I wonder sometimes if some of my GI distress is caused by preservatives and/or additives in some of the gel/gu/electrolyte products.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Kim,

      There biggest effect is going to be how they alter the osmolality (concentration) of the solution. Anything added to the solution, preservatives, electrolytes, flavoring, coloring all adds up. The issue is when companies do not account for that. Most medium calorie (70-90calories/16 ounces or ~4% carbohydrate solution) are going to be well under the concentration gradient and be easily absorbable. You’ll see most sports nutrition companies particularly Gu, Skratch Labs, Clif, Nuun offer something in this range, and take these things into account. Other companies that add things for mass appeal (gatorade has fallen into this trap before) like making them sweeter, colored, longer shelf life, run into those issues and are more likely to cause GI issues.

  7. Dagmar P.

    You mention tons of types of foods to avoid prior to race day, high fats, fiber, protein, etc. Do you have examples of what we can or should be eating to prep? Examples of real food that is low in all those things and can set us up the right way? Nutrition has never been my strong point, I survive most races on oranges, coke, and PBJs…

  8. John

    Cycling and triathlon figured all of this stuff out decades ago, in great detail and in controlled studies and “real” race scenarios as well that somehow seem to escape the MUT crowd. These are published, accessible, commonly referenced…

    If anyone is honestly trying to find answers to these fueling questions stop consulting the ultra running crowd and get to the serious peeps, u can find all this, it’s been worked out by every successful cycling team and many others for decades…. ultras need to grow up and stop the on/off touchy freely blshit approaches to optimal performance, but that’s what the community loves to talk about so good luck

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi John,

      Thanks for you comment. You’re correct that there have been numerous cycling and triathlon studies done over the years (there’s a ton of money in those sports industries to help drive them). Jeukendrup, who I actually heavily reference here also did a lot of those cycling specific studies and still found it an interesting enough question to ask it about running/ultra running as well. Running and particularly MUT have taken a good bit of that data and applied it to the sport, and although there are similarities there are also numerous differences. The mechanical stress of running and how it impacts your bodies ability to digest and absorb food is quite difference than being on the bike for example, and that jostling impacts splanchnic hypoperfusion and hormone secretion (specifically ghrelin and peptide YY) that impact nutrition while on the run. Adding in the total duration of many ultra races is another consideration that although has been looked at in ironman participants some also sets these research questions apart.

    2. Alex Parker

      As a former racing cyclist turned trail runner, I would suggest that while a lot of the basic physiology translates (and unlike so many of the fad diet gurus out there pitching “paleo” etc, Corinne has the science right), there is a key difference. This is the primacy of gastric emptying. You can stuff all sorts of things down on an 8 hour bike ride, and just let your system work on them. With no bouncing around (I’m talking road cycling here), GI problems are rare. Not so in running, obviously. Hence the need to dial in that efficient glucose:fructose mix to keep those transporters humming. Also worth mentioning is that sports drink allows you to “drip” the carbs in slowly, as opposed to in 100-calorie bombs, which may be too much at once for some folks, especially late in a race.

      1. Corrine Malcolm

        Hi Alex,

        Totally right the mechanical stress of running on the gut is really different than on the bike. Late in the race, in particularly hot and/or humid races, and at higher elevation the liquid calories slowly being let into the system is definitely much easier to digest! In my mind I think back to chemistry during my undergrad and all those days in the lab trying to perfectly titrate solutions ;)

  9. BT

    Great article! One thing that’s missing though is that actually both mechanical and chemical digestion start in the mouth already. Thoroughly breaking down solid food through masticating and mixing it with the digestive enzymes present in saliva makes everything easier for the rest of your digestive system. Probably not that important if you ingest mainly gels…but keeping those in your mouth longer instead of immediately swallowing them can have other performance-enhancing effects not related to digestion.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi BT,

      Thank you for your comment, you are totally right! Mastication + saliva are definitely an important part of the initial process of digestion. I’m a bit obsessed with receptors in the mouth and esophagus and we could probably do a whole article devoted to the swishing and gargling of different agonists! There’s definitely some fascinating research done in that realm and some more really cool things coming down the pipeline that I’m excited to read about

  10. Justin Andrews

    John, I wasn’t even going to write anything (and if Meghan and Bryon will entertain my comment), but I’d love to know your background. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re both either a triathlete or cyclist and ultrarunner. Because I would hope you’d be part of both or all 3 camps if you’re making such comments. I just rode 110km in cool weather, drank less than 1L of water, ate 2/3 Clif Bar, a Snickers because ‘Hungry, why wait’ and was fine. But for the mountainous 100-165km races I run, I would never be so indifferent as to my nutrition. What works in cool weather can be the worst idea in hot weather, and after 10-15 hours, all bets are off for many runners. Running simply produces higher sweat rates not seen in swimming and on ‘the windy bike,’ so no, it’s not as simple as you posit. Triathlons of the garden “Ironman” kind and bike races, except multi-day bike races, which are rare, don’t have to contend with the length of time we are often covering in ultras. In swimming and biking, HR is quite low compared to running, even downhill. There is no ‘coasting’, so Corrine’s excellent article takes that into consideration. There just isn’t the blood available to freely digest food when running, plus the jostling. Most anyone can get through a marathon leg in a tri, but 4 in a row with 10km climbing is a different animal. I’m not wholesale discounting the research and results put out by Tri and cycling folks, for I’ve trained with pro/elites in both worlds and gotten to know the top ultra runners in the world. If it was so easy, elites in MUT wouldn’t have DNF’s due to nutrition problems. But they do…maybe they should just read more, right?

  11. Phil Goulding

    I’m running my first 50k in a month and at 68, I’m not fast so it will take me upwards of 8 hours. I’ve been trying different foods on long runs, but they are still not 8 hours. I thought PBJ might work, but according to your article the PB part might not be appropriate. For a 4 hour run it settled without issue, I just had to have a lot of water to get it down. Suggestions?

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Phil,
      Thanks for your great question! The speed/effort level at which you are running definitely plays a role in how well you can tolerate fat while on the run. Nut butters are definitely a high caloric energy source that is rich in fat (2 tablespoons of peanut butter has approximately 16grams of fat). There’s actually been some research linking hydration and fat intake during an ultra to lower rates of GI distress, however in the study its impossible to separate the two, i.e. we can’t say it was the fat or the fluid intake that helped. In that study the runners reported taking in ~0.3-0.9 grams of fat/ kg of body weight / hour. For me at ~130lbs (59kg) that’s ~3 grams of fat/ hour. A PB&J sandwich at that rate doesn’t fall outside the possibility of safe things to digest. Most importantly it sounds like you have been practicing with PB&J in training runs, and that’s the real test. I would prep a plan B and C incase that PB&J does not seem appealing on race day so that your troubleshooting tool box is ready if you need it!

  12. Allan Holtz

    Started running age 43. First marathon age 44. First 50k age 46. First 100 mile age 49. Now age 69 not finishing 100s much. In between I completed over 300 times distances of 26.2 to 150 mile including 50 times distances over 100 miles. Started using race provided caloric liquids and solids indiscriminately. Had gastric distress often. For last 15 years I mix my own blend of maltodextrin (glucose polymer), soy or whey protein, electrolyte and water. I consume 200-240 calories per hour of this blend in 50-60 calorie gulps every 15 minutes of any race longer than a half marathon. I wash it down with water and consume additional water and electrolytes as needed based on temperature. Since sticking to this caloric regimen during races I have not had any gastric distress (upper or lower tract). For my non race daily nutrition I never consume this mix. I stick with normal fruits, whole grains, vegetables, lean meats, eggs, nuts and (soy, rice or skim) milk consumed in large batches once or twice a day after my morning run (1-4 hour length). Works for me, your results may vary.

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