Ultra Gear Review: Trail 'Food'


Almost anyone can run an Ultra- so long as they actually want to.  Long distance events are 90% mental.  "Whether you think you can or think your can't, you're right"...so true! 

Once the motivation is taken care of, the human body will adapt to the huge physical demands of long distance running through consistent, progressive increments of overload in training.  Pushing the body 'too much, too soon' is the biggest risk during training and the perfect balance between work and rest is unique to every individual.  But with enough time and patience, the training principles of overload, adaptation, specificity, recovery and tapering will get most of us to the start line.

Race day is a celebration!  After months of early mornings, back to back runs and missed Friday night drinks, the hard work is done.  The training is complete.  All of the miles are in the bank.  The body is feeling rested (hopefully:) after a recovery taper period.  Bring on the adventure!

On race day, the focus swings from Training Principles to Race Day Strategies.   How well you follow your race plan and take care of your body will ultimately determine your race fate.  There are many elements out of your control in endurance racing- weather, terrain and temperature to name a few.  The importance of monitoring the elements that are actually under your control cannot be emphasized enough.  I call this Personal Management, and the three main elements include: Fuel, Pacing and Self Care.  Losing track of one of these elements can take a race experience from good to bad in an amazingly short period of time.  I have experienced and witnessed this countless times during endurance racing over the years!  Wounded soldiers screaming with cramps on the side of the trail.  Barfing Bob behind the bushes.  Trotts Tracy stuck in the woods. Blisters the size of a baseball.  Chafing...oh the chafing.  Heart burn from hell.  The Death March and  The No Fun Zones scattered out on the course.  

But I have also witnessed and personally experienced the opposite for many more miles- the amazing feeling of surprisingly fresh legs rocking an endless mountain descent.  A strong, steady pace that clocks off miles on a steep climb.  The energizer bunny that just won't be stopped.  The gift of a happy body allows for a more joyful, present experience in the mountains and through the beautiful forests.  Less aches and pains, means more energy to enjoy the views, share the moment with racing friends and really soak in the experience.

I will tackle each of these 'Personal Management' components in separate posts, starting with the big one: Food!  

Trail 'Food'.

Food = Fuel.  Your body is the vehicle and endurance events are one long, crazy cross country road trip.  You will encounter massive climbs, never ending descents, technical single track and long straight stretches as far as the eye can see.  But as long as you keep putting gas in the tank your body will literally keep going..and going...and going...and going...the human body truly is an amazing machine!

There are some important fuel guidelines that create a starting point for how much and how often to eat during endurance training and racing.  Read my 4-part  'Fueling Systems'  series for the specifics on how to fuel before, during and after endurance events.  The race day summary for events lasting more than 2 hours: 

  • Water 1/3-1 cup every 20 minutes

  • 30-60 grams of carbohydrate every hour

  • 200-300mg of sodium every hour

BUT!  Every single person is unique.  These guidelines are just that...guidelines!

Once you are in the thick of it, you will need to fine tune your own personal fueling plan.  Every 'body' is unique and we all have different nutrition requirements,  tolerances and taste preferences.  What works for your training buddy could be disastrous for you.  Listen to your 'gut' so to speak.  Ensure you are getting sufficient calories, fluid and electrolytes in each hour of your training, but experiment with the way you get these.  The most important thing is not WHAT you eat, but THAT you eat.  Digestion and ultra endurance running do not really get along all that well;)  There will almost certainly be moments or even hours when you do not feel like eating nearly anything-or worse.  This is a sign that you need to keep your fluid and nutrients coming in.  Don't worry about what you are eating at these times- just eat.  

Learn what gives you energy, makes you happy and satisfies your cravings in various conditions on the trail.  Training is the time to experiment with different foods, bars, balls, gels etc to find out what tastes good at different times on the trail.  Take the 'rules' with a grain of salt if you find something different that works for you.  Eat things that make you feel happy!

I always like to play with different types of fuel during my training and have had a chance to experiment with some new packaged and real foods this winter during my long runs.  I usually eat as much real food as possible and make my own bars, balls and snacks for the trail.Please check out out my e-cookbook NRG: Foods that will move you, for all of my favourite whole food recipes, bars, balls, sports drinks, smoothies etc!  But I also like to experiment with packaged fuel so that I have a back up plan and a bigger menu of items I know will work for me on race day.   Thankfully, there are now many more natural/less processed packaged fuels available on the market as well. 

Here are the results of my personal fuel taste test so far this year!   In previous years I have relied heavily on Sunripe natural fruit bars and Oskri bars for many of my training and racing hours.  But I can't even go there anymore.  One problem with training for endurance events is it can put you off the foods that you eat over and over and over and over on the trail- don't say I didn't warn you!

Real Food:

  • Roasted and salted baby potatoes- my absolute must have.  After about 4 hours all I want is salt salt salt.  And all I usually have is sugar sugar sugar.  I will have a few small zip locks in my drop bags with these little beauties waiting for me at aid stations.

  • Sushi- again, going for the salt. The nori boosts the nutrients, rice is a great fuel that is easy on the belly and they are perfectly portable.  Vegetarian is best for the trail- I love yam or avocado rolls with soy sauce drizzled (ok poured) over them. 

  • Miso soup- hot or cold, depending on the day.  At the 8 hour mark, if I could drink liquid salt I would probably do it and this is as close as I can get!

  • Almond butter and maple syrup or PB and honey sandwich squares. These can be made with bread or white sticky rice (squish the filling between layers). With a dash of salt, of course.

  • Tamari Almonds and Raisins - great portable snack that holds up well on the trail and is a good mix of sweet and salty. 

  • Medjool dates with the pits removed and replaced with an almond and pinch of salt.

Packaged Fuel:

  • Hornby Island Energy Bars- Gourmet Sesame flavour all the way!  I often make a home made version of these bars but the store bought version are just as healthy and travel really well.  Complete with natural ingredients, these hold up well on the trail and I am addicted to the molasses in them right now.  In fact, I have had to stop eating them for fear of getting sick of them before my 100k in May!

  • Pro Bar- I just discovered these this year and they are a nice variation from the popular Cliff Bar.  A second best to the Hornby Bars for ingredients, flavour and digestibility.  I usually nibble away at these bars- careful not to eat too much of them at once as they are harder to digest than more processed foods.

  • Vega Sport Endurance Gels- the lesser of all evils, these are vegan, plant based gels that won't do you more harm than good. They are, however, a unique texture that you won't be expecting if you are used to traditional gels.  The energy released is steady, rather than a big jolt that other gels may provide.

  • GU Salted Caramel and Espresso Love gels.  Yup.  These are as far away from real food as you can get but they will still be in my bag of race day tricks.  I will be bringing these gels for the final hour or two of the race to help me get to the finish line when my body is nearly done.  I don't usually consume caffeine (other than chocolate of course!) so these little gels will pack a punch when I need it most.  I will always have some on me during the race in case I lose my appetite- they are easy calories to get down if I can't stand the thought of eating anything.  

No Go for me:

  • Elevate Me Bars- YUCK.  These just taste wrong to me.  Nothing like food.  Never again.

  • Stinger Gels- Double YUCK!  I tried these because they were honey/natural sugar based and nearly gagged on the spot. WAY too sweet for me.  Imagine trying to eat a tablespoon of honey while running.  If that sounds tasty to you, then these are all yours!

What are your favourite snacks for endurance training and racing?  Please share in the comments!  OK- if you made it this far, you are definitely procrastinating doing something!  Go for a run instead! 

Happy Trails,