What To Eat During An Ultra Marathon

Written By Jacqui Bell

Despite still being in her 20s, Australian ultra runner and Ultra X Pro Athlete Jacqui Bell is one of the best ultra runners around and holds the world record for being the youngest person to run an ultramarathon on all seven continents.

26 February 2021

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My first ultra marathon

Before we begin, let’s just rewind for a moment to my first ever multi-stage ultra marathon. I rocked up with what I thought was all the gear and no idea… but actually it was pretty heavy, big and certainly not ideal gear, alongside the ‘not much idea’. As a result the first night was spent culling! I had spent hours going through food and equipment lists only to realise I was going to be in for a tough week if I took everything I intended to with me! Lesson one learned hard and fast!

I read in the rule book for the self-supported race I was doing that for 250km’s I needed a minimum of 14,000 calories. Some runners were taking the bare minimum and some took 25,000 calories. There is a bit of an ongoing debate on what encourages a better performance.

Everyone seems to have different views on this. Some say they perform better by carrying more food (approx. 20,000 cals), meaning they are running with a few extra kg’s on their back but have higher energy levels. If you are a 90kg guy compared to a 60kg woman you are going to need to fuel yourself differently… but packing 20,000 cals of food into a 30L bag is no easy task. Sure it might weigh more but trying to tetris it in… good luck! 

On the other hand some runners stick to the minimum 14,000 cals to keep the pack super light. Of course, 14,000 cals isn’t sustainable for a week of this sort of exercise but it is just one week. You will survive, but may be on the scrawny side of things after the race … this is to be expected!

So, once again I think this is a personal preference and depends on you. They say you play how you train so I always try to practice 2-3 big training days back-to-back to simulate race days.  This means carrying all your food, and your full pack.

Readers should note that unlike other multi-stage races (referred to above) such as the Racing The Planet Series, Beyond the Ultimate events or Marathon des Sables, Ultra X events do not require you to carry all your equipment with you for the week. A main bag is transported between campsites so that all you need to run with is the items you need for that specific day of running.

So, back in the bedroom of my first ever multi-stage race… you should have seen the look on two of the other ultra runners’ faces. It was the look of ‘this girl is going to have a grim week’. They proceeded to help me throw out all my luxuries including hair brush, deodorant, and I cut the end of my toothbrush down with just the brush head left. I had no choice but to get pretty savage if I wanted any shot at avoiding huge blisters on my shoulders from a heavy pack. 

Race one, my pack weighed in at 13.5kg at the start line for me – this was everything except water and a tent. To put this in perspective my race pack is now about 6.5kg’s when I race. Anyway, after day one (about 55km’s) I realised 13.5kg was going to be the death of me and so I proceeded to throw out about three day’s worth of food. How did I think that was going to end? At 22 years of age you do things and then realise afterwards that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the brightest idea.

I used to have a ritual… the night before a multi-stage race I would have a cheese pizza and be in heaven. The night after the race finished I would devour a cheese burger and fries! I would enjoy every single bite! 

But what did I eat throughout the race? Well, in my first few multi-stage races I was into the freeze dried meals. I would ‘decant’ them – take the food out of the packaging and crush it up into small snap lock bags and just cook it with hot water in one of the little bags they come in and re-use that one cooking bag for the entire week. 

Jacqui Bell Running along coast

A typical day in the desert for my first few races

Overall: 2,500kcals

My top tip is to choose foods that are as close to real food as you can.

Breakfast
Approx. 300kcals

Honey Oat sachet with water, Coffee sachet, a protein shake, and a single lolly. I had this weird habit, because have you ever seen a kid sad when they are eating a lolly? No! I would wake up some mornings HURTING, with blisters covering my feet. I would have that one lolly and the concept of a single lolly just always made me laugh and helped me start the day out on a positive note.

Snacks while running
Approx. 600kcals

Clif bars, salami sticks, GU chews, True Protein Endurance drink, salty Pringles

Within 30 minutes of finishing a run
Approx. 600kcals

Protein shake, half a freeze dried meal which would usually be mac and cheese. I never felt like eating but I knew for my recovery it was important to eat within 30 minutes.

Dinner
Approx. 600kcals

The other half of my freeze dried meal. Another delicious idea is a small sachet of instant mash potato. This combination is a winner. Any foods high in sodium hit the spot as you are usually craving salty things due to all the sweating you are doing during the day.

Dessert
Approx. 400kcals

Hot chocolate, some actual chocolate, a muesli bar, and occasionally a wrap with peanut butter.

Afterthought

Let’s just say I was far from ‘clean eating’ in these early days of racing. I had the mindset of “you know what, if I’m going to be out here suffering I want to at least be eating food I love”. I was shredding through 5,000-8,000 calories some days, if not more. On the long stages up to 90km’s I would be doing almost 200,000 steps, so I would sometimes even pop a jar of Nutella or peanut butter in my pack for the week. Classic kid I am, I was eating it by the spoonful at the end of a day. I now don’t advise this at all!

Some runners are keto (high fat, low carb diet), some runners are vegan, others go full gourmet. It’s a very personal preference and you can get pretty inventive with your food, you just have to think outside the box. As long as you are getting a big portion of calories back into you to replace the energy you have lost, you’re doing ok!

Fast forward to the past 12 months… I have now completed a multi-stage ultra on every continent, plus about 10 other ultra marathons from single-stage hikes to self supported expeditions.

My day on a plate these days will look fairly different. I steer well and truly clear of inflammatory foods due to suffering from plantar fasciitis for so long! I began eating plant-based a year ago and haven’t looked back, my injuries have decreased substantially and I enjoy the food a lot! I have learned that food and the way I fuel can make a huge difference in my performance, recovery, sleep and my mood!

I have found that in locations of high altitude or extreme heat I will struggle to take in my calories whilst running so I rely a lot on my True Protein Endurance drink which is liquid calories. I also eat a bigger portion of my calories for breakfast to stay fueled for longer.

My race nutrition plan now

After learning from experience, this is what a multi-stage day on the plate looks like for me now.

Breakfast: Oats, Protein Shake, Muesli Bar

Running Fuel: True Endurance Drink, Clif Bar, GU Chews

Post-run: True Endurance Protein Shake, 2 minute noodles, Wrap with Peanut Butter

Dinner: Vegan dry packaged food, another recovery shake

Snack: Handful of almonds, salted cashews or nuts of some kind, vegan chocolate

The way I fuel myself is forever changing as I continue to evolve and grow as an athlete, and I start to look at the 1%’s a little more. I try to constantly make little changes and set achievable goals for myself when it comes to food. I think it is very important to enjoy what you are eating but also don’t underestimate the impact it can have on your performance!

Top tips for ultramarathon nutrition

So, to wrap this up – my three top tips:

1. Practice how you want to play – try out your food and simulate a race day or even better two or three back-to-back race days.
2. Choose foods that are both delicious and nutritious.
3. Prioritise what you put in your mouth as it does have a massive impact – remember you can’t outrun a bad diet (sadly, haha).

Happy running everyone!
Ultra X Pro Athlete
Jacqui Bell 

 

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