Best Foods for Ultra Running

If you’re looking for ideas for real food for ultra running, this post will walk you through real food options and how to incorporate them, the logistics of storing them and more.

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man and woman running side by side

Learn how to store the best fuel for ultra running with these hacks.

Fueling your body properly is important for optimal energy and health. Fueling for an ultra-running event is especially important to give your body the energy it needs in order to perform its best.

Whether you need high calorie foods for ultra running or the best ways to recover, let’s discuss some food options for ultra running and fueling.

First off, let’s define what an ultra marathon is. An ultra marathon is any distance longer than a marathon (26.2 miles).

ultra runner with backpack and mountains in distance

Proper Fueling for an Ultra Marathon

Properly fueling for an ultra marathon requires having a nutrition plan, with regards to calories, carbohydrates, hydration, sodium, and some foods including protein and fat.

It also requires proper timing and ingestion of these foods and gut training.

While the basis of forming a half marathon nutrition plan and fueling for a marathon are similar in theory, an ultra marathon requires much more time on your feet.

Therefore, more energy will be expended and need to be replaced. While our article on how to avoid hitting the wall in a marathon is also replicable for ultra running, nutrition is key to keep blood sugar balanced, energy levels stable, and hydration and electrolytes for runners in check.

This sample meal plan for vegan ultrarunners gives examples of how to fuel a vegan ultra marathon runner, to give you an idea of daily needs.

high fat, low carb foods

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates give your body energy. They are the primary fuel source for moderate to hard exercise, especially for endurance (aerobic) exercise.

As exercise intensity increases, the percentage of carbohydrates used for energy increases as well, and the percent from fat decreases.

Carbohydrates are necessary to keep blood glucose levels adequate while running an ultra-marathon. You will likely want to fuel before your race by eating a meal or snack high in carbohydrates. Here are some ideas for what to eat before a long run.

Many ultra athletes will also follow in the practice of carb loading for runners, which has been shown to improve endurance performance by 2-3%!

If you’re wondering how to do it, focus on these best foods for carb loading

During the race, you’ll want to continue fueling with easily digested carbohydrates. The general recommendations are to consume 30-90g of carbohydrates per hour (or 200-350 calories/hour) after the first 45-60 minutes of exercise.

To do this, fuel early and often! You may not feel you need the fuel that early on, but it is better to start fueling early rather than waiting until it’s too late.

person taking sports gel when running

To achieve carbohydrate recommendations, many people use sports nutrition fueling products such as gels, chews, powders, beverages. But if these don’t work for you or you prefer to fuel with whole, “real”, foods, that is absolutely doable!

While low carb running and training may be helpful for metabolic flexibility, it should be practiced as it can lead to some gut issues and a high-fat diet may not be palatable for all people.

More on keto and running here.

Protein

While the body does not typically use protein for fuel while exercising (when there is adequate carbohydrate and fats taken in), it can be beneficial to eat protein to mitigate muscle protein breakdown during long distance running. It can also help to alleviate feelings of hunger.

When consuming protein foods during long distance running, there are a couple of things to consider.

First, start by consuming smaller amounts at one time as to not put too much strain on the digestive system, which may cause GI and runners stomach issues. Also, consume foods you are familiar with and have eaten before.

Finally, you may want to consume salty protein foods, to help with hydration, such as beef jerky.

bag with beef jerky

You can also consume protein during long distance running via a supplement such as a protein powder or a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement.

This post that breaks down when BCAAs vs creatine for runners can be helpful. 

Fat

When exercise intensity is lower, the body uses more fat for fuel during long distance running. And similar to protein foods, consuming foods with fat can help alleviate feelings of hunger.

Since fat takes longer for the body to digest, it’s important to consume it in smaller amounts than you would carbohydrates.

Again, consuming foods you are familiar with and have eaten before is always a good idea. You may want to combine a fat-based food with a carbohydrate-based food, such as a PB&J sandwich or a banana with peanut butter. This can help to aid in consuming enough carbohydrates while also adding some flavor and variety to your food intake for palatability.

peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Lastly, since fat is calorie-dense, it can be a helpful addition for ultramarathoners and ultrarunners to ensure adequate energy during long training and race runs. 

Hydration

Hydration is also an important component of ultra running. Make sure to check out this ultimate guide on hydration for runners.

If you are a salty sweater, you’ll want to be extra vigilant in including extra sources of salt or sodium in your food or sports nutrition products.

On average, a physically active individual should consume 3 to 4 liters of fluid per day. Individuals who train more than two hours per day should be consuming more than 7 or 8 liters per day.

Here are some more tips for hydrating during an ultramarathon:

  • Drink before you get to the point of feeling thirsty
  • Drink a couple sips or gulps (approx. 4-8 oz. water or sports drink) every 15-20 minutes
  • Train yourself to drink during exercise if this is new to you (try these tips to train your gut to take in carbs)
  • Sports drinks will also provide carbohydrates and electrolytes
  • Aim to consume 500 to 1000mg sodium per hour, though this is very individual and dependent on sweat rate, weather conditions, etc. 
  • Consider fueling with carbohydrates for activity lasting more than an hour, such as long-distance running

Real Food for Ultra Running

When choosing real food for ultra running, it’s important to choose foods that aren’t too filling, such as foods high in fiber, but that provide enough energy to keep your body going the distance.

Let’s take a look at what fueling before and during an ultramarathon might look like.

Fueling Before an Ultramarathon

General recommendations for pre-workout fueling are high carb, moderate protein, and low fat/low fiber. While we’re big supporters of pasta for runners for the night before, that won’t work or sit well for everyone.

Some high-carb, easy-to-digest options could be:

  • bagel with peanut butter
  • smoothie with dairy or dairy alternative beverage with a banana
  • white toast with butter or peanut butter and 1-2 eggs
  • 3/4-1 cup of oatmeal with milk, fruit and peanut butter

bowl of oatmeal with sliced bananas

Depending on how far in advance you consume the pre-race meal, you may want to add in a pre-race snack about 15-30 minutes beforehand, such as applesauce, a fig bar, piece of toast, or another piece of whole fruit.

Another piece to consider is caffeine. Caffeine before running can be advantageous and have performance benefits, if done properly.

Read this post if you’re deciding between coffee vs pre workout.

Food For Ultra Marathons During

For those who want to stick to whole food for ultra marathons, here’s a list of real food fueling options for ultra-running. Many of these should sit well in the stomach, but as always, should be practiced in the training cycle.

To note, while many of these are recommendations for ultra marathon nutrition during the race, make sure to listen to your body. If you are carving something heavier or saltier, your body may need that.

Staying properly hydrated will also help with digestion and runners gut symptoms.

Best Snacks for Ultra Running:

  • Whole fruit (bananas, oranges, grapes, etc.)
  • Dried fruit
  • Applesauce
  • Oatmeal or granola bites
  • Cookies
  • Rice Krispie treats
  • Baby food or pureed fruit pouches
  • Ginger candies (especially helpful for
  • Chips
  • Salted pretzels
  • Rice cakes
  • Honey pouches
  • Nut butter pouches
  • Potato or sweet potato wedges (in a bag)
  • Trail Mix or Trail mix bars
  • Energy/granola bars (can be homemade)
  • Protein power ball bites (use code BLT20) for 20% off
  • Jerky
  • PB&J sandwiches
  • Rice balls or a sandwich bag with cooked rice
  • Pickles and olives (for salt)
  • Banana bites
  • Cereal
  • Crackers

Many of these snacks for athletes are also fair game on the course.

Aid stations during the race may contain additional whole food items such as pizza, quesadillas, grilled cheese, pancakes, waffles, etc.

As always, don’t try anything new on race day. Plan out and experiment with your fueling and hydration strategies and logistics during training.

On race day, consume foods and beverages you are used to and that you know your body can handle well.

You may want to have backup items such as gels, energy chews, powders, beverages, etc. if your stomach becomes upset, and you are unable to tolerate real food fueling options.

runner with a red hydration vest on

Ultra Marathon Nutrition During Race Logistics

General recommendations for fueling during endurance exercise is to consume 30-90g of carbohydrates per hour after the first hour.

Breakdown of fueling during an ultramarathon (one example):

  • Begin fueling early at approximately 45-60 minutes into the race
  • 1st hour: Little to no fuel necessary – maybe ½ PBJ (~23g) or a mini Clif bar (18g)
  • 2nd hour: 30-90g carbs – 10 tiny twists pretzels (13g) + one rice krispie treat (17g) + 1 applesauce pouch
  • 3rd hour: 30-90g carbs – 1 large banana (31g) + 1 pouch granola bites (16g)
  • 4th hour: 30-90g carbs – 5 Saltine crackers (12g) + 1 medium orange (21g) + 1 oz. trail mix (13g)
  • 5th hour: 30-90g carbs – 1 applesauce pouch (15g) + 3 lightly salted rice cakes (21g) + 3 ginger candies (8g)
  • 6th hour plus: whatever food items sound good, taste good, and feel good! Keep fueling and hydration!

Options for carrying your ultramarathon fuel:

  • Race belts – can fit several fueling options
  • Running vests/backpacks – room for hydration and several fueling options
  • Pinned to body – for fueling options that are in packages or baggies, you could use safety pins and pin them to your clothes/gear

Most of all, have fun with your ultramarathon and practice your fueling as much as you can!

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