If you like to run on trails and need some trail running nutrition guidance, this post is for you!
Trail running and ultra running requires physical endurance and proper nutrition to fuel performance and enhance the overall experience.
Whether you’re new to long-distance running or an experienced trail warrior, this guide will provide practical tips and real food options to keep you energized and hydrated on your adventures.
Fueling and Nutrition for Trail Runners
Whether you’re fueling for an ultramarathon or just a leisurely trail run, you need to have fueling and hydration strategies in place.
The trail running diet isn’t very different from food for ultra running.
When it comes to long-distance runs and trail running nutrition, fueling your body correctly is essential to maintain energy levels and prevent hitting the dreaded wall.
Make sure you fuel up properly beforehand. Here are some of our favorite options of what to eat before a long run.
So, what and how often should you eat during your run?
How Often to Eat during Trail Running
Ultra trail runners should aim to consume 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour from multiple sources, when running longer than 3 hours, to support training adaptations and to enhance real-time performance.
This can be achieved by eating a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose.
You want to have various sources of sugars because your body can absorb more (glucose and fructose are absorbed differently and use various receptors), and it usually helps ease digestion, making for more efficient absorption.
Many athletes struggle to eat such high levels of carbohydrates during runs, especially if they haven’t practiced it.
Experiment with different carbohydrate intake rates and foods to figure out what works best for you.
Training your gut to handle such a high intake can take weeks or even months.
The frequency of eating during the run depends on your personal preference, but consuming small portions at regular intervals often works well for most ultrarunners.
Remember that sports nutrition for women may differ from that of men. Women may rely on carbohydrates more at certain times of their cycles.
What to Eat for Trail Running Nutrition
Fast-digesting carbohydrates are a runner’s best friend. Here are some of the best carbs for runners, according to dietitians.
Foods for ultra running is another excellent way to sustain energy during an ultra trail run, but choosing foods that aren’t too filling or too high in fiber is important.
Here are a few snack ideas:
- Energy bars with natural ingredients
- Nut butter sandwiches
- Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
- Trail mix bars
- Fresh fruit like banana, dates
- Boiled mini potatoes
- graham crackers (with peanut butter)
- Apple sauce
- Salted pretzels
- Cookies (3 ingredient peanut butter cookies are a hit!)
You can even try many of these athlete snacks.
While protein isn’t usually considered a fuel source when exercising, it can be helpful for ultra trail runners to include some protein foods during endurance events to mitigate muscle protein breakdown and to help alleviate feelings of hunger.
Stick to 5-10 grams of protein per hour so as not to put too much strain on your digestive system.
Foods like peanut butter, nuts, and beef jerky can provide small amounts of protein.
You can also consume a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement if that’s easier to digest.
Protein for runners is important, but its prime importance comes into play after the run.
Fueling with Fat
Eating more caloric options, like fat, is part of the equation in trail running nutrition.
This is because it’s hard to meet your needs with only carbohydrates and gels, and fat often provides more flavor.
This is somewhat person-dependent, though, as fat does take longer to digest.
If you’re running at a quicker pace, you may have more digestive difficulties with high-fat foods, so ease into it if this is new to you.
Fat is a favorable fuel source during low- and moderate-intensity running, equivalent to about 55-70% VO2 max.
For higher-intensity runs (over 70% VO2 max), fat is not a sufficient fuel source on its own but could be incorporated as a fuel source to help when muscle glycogen stores become depleted.
It’s also important to know that for fast efforts, carbs are the way to go for performance and time. Fat can help with longer endurance.
Use these tips when incorporating fats into your trail running nutrition plan:
- Choose foods you are familiar with and have eaten before.
- Combining fat-based food with carbohydrate-based food, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is a good idea.
- Although fat provides a sustained and long-lasting energy supply, fats can be tough to digest while running, so it’s important to consume smaller amounts than you would carbohydrates.
Hydration for Trail Running
Hydration is essential to trail running for both performance and overall health.
Being adequately hydrated before and during ultra runs will help you to feel and perform your best.
Performance can become impaired with just 1-2% total body water loss.
Drinking to thirst is considered an optimal strategy to assure proper hydration during ultra runs, as long as you have adequate access to fluids when desired (you’re carrying them).
If you aren’t taking water and are relying on hydration stations, you need to know how to estimate your fluid needs to support your thirst until the next hydration source.
Remember, hydration is not just about water—it’s about maintaining electrolyte balance.
For long-distance running, you’ll need to use sports drinks or electrolyte-enhanced water, providing 500 to 1000 mg of sodium per hour, to replenish what’s lost through sweat.
Your sodium needs may be even higher if you’re a salty sweater.
Make sure to plan out your hydration ahead of time, or work with a dietitian.
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How to Carry Fuel and Hydration
To keep yourself fueled and hydrated during an ultra trail run, you need some type of hydration pack, such as a backpack, fanny pack, belt, or vest that holds water bottles or a hydration bladder.
Hydration backpacks and vests offer convenient and ample storage capacity for water and food during longer runs.
Alternatively, waist belts and handheld bottles provide a lightweight and portable solution for shorter distances.
Choose a method that provides comfort, stability, and easy access to your fuel and fluids.
Our ultimate list of Hydration Packs for Runners can help you determine the best option for your needs.
Recovery from a Trail Run
After an ultra trail run, proper nutrition is crucial for recovery and replenishing your body.
Food choices will be similar to what to eat after a marathon or other distance race.
Focus on consuming a balanced meal or snack within 30 minutes to an hour after your run. Use these performance plates as a guide.
If you don’t have an appetite, these recovery drinks for runners are a great place to start.
Incorporate lean proteins to aid muscle repair, carbohydrates to restore glycogen stores, and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to reduce inflammation and support recovery.
Hydrating properly with water and electrolyte-rich fluids is equally important to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes.
Ultra Running Nutrition Takeaways
It’s important to fine-tune your nutrition plan based on your preferences, digestive tolerance, and the specific demands of your runs.
Experimentation is key. With a well-balanced approach to nutrition, you’ll be better equipped to conquer the trails and achieve your goals.
- Notice how different foods and strategies affect your energy levels and performance during training runs.
- Consider factors such as the intensity and duration of your runs when personalizing your nutrition plan.
- Consider new trail running snacks, and start slow to find what sits best with you.
- Listen to your body, adjust, and find what works best.
Proper nutrition is a vital component of trail and ultra running.
By fueling your body with the right foods during your run, carrying your fuel and hydration effectively, and focusing on post-run recovery, you can optimize your performance and enhance your overall trail running experience.
Costa RJS, Knechtle B, Tarnopolsky M, Hoffman MD. Nutrition for Ultramarathon Running: Trail, Track, and Road. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2019 Mar 1;29(2):130-140. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0255. Epub 2019 Apr 3. PMID: 30943823.