If you are new to trail running or even if you’re already a trail veteran and you haven’t yet perfected your fueling and hydration strategy for training or racing on the trails then there are a few factors you must take into consideration when deciding on the most appropriate fueling and hydration strategy for your runs.
The first thing to recognize, as is the case with individual training plans, is that there is not a “one size fits all” fueling and hydration approach. Every runner has varying nutritional requirements, sweat rates and fat burning capabilities. A better understanding of your particular needs can be accomplished by testing and refining your hydration and fueling strategy during training. There are no short cuts.
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Although a separate topic for discussion, if you have trained your body appropriately and consumed a diet that teaches your body to burn fat (i.e. less carbohydrates and more fats and protein) as your primary fuel source (rather than sugar as your primary food source) then the need for additional nutrients whilst undertaking long training runs or during race events will be greatly reduced. Even lean athletes have extensive fat reserves.
Now back to fueling your body during long trail runs and races. It has been fairly well documented that consuming a carbohydrate drink that provides about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during long training runs or competitive events can improve endurance. This equates to adding about one heaped teaspoon of honey (for example) to 180ml of water. This helps to maintain fat burning for energy, coordination and also helps prevent feelings that your effort whilst running is more difficult than it actually is.
With your carbohydrate drink there are two important considerations you should consider: the strength of the drink and the type of sugar contained in the drink. Strength refers to the concentration of sugar found in the drink. The strength has an impact on how your intestines handle the drink, which then subsequently impacts on your metabolism. If at all possible, it’s best to make carbohydrate drinks at home from basic natural food sources that don’t contain unhealthy ingredients. This also provides an opportunity for you to modify the sugar concentration, sodium or other components to suit your own unique body requirements.
It is best to use food sources made of simple sugars such as fruit juice or honey for example. Apple juice works well but carrying apple juice mixed with water during a hot trail run could lead to the juice going bad so the environmental conditions also need to be taken into account. As with all foods you should test those that work best with your unique body requirements. For example, some runners are not able to tolerate high amounts of fructose (which is contained in both honey and fruit juice) as it can cause lower intestinal discomfort. Another important point to note is that some sugars such as sucrose and malt for example require digestion that may also cause intestinal issues.
If you stick to the recommended concentration of 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour made of simple sugars (that your body can easily tolerate), this will not remain for too long in the stomach and will be processed at a similar rate to plain water. If the concentration of sugar in your drink is too high however, it may remain in the stomach for longer and therefore absorption will be delayed. A final point to note is that while carbohydrate drinks are high in water content, they should be consumed in addition to, rather than in place of, water and sodium.
Some runners also like to include sodium in their carbohydrate drink. For most runners this would be around 500mg of sodium per 250ml to 500ml of fluid (this could be in the form of salt). Depending on your unique sweat rate and environmental conditions you should ideally consume between 250ml and 500ml of your carbohydrate solution every 15 minutes.
However, irrespective of your fluid intake, many running events or training sessions result in dehydration despite fluid intake as it is almost impossible to balance water loss and intake. The more water you can drink in smaller amounts throughout a training session or race, the less dehydrated you will become by the finish. In long events or training sessions water should be consumed in addition to your carbohydrate drink.
In longer efforts, many runners find that the addition of protein during training and racing is also very helpful. Personally I use Organic Vanilla Hemp Rice Protein. This is also high in L-glutamine which also improves water and electrolyte absorption. You can mix about 10 to 15 grams of protein into your carbohydrate drink.
Many athletes prefer solid food to obtain some of their carbohydrate and protein needs. I prefer to carry pitted dates, raisins and dried apricots for energy. On their own they are a little difficult to chew and swallow on the go, but with a quick squirt of water from your water bottle they go down like a treat. I also carry raw cashews (probably the easiest nuts to chew and digest on the run) and also with a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fat.
A small amount of fat can also be helpful during competition and help in recovery after competition. A small amount of coconut oil, for example, cannot only make some solutions or foods more palatable but can also contribute to energy needs.
Finally, and importantly, the foods you bring onto the trail should be high energy, light and easily digestible.
Reference: The Big Book of Endurance Racing and Training – Dr. Philip Maffetone.
You might be wondering what gives me, the author, the knowledge to be able to “authoritatively” recommend the above approach to preparing for a trail marathon/ultramarathon event. Well in my opinion, failure is the best way to prepare for success. And success is then validation of the changes you implement to overcome failure. I can tell you that as an ultrarunner, I have had my fair share of failure but also some successes as well:
Failures (I like to call them “learning experiences”)
2011 The North Face 100 Camsur, Philippines (100-km trail ultramarathon)
Completed 70 km
2012 The North Face 100 Baguio/Benguet, Philippines
Completed 53 km
2013 The North Face 100 Baguio-Benguet, Philippines
Completed 71 km
2014 Hardcore 100 Miles Trail Ultra Marathon (H1), Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines
Completed 102 km
Fuel for the Trail
Ezine: Issue 1, 2015
Front Runner Magazine