What did I eat and drink during a 5 day ultra-marathon

A month ago I completed Ultra X Jordan. A 5-day race covering 220km in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan.

– 18kg drop bag left at camp

– Race vest to carry food, drink, mandatory kit each day.

– Race provided: cold and hot water only.

As a sports dietitian this provided me with a great opportunity to put the evidence into practice and test out lots of endurance nutrition strategies. I thought it may be interesting to some to see what I actually managed to eat. I appreciate this is one race, and each race will have different requirements, temperatures and conditions which will affect nutrition provision and strategies. So therefore, please note, this is not me recommending what you should eat, but more an opportunity to review this and maybe give a couple of top tips.

Planning

I spent a number of months testing foods in advance of this race. I used my training runs to test out a few new products I had never tried before. Firepot meals do smaller tester size meal packs, so I ordered some of these to trial in advance. They made handy work lunches when I didn’t have anything else!

The weight limit, although quite generous for this race, it still required balancing your food and equipment to ensure you remained under this. I took a couple of trips to the supermarket, just to wonder down the aisles and seek out any good options I may not of thought before. I was looking for highest calorie/carbohydrate/protein to weight ratio. This may seem quite extreme, but I felt like this was only going to be helpful for race food but also for my job in the future for clients. Best discoveries included olives in a pouch, chocolate filled crepes and dried apples!

My approach

My approach was to have as much variety as possible. I am generally quite good at running and eating and luckily do not generally suffer with gastrointestinal issues. However due to the repeated nature of this race was unknown. Appetites are often diminished in the heat, so being smart with nutritionally dense options was important. The mandatory equipment stated we had to have a minimum of 2000kcal per day. I aimed to get at least 2000kcal from camp nutrition, then between 1000-2000kcal whilst running.

Breakfast

Breakfast was a struggle for most, which perhaps is unsurprising given a short and uncomfortable night’s sleep and an early wake up call. My alarms were set anywhere between 3-5.30am. Luckily, I am the kind of person that can eat breakfast at any time of day which I think worked well in my favour across this race. I stuck to the same breakfast everyday can be a gamble, but personal preference (in real life I’ve eaten the same breakfast for the past 20 years so no time to break a habit of a lifetime!). I chose porridge pots – 2 pots and extra raisins, a high calorie and carbohydrate option.

Another bonus for me was distraction. Due to multiple blisters I spent every morning having my blisters popped and dressed by the medics. Although not the nicest distraction it meant I ate my porridge whilst hardly thinking about it. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend getting blisters to help eat your breakfast!

Whilst running

From practising in training, I knew that in the heat sports gels got more sickly sweet than at cooler temperatures so I limited these and choose to use them earlier in the day whilst it was cooler to make them more palatable. I had a selection of High5 and Nutrition X gels, and took a maximum of 3 per day. The Veloforte chews were a great option and easy to eat. I also took some Tailwind as a backup, in case I was struggling to eat my food. This was something that I luckily never needed to touch but was reassuring that I had an alternative if needed.

I carefully selected a range of foods for each day, alternating what I had and ensuring I had a ‘day off’ to help limit taste fatigue. Whilst a usual staple for me whilst running would be cheese sandwiches, these were off the menu due to the race location and lack of refrigeration. Finding alternative savoury snacks was the biggest challenge I faced.

The table below shows what I ate each day. I also packed enough food for 60g carbohydrate per hour. From the research there is always that 60g of carbohydrate per hour target for endurance exercise, but given my pace was quite moderate (slow), I probably didn’t necessarily need to hit that. Day 2 was noticeable that I didn’t eat enough, to be honest I was too busy talking for a lot of this to get in sufficient food!

DayDay 1: 38kmDay 2: 40kmDay 3: 60kmDay 4: 48kmDay 5: 35km
What I ate2x gelPercy pigs  Maoam stripesStroopwaffle x 3Dried fruit1x Veloforte chews2x gel1x chew1x mini cheddars2hrs worth sweets. 1x flapjack3x stroopwaffle 2x gels2x chews1/2 packet Percy pigsBig bag dried fruit. Moam stripes2x packets mini cheddars2x chewsDried fruit2x Fig roll3x gels1x can cokeMoam stripes 2x mini cheddars2x chewsDried fruitTangfastics 1x stroopwaffle
Carbohydrate per hour55g/hour35g/hour42g/hour43g/hour60g/hour

Wouldn’t take next time: fig rolls

Reason: I had wrapped them in cling film a few days before and they didn’t keep their freshness, so were too dry to properly enjoy.

Best choice: Mini cheddars

Reason: Pretty indestructible, best savoury option out there.

Post stage

After finishing each stage there was a lot of admin to complete – wash, re-pack bag for the morning, book a slot with the therapists, rest and attempt to stretch. Whilst doing these tasks I focused on snacking on high protein and carbohydrate options to help with recovery as much as possible. Unfortunately, I do not like protein shakes as these would have been a great option and something a number of other runners used.

Option included: beef jerky, saucisson sticks (French charcuterie dried meat sticks), Pringles, tuna, nuts, olives, crunchy corn, Tuc biscuits, Miso soup.

Wouldn’t take next time: Tuc biscuits

Reason: Not sturdy enough!

Best choice: Olives

Reason: Tasty, salty and felt like I was eating something fresh (a novelty!).

Evening meal

In these scenarios freeze dried meals are a staple. They are light, only require water, are high calorie and convenient. I chose to only have one per day to limit taste fatigue. I opted for the larger portion which had up to 1000kcal per portion. Others went for multiple meals per day. The faster runners had a good proportion of the afternoon so tended to have two meals. For the slower end of the pack (myself included), one meal felt sufficient due to less time (important to note we tended to go to bed at 8pm).

One secret weapon was to bring parmesan – a versatile option to perk up any meal. This caused a bit of jealousy in camp and even a nickname from another runner who sought me out to boost his carbonara freeze dried meal. Another top tip is to have a little treat, mine was Galaxy Minstrels – little bit of chocolate was always a delight to have alongside my evening cup of tea (plus super high in carbs and calories to help minimise the deficit).

Wouldn’t take next time: Firepot Porcini risotto

Reason: Too stodgy – this most likely is my cooking technique though

Best choice: Summit to Eat Spicy pasta arrabiata

Reason: Delicious, enjoyed so much I had it for two evenings.

Fluid

Given the location, hydration was always going to be a key area to focus on. Temperatures were luckily not that high on the first couple of days (max 25 degrees C), but increased up to 35 degrees C mid-week. Electrolytes were going to be super important here. I chose Nutrition X hydra + blackcurrant flavour tabs, simply because I found them most palatable.

My strategy was for 500ml water and 500ml electrolytes between every aid station (7km apart).

At the end of the day, I had 500ml pineapple and mango SIS electrolyte (to mix up the flavours) to help with rehydrate, and sipped on water throughout the afternoon/evening. Then most importantly was a cup of tea to start and finish the day

Reflections

On the whole I was really pleased with how my nutrition strategy worked. I loved the variety of food I had and genuinely looked forward to most of my meals. At times, eating whilst running was a chore, but knowing the importance of this I forced myself to continue. Pre race I was concerned that I only had one freeze-dried meal when everyone else on the Whatsapp group was taking a lot more. However, I stuck to my plan and it worked.

So going forwards a few words and recommendations:

  • Stick to what you know and what you like. Don’t get lured into having different options just because others are.
  • Make sure you practice everything before and ideally test it out in the same conditions.
  • Mix it up everyday to give you variety
  • Give yourself a treat, it’ll really boost your mood
  • A common theme around camp was ‘I took what I thought I needed, rather than what I actually wanted to eat’

If you have a race coming up and not sure how to plan your food, then get in touch for that extra support and let me take the stress out of your race preparation.

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