Trail Running 101: Nutrition

Trail running is growing in popularity. But, with so many options, it's hard to know where to start! So, we turned to our community partner, semi-semi pro trail runner and favorite Kiwi, Jourdan Harvey to share his experience and knowledge...

 

As you get into longer training runs, and especially with races, it will be important to start replacing your calories and electrolytes while you're running.

Your body needs electrolytes to aid in absorbing fluids. Some people also believe that electrolytes help to prevent cramping, although this has not been proven. As well as electrolytes, you will need to maintain the glycogen levels in your muscles throughout your run. This is done by taking on sugars, providing your muscles with more fuel to burn. Caffeine can also be taken during your run and may provide a boost or prevent you hitting a low. There are several sources to get your sugars and electrolytes, lets take a look at a few of them.

Gels

Gels are what most people will think of athletes eating while they are running. These typically are glucose based and have around 100 calories per packet. There are a number of manufacturers, all with slightly different recipes for flavor and consistency. Some differentiators in this category can be:

  • Base ingredient: Most commonly gels are glucose-based, however, you can get gels that are chia or fruit (fructose) based. If intense sugary-ness overwhelms you this type of gel could be worth a look.
  • Caffeine: Gels will have varying levels of caffeine. If you are a seasoned coffee drinker you may want to look into gels which keep the caffeine flowing, it can be hard to find a latte mid-race! Most importantly if you aren’t big on caffeine, make sure you check your labels when purchasing the gels. There is nothing worse than pulling out your last gel only to find it’s that triple espresso flavor with a large dose of caffeine that has been kicking around the bottom of your pack for a while.
  • Sodium: The consumption of sodium can aid in optimizing hydration, however finding the quantity that works for you will take time and practice. With respect to gels, the most important point I can offer is to know how much sodium your gels contain. You probably don’t want to be pounding a high sodium electrolyte mix as well as high sodium gels, but if that works for you great! Be aware of the total sodium intake you plan to be using on race day and make sure you have practiced taking in that amount.
  • Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA): Without going into all the research, the consumption of BCAA’s during exercise can help to decrease muscle and mental (central) fatigue. Some gels contain extra BCAA’s so this is also something you can check your gel packets for when you are shopping.

Chewables

I’ve kind of made this category name up, but I think of it as solid food that is designed to eat while you are running. For the most part I think of this as stroopwafels and glucose chews. I prefer to have food that I chew on, as opposed to gels, during slower portions of my races and on training runs. If I’m running an ultra I might choose to eat chewable food in the first half. I aim to eat chewable food when my heart rate is a bit lower and chewing will not interfere with my breathing. I enjoy the waffles as they have a different texture to a lot of the other food you might have while running, it’s nice to mix things up. The chews are really good for spacing out calorie intake. For example if a pack of chews has 6 chews, is 200 calories and my calorie goal is 200 calories per hour then it easy to drip that calorie intake down to 33 calories (a single chew) every 10 minutes.

Liquids

Liquid nutrition can provide you with electrolytes, calories, or both. Electrolytes are lost due to sweat while you exercise, and it’s important to replenish your electrolyte levels while you are running. The four main electrolytes you will find in most drinks are sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Some drinks also contain sugars, usually as a glucose/sucrose mix. These drinks are good for maintaining a constant fuel source, instead of having a bunch of calories in one hit, you can drip calories into your system while sipping from your bottle. As with gels, liquid nutrition sometimes contains caffeine, so be aware of this when choosing a product and look out for the caffeine content of other products that you may be using concurrently.

Aid Station Food

Aid station standard fare tends to consists of:

  • Liquids - water, electrolyte mix and sodas (eg. ginger ale and coke).
  • Fruit - watermelon, oranges and bananas.
  • Solid foods - PB&J, potatoes, Oreos, chips, pickles (don’t be afraid to ask for the juice!)
  • Running food - gels and/or chews

Look up the details of what will be available at the race you are running to find out the specifics. If you will be relying on the aid station food take some similar food with you on a training rain and make sure it sits well with you. Remember that the aid stations are usually an hour or more apart so you will need things to eat and drink in between.

Whatever Works!

At the end of the day, we are all different. If you think something is appealing get it and take it on a run with you. Does it sit well, do you feel well fueled? Even if you are not trying something weird, I’ve taken a slice of pizza in the past, take your gels or liquid nutrition with you on a training run and make sure things work well together. Practice how many calories you can get down in a certain time period. It’s best to get this all dialed in before race day to help make your day go smoothly!