Trying to Figure Out How to Fuel for Your Virtual Races? Take a Cue from Ultra Runners

Self-supported races are a new frontier in planning, something these athletes know well.

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As local and destination races alike continue to be canceled, the remainder of this year’s competition schedule is largely trending toward virtual triathlons. On the one hand, this race format offers athletes a degree of flexibility and approachability that can sometimes be lacking from organized events, all the while preserving the sport’s sense of community during this unpredictable time. But self-supported racing requires significantly more planning to pull off safely, particularly where fuel and hydration are concerned.

In addition to planning when to fuel up and how much to consume, athletes also need to consider how to store their preferred combination of water, chews, gels, or sports drink during each leg of the race. While members of the tri community may not have faced this exact challenge before, it’s one that ultrarunners—for whom 50 kilometer-long unsupported training runs are hardly unusual—know well. To help you figure out how to structure your nutrition plan for a self-supported race day nutrition, we spoke with Hillary Allen, a world-ranked ultra runner and coach with a Master’s degree in neuroscience and Stephanie Howe, a professional ultra runner with a PhD in nutrition and exercise science. Here’s what they had to say about nutrition for virtual races.

Brush Up on Sports Nutrition

To understand how to fuel for a race or training session and to make sense of the range of gels, chews, sports drinks, and energy bars on the market, it’s useful to brush up on your knowledge of how the body metabolizes nutrients to sustain race-pace efforts for triathlon.

“It’s important to know that, especially if you’re trying to push your boundaries and PR, you’re primarily utilizing carbohydrates and that’s going to be your main fuel source,” Allen said. “A really good measure is to aim to consume about 200 to 300 calories an hour. Though I think for most people who are running faster, that would be closer to 200 because it can be harder to eat. You might be on the lower end of the spectrum or the higher end.”

Dial In Your Needs

According to Howe, fueling incorrectly can have uncomfortable consequences. “There’s all these sports [nutrition] products out there and not all of them are created equal. Really you want to make sure what you choose is composed of either glucose, sucrose, or maltodextrin, and then some fructose.” Howe echoed Allen’s recommendation to consume around 200 to 300 calories per hour: “It can sound like a lot but that’s how you prevent GI distress and keep from running out of energy.”

For periods of activity that range from six to 10 hours, you’ll want to think about incorporating small amounts of fats and proteins into your nutrition plan so you’re not just eating sugar. “You are primarily using carbohydrates as fuel but what I tell my athletes is, if you’re out all day for five or six hours, even if you start at 6 a.m. you’re going to get hungry for real food towards the middle of the day,” Allen explained. She recommends snacking on some nuts or a trail mix bar, while Howe suggests something like a stroopwafel or a bar that’s similarly low in fat and protein.

Experiment—But Not on Race Day

There are many variables that go into figuring nutrition for a virtual race that works for you, which makes it important to experiment with different types and quantities of fuel during your training. You wouldn’t want to figure out mid-race that the texture of the energy gels you stocked up on the day before turns your stomach, or that the trail mix bars you keep stocked in your pantry for snacking are wholly unappetizing when you’re on the move.

“For training I always use what I use on race day because it’s good practice. It’s not like I have different fuel for when I go out and do these self-supported adventures versus what I do on race day,” Howe said.

Inevitably, carrying all of your own nutrition and water will require you to get creative with your gear. Howe recommends triathletes consider incorporating a running hydration vest like the Nathan VaporHowe, which can accommodate up to 12 liters of liquid and has ample storage for carrying your phone, fuel, a first aid kit, and survival essentials if you’re taking your tri to the wilderness. Allen’s choice of pack from The North Face eschews a water reservoir for two bottles, which she’ll top off while on the run with the help of a purifying water filter that she keeps handy. As with fuel, get plenty of miles in with your new gear before race day and you’ll be eyeing a course personal best in no time.

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