Nutrition for mountain trail and ultra running

Last updated: 22-Aug-18

By Rin Cobb

Mountain running can be an integral part of an ultra runners training regime whether you’re going to be racing up hills or not. Some will use the advantages of running at altitude during their training where possible or may even be training for a race up in the clouds so how do you fuel yourself when taking on those hills?

By their very nature mountains tend to be somewhat off the beaten track so you’ll likely need to consider being self-sufficient for the duration. The environment you find yourself in, particularly if running abroad, can also be somewhat different to your usual run from home. As you would with your kit, you should plan your sustenance accordingly.

Fuel

As I’ve harped on about in previous articles, your body uses a mixture of fuel sources when running and along with a few other personal factors, it’s the intensity and duration that mainly determines this. With this in mind hills generally mean running at a higher intensity and so carbs will be used up more readily. If you’re more accustomed to steady state runs, naturally allowing your body to adapt to fat as your main fuel source, this may come as a bit of a shock to the system. Some will already be able to identify with this, having felt the effects of lower blood sugars if they’ve not compensated and taken in more carbs during these intense runs. Symptoms can include feeling dizzy or shaky, less able to concentrate, excessive sweating, moody or an insatiable hunger but these can all be averted by fuelling on the go.

If running up high altitude mountains, your body will also require more carbs particularly when un-acclimatized so you’ll need a few nutrition highs to keep you on the right path.

Fluids

Unless you want to turn your run into a Sherpa-type carrying exercise, you’ll probably want to fill up as you go. Luckily most mountain ranges have plenty of streams for you to top up those fluids. In the UK as long as they are fast flowing, they should be safe to drink from. If going further afield or unsure, make sure you boil your water or take sterilizing products to avoid going man down. 

If you’re running in colder climes, warm drinks are a useful tool for your arsenal to battle against the elements. As well as hydrating, they can be nourishing and help warm you up from the inside not to mention good morale when you’re cold and tired. Hot juice or powdered sports drinks, cup a soups and hot chocolate or a mocha for that caffeine boost are all handy options.

Finally its good practice to carry some emergency rations such as a packet of instant noodles that can be made up with hot or cold water, an energy gel for those low blood sugar moments and a chocolate bar to keep your spirits high should you find yourself out for longer than intended.

Global - Virtual

Elevation

A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity

Elevation

An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.

Brutal

Elevation

Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.

Expert

Elevation

Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.

Advanced

Elevation

Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.

Intermediate

Elevation

Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.

Beginner

Elevation

Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.