Best Food for Ultra Marathons: 5 Ultra Running Snacks for Your Next Race

Published on: 05/31/2023

If you’ve competed in any endurance activity, you are familiar with energy gels and sports drinks. But if your race is longer than a traditional marathon, you’ll need the best food for ultra marathons to get you to the finish. So what are the best ultra running snacks? We’re going to cover everything you need to know here!

If you’re new here, welcome! I’m Allison, a registered dietitian who loves running, the gym and eating the food my body needs to fuel my life. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s surrounded by diet culture and I want to give you research backed information on getting the best performance from your body by enjoying all food. 

Let’s start by looking at nutrition for an ultra marathon and what your body needs to fuel your run. 

This is likely no surprise but first on our list is carbohydrates. Let’s look at how much you need and what types are best.

Carbohydrates for Ultra Running 

For endurance exercise, like ultra running, your main source of energy is glucose and fat. Your body stores glucose in the form of glycogen, and unlike fat, there is a limited supply (1).

Not only do your muscles need glucose during activity, but so does your brain. Making sure your brain has glucose will help you concentrate and stay motivated. 

You need at least 60-70 grams of carbohydrate per hour for endurance events that last less than 2.5 hrs. Ultra runners, however, need up to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour (2, 3). 

The biggest obstacle to consuming enough carbohydrates is tolerance. During the course of the race, many ultra runners suffer from bloating, nausea, vomiting and every runner’s worst nightmare – diarrhea. 

Not only do you need to train your body to perform the physical work for your race, but you also need to train your gut to tolerate food, fluid and electrolytes. 

Recent research shows that if you can consume up to 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour it may improve your physical performance, delay the onset of fatigue and improve muscle recovery after your race (4). 

Not all food will work for everyone and it will take some practice and experimenting to find something that your body can handle during a run. If you struggle to manage real food, the best food for your ultra marathon will be easy to digest carbohydrates that are low in fat and low in fiber.

Carbohydrates from food come as simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and will give your body lasting energy. Examples of complex carbohydrates include:

  • Wheat
  • Pasta
  • Oats
  • Rice

Simple sugars are digested easily and will be available for your body to use as energy more quickly than complex carbohydrates. Examples of simple sugars include:

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose

When you take glucose and fructose together it has been shown to improve how your body uses the sugar compared to glucose alone. 

An added bonus is that including fructose also reduces the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) distress like nausea and vomiting during intense physical activity (5). 

Dietary sources of fructose and glucose include:

  • Fruit
  • Honey
  • Table sugar (sucrose)

Each of these contain a blend of both fructose and glucose making them good choices for your ultra run. 

Glucose does more than just fuel your body. It also plays a role in hydration, working with electrolytes like sodium to help your body absorb water from your intestines. 

More details on why electrolytes are an important part of nutrition for your ultra marathon next!

Electrolytes for Ultra Running

Carbohydrates aren’t the only focus of nutrition for ultra marathons. Your body loses water and electrolytes in your sweat and these need to be replaced.

Sodium and potassium are electrolytes that work together to balance the fluid in your body and help your muscles contract (6). 

Sports drinks and electrolyte tablets aren’t the only options to replace electrolytes during your run. Some of the best ultra running snacks also contain potassium and sodium. 

So where do you get all this sodium, potassium and glucose your body needs? 

Here’s my list of the best food for ultra marathons. These 5 ultra running snacks will help you finish your race strong. 

We’re going to start with my absolute favorite source of carbs and electrolytes – salty potatoes! 

1. Potatoes

Not only are potatoes a good source of easy to digest carbohydrates, but they are also an excellent source of potassium.

1 medium potato with the skin provides (7): 27 grams of carbohydrate and 500 mg potassium.

The real question is, how do you eat a potato while running? Let’s explore the options!

Baked or Air Fried Potato Slices 

This is my favorite method. I do mine in the air fryer and lightly toss with a bit of olive oil and salt before frying. At the halfway mark, flip and add a bit more salt. The total time to cook will depend on how thick you slice yours, and how brown you want them – 10 minutes works well for me. 

The salt is essential for flavor and replacing electrolytes lost in your sweat. The downside to this snack is that after refrigeration and packing, the potato slices don’t stay crispy for your run. 

Mashed Potatoes 

Mashed potatoes are another popular choice for runners andI know what you might be thinking – How the heck do  you eat them?

To prepare them you can boil the potatoes in a bit of broth or with a bouillon cube and use the flavored liquid to mash them. This will keep them low in fat and also give them  more flavor than just plain salt.

To travel with the potatoes, the most convenient option is to bring them in a ziplock bag and tear off a corner to squeeze them out. 

If you’re concerned with waste you can use a reusable gel flask. You will need to experiment with the right consistency for the potatoes balancing convenience with ease of eating and cleaning the flask. 

Potato Chips

This option won’t work for everyone. The fat in deep fried potato chips means they will take longer to digest and may increase the chances of GI upset during your run. They are delicious if your stomach can handle them and I know many runners who love them, so I included them on the list.

Due to the fat content, chips are best eaten in smaller quantities like a handful at the aid stations or after each loop of your race. 

The exact carbohydrate and electrolytes will vary from brand to brand of potato chips but to give you a rough idea, approx 7 chips (or 28.0 grams) of a popular chip brand provides 15 grams of carbohydrates and 170 mg sodium and 350 mg potassium.

If you’re looking for a crunchy salty snack but the potato chips aren’t sitting well, pretzels might be a better choice. Keep reading to find out why!

2. Pretzels 

Pretzels are the original low fat snack for anyone looking for a crunchy, salty treat. This also makes them a good choice as food for your ultra run. 

Each serving (around 18 pretzels) provides approx 23 grams of carbohydrates. 

Simple, portable and convenient. What more is there to say?

The next ultra running snack is not quite as portable as pretzels but still widely used by ultra runners. When you hear “carbs for running” – who doesn’t immediately think of pasta?!?

3. Pasta 

You don’t need to eat a plate of spaghetti with meatballs to get the benefits of pasta.

Chicken noodle soup is a good source of easy to digest carbohydrates, water and electrolytes. That means that it’s not only a good choice when you’re sick, but it also works as food for ultra running!

Ramen noodles are common with runners, because they are easy to prepare. Make sure you check the fat content with this type of noodle. 

I found that brands varied from 7-15 grams of fat per pouch. If you have issues tolerating food during your runs, lower fat will be a better choice. 

After a nice warm bowl of chicken noodle soup, you might be in the mood for dessert. 

How about cookies? Cookies travel well during your run and the sweet taste stimulates your brain helping you stay motivated when things get tough.

4. Breakfast Cookies

Don’t get me wrong, if straight up chocolate chip cookies work for you – Go for it! 

I was thinking more along the lines of homemade breakfast cookies. This gives you more control over the ingredients and may be better tolerated than more traditional cookies. 

There are many different recipes out there for breakfast cookies that usually have a combination of these ingredients:

Oatmeal: This gives the cookies complex carbohydrates. This type of carbohydrate will digest more slowly and help to keep your blood sugar stable.

Simple Sugar: This might be honey, maple syrup or plain sugar. All of these options will give your body some easy to digest carbohydrates that your muscles can use quickly. 

Fruit or Chocolate chips: Mix up the fruit and chocolate combinations for variety in flavor. Adding fruit like bananas or dried fruit such as cranberries, raisins, dates or apricots gives the cookies extra glucose, fructose and potassium.

Nut or Seed Butter: This is used to bind the cookies together and provides some protein and fat.

If you can Include small amounts of protein in your race day fuel plan, it can reduce muscle damage and soreness (8). You can read more on protein and muscle recovery in my blog post Protein for Recovery: How Much is Enough?

Wraps are a convenient way to incorporate protein and carbs together. Let’s take a look!

5. Wraps

One of the real bonuses of wraps is how easy it is to roll them up and stash in a pocket on your hydration pack.

Aside from ease of packing, wraps have the added bonus of providing a range of carbohydrates from 15-30 grams (or even more) depending on the size. 

You can use a nut or seed butter as a spread and add some quick to digest simple sugar with jam or honey. This will give you both the slow burning complex carbohydrates and some of the fast acting simple sugars. 

That’s a wrap on my list of the best food for ultra marathons! Regardless of what ultra running snacks you choose, it’s important to practice your fueling strategy. This will prevent any surprises on race day.

Key Points

When it comes to nutrition for an ultra marathon, every runner is different. You never know what obstacles you are going to face on race day and it’s better to be over prepared. 

Bring a variety of snacks and drinks that you have tested out during your training. Pack more food than you need so you have options if things aren’t going as planned.

Start fueling early. It is easier to prevent your body from hitting the wall than it is to try and play catch up while your muscles are still working.

You should be aiming for a minimum of 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour of activity for ultra endurance events. If your stomach can handle more, up to 120 grams of carbohydrate per hour may improve your performance.

Energy gels and sports drinks are practical and easy options to meet your carbohydrate needs. Ultra running snacks are also a good option to prevent flavour fatigue and hunger. 

If you want a personalized nutrition plan for your next ultra marathon – I can help! Contact me here and let’s book a discovery call. Don’t miss out on our latest content – sign up for our monthly newsletter. 

Until next time, eat well, live well and move well. 

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