OK so you know the drill – you hit 30-50 miles into the race and start craving real food – not gels, or sugar candies, and you’re sick of the sight of those sugar-laden cordial energy drinks. You roll into the aid station and there in front of you is a buffet of pastries, sandwiches, nuts, chips, candies, noodles, fruit, soups and sometimes much, much more….  where to start?

Now with experience, we get smarter on what works for us…and more importantly – what doesn’t. Generally speaking,  for most people, anything that’s highly-processed and full of sugar (fructose) will launch most of us into abdominal/gastro/gut issues (bloating, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea) later in the race. Don’t think it’s in your head, this is a well-researched scenario for ultra-athletes…
Here’s an article on GI-issues, being the number #1 reason for DNF (Did Not Finish) in Ultramarathons and Ironman-triathlons.

So what do you do?   Well, whole-foods made of predominately complex carbohydrates, some fat and protein would seem best..and it’s what you notice the pro athletes are taking at the aid stations.

I want to talk about two foods – that for the ‘higher-fat, carb-conscious’ ultra/Ironman athlete, may not be food first on your list.  However, when you look at what happens in the gut during ultra-aerobic exercise physiology, and the emerging research on resistant starches – these foods look more and more appealing.

The two foods are potatoes and rice (typically in the forutmb-courmayeurm of cooked then cooled potato, and rice balls). Now as you would have read typically these foods have higher glycemic index’s – and can send our blood sugar and insulin levels up.  However, there’s more to the story – so let’s baseline ourselves first –

Any ultramarathoner or Ironman athlete is burning at least 500-1000 calories per hour.  So at about 3hrs most athletes have burnt through their pre-race onboard glycogen – and have 50-80% of the race still ahead of them.

For many of us this is the interesting part of the endurance racing, where we delve into physiological and mental depths of human athletic physiology, deeper mental self-awareness, aches, pain, cramps and more fun stuff.

1_m-100781923-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1951_038188-10993252A lot changes in our energy-processing physiology after several hours of aerobic exercise – particularly how we move glucose out of the blood and into the cells.  For example at rest, when we drink some juice – it’s rapidly absorbed as free-fructose (and glucose) into the bloodstream then the liver. The glucose then triggers our pancreas to push a load of insulin into the blood.  These two ingredients inform the muscle (and brain) cells to open up and allow the glucose to flow in, for use as fuel.

Now, let’s look at what happens after some time of endurance aerobic exercise. At this time, the body opens up additional processes to allow glucose to freely flow into muscle cells. Exercise triggers a number of chemicals (like Nitric Oxide and others) to be released into the bloodstream – and when these come in contact with muscle cells, they turn on cell-transporters (namely, Glut-4) inside the cell, and these transporters enable glucose to move into the cell – without the need for insulin. By the way, fructose/maltodextrin consumption (in many energy drinks, gels, and bars) suppresses Glut-4, and in more recent years detailed research is showing how fructose interferes with appetite signaling in the brain – something you probably don’t want/need in an ultra or Ironman.

So the first point to note, is that, as we get into multi-hour aerobic exercise, the body can tolerate, absorb, assimilate and use complex whole food carbohydrates as fuel,  without the GI disturbances, the blood-sugar/insulin spikes, and associated inflammation.

shutterstock_126856532So, back to potato and rice. Over the past year or so, we have seen an increasing number of research papers, into the carbohydrate, starch and fiber found in these foods (and others). Specifically, research is showing how the ratio of these compounds in these foods change relative to the state (raw, cooked-hot, cooked-then-cooled) of the food. When potato or rice is cooked then cooled (as typically you see in the aid station) some of the carbohydrate changes to become resistant starch.  This resistant starch passes through the small intestine, where short-chain fatty acids are generated – which can be used to fuel cellular activity.  This notably changes the impact of these foods on blood sugars/insulin (lower/better) – vs. if you were to eat these foods hot.  The other benefit here is that the resistant starch is extremely nutritive to the gastrointestinal system – which is extremely important for endurance training/racing athletes (more on that here).

Now here comes the question, we noted in the title of this article…is having potato/rice good or bad, for ultra-endurance racing?

On one hand, we could think,  OK I am running an ultra-marathon/Ironman, so wouldn’t you want simple-energy foods, and as fast as you can get it in? 

On the other hand, wouldn’t a balanced complex carbs/fat/protein mix result in a far smoother energy pattern, and avoidance of race-stopping Gastro-troubles.

Spike-FREE’s Point of View:   The thing about ultra-trail and Ironman racing, is we endure dramatically changing terrain, elevation, and pace, which moves our heart-rate in/out of aerobic and anaerobic states.  In these different states, we will be burning different amounts of fat and carbohydrate.  Eating/burning a mixture of fats and complex carbs provides a breadth of fuel for the body, without the gastrointestinal trouble. Also, for races that can last 10-20-30hours, having a breadth savory and sweet foods is important, as any athlete will tell you, how sickening the sight-small of high-sugar gel/drink/bars become.  So, while every athlete is different, and you all should test their response to various foods and fuels during training and racing – here’s our POV,

  1. BREADTH OD FUELS: For ultra-endurance events, (>5Hrs) reliance on any ‘one’ type of carbohydrate will likely have its drawbacks. Complex Carbs/Fats burn slower, while sugars burn-faster but come with GI distress. Train your fat-oxidation systems, and get used to a breadth and mixture of complex carbohydrates.
  2. FREQUENT SMALL AMOUNTS: Taking a little complex carb and fat often (20-30mins) is more functional to the body, than large hits of simple sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose) Gels/candy/coke during a race.
  3. COMPLEX CARB/RESISTANT STARCH AND FAT/PROTEIN: So here are some high calories foods, that will burn well in training/racing, easy on the gut, and even feed the gut:
    1. Boil then cool potatoes (77 calories/100grms) or rice balls (150 calories/100grms) and add some quality fat, by drowning your potato/rice in butter, then add salt.
    2. Take Bananas also (89 calories/100grms) if you prefer.
    3. High-fat/protein foods like cheeses (400 calories/100grms) or SFuels bar (170 calories per bar) … FREE 4 Bar Sample box of SFuels – click here,
  4. PRE WRAP AND PACK: Wrap your potatoes or rice balls in plastic wrap.  Drop your potatoes, rice balls, bananas, SFuels bars in a ziplock bag to keep them from moving around to much. In ultra races have your support crew ready with a mix of potatoes, rice, SFuels bars in the ziplock bars, to take out on your section of the race.
  5. ADD CAFFEINE: For a ‘needed hit’ add tea or coffee to the foods in point 3, for the caffeine to help increase awareness, alertness and further facilitate fat oxidation in the body. One note on coffee to read up on – click here.

Try it and see! All the best in training and racing … Go Longer in your next Ultra or Ironman race.

thanks for reading,   Team SFuels.