Eating on the run

JFK ultramarathon athletes run 50 miles with 5,000 calories to burn

JFK ultramarathon athletes run 50 miles with 5,000 calories to burn

November 16, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

Mom might say not to run after you eat, but, when you're running 50 miles, you have to consume calories along the way and that's often in the form of food, says Dr. Bob Bowen, a pulmonary- and intensive-care specialist in Martinsburg, W.Va.

There's only so much fat a runner can burn in a race as long as Saturday's JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon.

Runners need to load up or store carbs to burn during the earlier stages of the race, says Bowen, who used to be the JFK 50 Mile race doctor.

The average 150-pound runner will burn 100 calories per mile, or 5,000 calories during the ultramarathon, says Mike Spinnler, director of the JFK ultramarathon.


On a typical day, that average runner would consume about 2,500 calories, Bowen says. The 5,000 calories for the race are in addition to that.

Because the body can't store enough carbs to burn during a 50-mile race, most runners eat throughout the race to get enough nutrition to complete the distance, say Bowen and Spinnler. Some will get their calories only through fluids, Spinnler says.

When the race is over, the runners eat whatever they crave.

Loading up on carbs

How much loading up on carbs a runner does varies from runner to runner.

Some runners will start today to eat as many complex carbohydrates as they can before race day. This includes breads, pasta and vegetables such as potatoes, Spinnler says.

"We have a pasta feed Friday night before the event," Spinnler says.

Some runners eat so much pasta in the days leading up to the race that the last thing they want to see by race day is spaghetti, he says.

Todd Bowman, who will be participating in his sixth JFK ultramarathon this year, says he usually has spaghetti and two beers - for the carbs, the night before the race.

On race morning, he'll eat several bananas to build up his potassium level, says Bowman, 43, of Williamsport.

Spinnler says most runners will eat the morning of the race.

Instead of the light breakfast that many runners would have before a shorter race - such as toast before five or 10 kilometers - long-distance runners will eat a heavier breakfast.

Since race start times are at 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., some runners will wake up two to three hours before and go to an all-night restaurant for pancakes, Spinnler says.

A few years ago there was a runner whose meal was Chicken McNuggets before the race.

"He just thought Chicken McNuggets made him race like Superman," Spinnler says.

Spinnler says he avoided most fruits - not bananas - before a race.

"Too much fiber the morning of the event might play havoc with the digestive system and make Mother Nature call more often than you want it to call," he says.

Bananas, Bowen says, are good for runners because they contain sugar, a little fat and a lot of potassium, which helps runners avoid cramps. However, bananas are more difficult to digest.

Eating on the run

During the race, the runners eat high-sugar, high-carbohydrate foods that make energy available immediately - not what you'd eat during a normal diet, Bowen says.

Consuming sugar, a type of carbohydrate, helps prevent hypoglycemia. If a runner starts getting hypoglycemic, the performance will suffer, and dizziness could occur, he says.

There are 14 aid stations along the 50-mile course to provide runners an opportunity to get the nutrition they will need to complete the course, Spinnler says.

In addition to water, Gatorade and Pepsi, each aid station will have a variety of the following: sports nutrition or energy bars, gel packs, M&M's, bananas, oranges, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Spinnler says. The gel gets glucose into the bloodstream quicker.

The more than 1,000 sandwiches made by Spinnler's mother, Helen Spinnler, and her friends are usually at stations during the second third of the event, around lunchtime. They are cut in halves for runners to stop and eat or grab and go, and are on white bread, which digests quicker, he says.

Sports drinks such as Gatorade replace the water and salt lost in sweat, plus they contain sugar and a little potassium, Bowen says.

The soda is for people who need a highly concentrated sugar drink and a caffeine boost, Spinnler says.

At aid stations in the last third of the event, there will be hot cocoa and soup, Spinnler says. Since the race is held the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the weather tends to be cold.

There are three aid stations in the first 16 miles on the Appalachian Trail. Then they come more frequently, every three miles or so.

This is so runners can grab something for a temporary lift that gets into their system quickly and gets them to the next aid station, Spinnler says. The stations also break the race into pieces the runners can focus on getting to rather than thinking of the enormity of 50 miles.

Bowen says runners should drink something every 10 or 15 minutes to prevent dehydration.

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