Ultra- endurance events are defined as any event longer than a marathon (26.2 miles or 42.16km). These events are a challenge to every aspect of the human body. Preparation for such an event is undoubtedly a demanding process. Months of training logging hundreds of miles in preparation for one 30 or 50 mile race will simply NOT happen, or at least not SUCCESSFULLY happen, without a carefully laid out nutrition and supplementation plan. Most people know the basics of nutrition as far as macronutrients go: carbohydrate (CHO), protein (PRO), fat, and water. Unfortunately, that is usually where the knowledge stops. Often times runners’ nutrition strategy is as simple as “I am a runner, I eat carbs.” Protein is usually an after thought and fat sometimes happens on accident- or as a late night ice cream binge after a long day with an even longer run. What is usually completely omitted is any type of supplement plan. “Supplements? I’m not a bodybuilder. Why would I need supplements?” The answer is: to perform better, or at the very least to not suck.
So what are the top supplements I would recommend?
1. Fluids (water, electrolyte, and CHO delivery)
Fluids may seem like a no brainer. But optimizing your hydration with regards to how much, when, and what type can take some careful preparation. Your body is composed of 60-80% water. Body temperature regulation, blood volume, and heart rate are all affected by hydration status. Showing up to a race not optimally hydrated will start you off behind the eight ball. This is something you will not be able to make up. Fluid intake during the event should be about 5-6 ounces every 15 minutes. Fluid should be comprised of 8-10% carbohydrate solution to allow for optimal gastric emptying and absorption rates and should contain electrolytes as well.
Carbohydrates are synonymous with endurance events. Unfortunately athletes are all too often focused on carbohydrate intake BEFORE the event with little attention paid to intake during the event. The longer the duration of the event, the more your body relies on blood glucose for fuel. Muscle glycogen stores may be depleted in a rather short time frame (1-2 hours). Races longer than this (pretty much ANY ultra-endurance event) will rely heavily on blood glucose as well as free fatty acids for fuel. Exogenous carbohydrates ingested during an event can generally be oxidized at a rate of approximately 1g/min or more. (Some studies show that mixing sources of carbohydrates may yield higher oxidation rates .) This means that ingesting carbohydrates at a rate of 45-60g/hour would be ideal in terms of providing a continuous source of exogenous CHO for oxidation. Taking in high glycemic index carbohydrates during the event will stave off the ‘hitting of the wall’ phenomenon that can occur when inadequate energy substrate is unavailable. Popular carbohydrate supplements such as gels or GU typically contain 23-25g of high glycemic carbohydrates per serving. Trying to stomach nothing but GU or gel for 5, 6, 7 hours or more would be a feat in and of itself. Most ultra events will require the athlete to eat some amount of solid food during the event. Pretzels, power bars, cookies and candy are all commonly found at aid stations during such events. It is wise to stick with lower fat, lower fiber choices as they will tend to be higher glycemic index and more readily available to your body for fuel.
If there is one thing that most endurance athletes are deficient in, it is protein. Protein, especially essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids, can be a great help not only during the training period, but also during an ultra event. Many studies have shown that adding even a small amount of protein to a carbohydrate solution enhances glycogen replenishment post exercise. Those same amino acids may also be used as an energy substrate during the event as well. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), unlike other amino acids, may be used directly by the skeletal muscle for fuel. They do not need to be transported to the liver to be broken down. BCAAs can comprise up to 20% or more of the fuel used by the working muscles during exercise. In addition to providing energy directly to working muscles, BCAAs are also an important player in helping to synthesize glucose (gluconeogenesis) thereby increasing time to exhaustion. Another benefit to BCAAs is their ability to delay central fatigue and mental exhaustion by way of blocking tryptophan transport to the brain. The bottom line – to keep your muscles and your brain going strong take your BCAAs. Ten to twenty grams would be a great place to start when adding BCAAs to your race day hydration, especially as the hours wear on.
Caffeine often gets a bad rap, although I am not sure why since it has so many benefits. No, it will not dehydrate you. In fact it is likely to enhance your performance. Taking 3-6mg/kg of bodyweight about 15 minutes prior to an endurance event can not only increase central nervous system excitement, but also promote increased utilization of free fatty acids for fuel. This increase in free fatty acid usage actually helps to spare muscle glycogen, leaving more in the tank for later in the race.
Creatine isn’t just for bodybuilders. In fact, some of the first studies done with creatine were conducted on endurance athletes measuring its effect on sprint times and anaerobic threshold (2, 3). Increasing numbers of studies continue to demonstrate the positive impact creatine has on endurance athletes. Beis et al. demonstrated creatine’s ability to help maintain a lower heart rate as well as core temperature with its ability to aid in hydration states, especially in hot environments, without affecting running economy (4).
Athletes should remember though that creatine must be taken at a minimum dose of 3g/d for at least 28 days before optimal intra-muscular creatine levels will be achieved. Simply throwing creatine into race day nutrition will have little impact on performance or hydration.
So there you have it, the top five supplements to ensure your survival of an ultra endurance event. You cannot shirk your training or proper nutrition during the training period and expect these supplements to carry you through. However when used properly they can help make the difference between a good race day performance and a great one. Do your homework, train smart, recover, arrive well rested, well hydrated, stocked and ready to run.
1. Jentjens RLPG, Achten J, Jeukendrup A. High oxidation rates from combined carbohydrates ingested during exercise. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise 2004;36:9 1551-1558
2. Harris RC, Viru M, Greenhaff PL, Hultman E. The effect of oral creatine supplementation on running performance during maximal short term exercise in man. J Physiol 1993;467:74P.
3. Smith JC, Stephens DP, Hall EL, Jackson AW, Earnest CP. Effect of oral creatine ingestion on parameters of the work-time relationship and time to exhaustion in high-intensity cycling. Eur J Appl Physiol 1998;77:360-365.
4. Beis LY, Polyviou T, Malkova D, Pitsiladis YP. The effects of creatine and glycerol hyperhydration on runnin economy in well trained endurance runners. JISSN 2011, 8:24
Michelle Adams BS, MPH, CISSN, CSCS. Originally hailing from western Massachusetts, Michelle Adams received both her Bachelor’s degree and Master of Public Health degree from the University of South Carolina. With over 13 years’ experience in personal training, Michelle is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA CSCS), certified Sports Nutritionist with the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN), certified sports performance coach with USA weightlifting as well as a kettlebell instructor. Michelle is a competitive athlete herself having competed as a professional figure athlete in the IFBB with career highlights including a first place finish at the 2006 IFBB Toronto Figure Championships. More recent endeavors have included marathon and ultra-marathon running. Michelle currently lives in Florida but may also be seen throughout the United States serving as a spokesperson for General Nutrition Centers.