Experience From - Thom Ludwig, "Frozen" Ed Furtaw, Jay Hodde, Matt Mahoney, John Davis, Marv Skagerberg, Karl King, Kevin Setnes , Unknown , Jan Schlueter , Dana Roueche , Geri Kilgarif , Chuck Barbee , Jay Hodde#2 , Tyler Curiel , Rich Schick , Joe Magruder , Mike Cunningham , Stephen Mulrine , Phil Vaughn , Jane Colman , Heidi Schutt ,

Thom Ludwig

Frozen Ed writes:

Carbohydrate ingestion stimulates insulin production within less than an hour. Insulin decreases blood glucose levels, and also impairs the metabolism of fats. Therefore, ingesting carbohydrates within about 30-120 minutes before an ultra will probably have the undesirable effect of accelerating the utilization of stored muscle glycogen.
Are you sure this is what happens? Certainly, carbohydrates coming in causes insulin to go up. Insulin going up causes blood glucose to go down somewhat, but the reason the blood glucose goes down is because the glucose is going INTO cells where it is STORED as glycogen. Insulin (indirectly) inhibits the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, therefore it seems unlikely that insulin accelerates the utilization of stored glycogen.

My preferred pre-ultra breakfast (about 1 hour before start time) consists of fried pork skins and strong coffee with no sugar added.
Hmmm. My guess is you can't digest fried pork skins in that amount of time. Although the coffee (which taken 2-3 hours before the race will have much greater diuretic effects during the race than a beer consumed 10 hours prior) will certainly aid in fat metabolism.

Hydrate heavily before the start.
Probably THE most important tip!

"Frozen" Ed Furtaw

Thom Ludwig said in part:

Frozen Ed writes:
Carbohydrate ingestion stimulates insulin production within less than an hour. Insulin decreases blood glucose levels, and also impairs the metabolism of fats. Therefore, ingesting carbohydrates within about 30-120 minutes before an ultra will probably have the undesirable effect of accelerating the utilization of stored muscle glycogen....

Are you sure this is what happens? Certainly, carbohydrates coming in causes insulin to go up. Insulin going up causes blood glucose to go down somewhat, but the reason the blood glucose goes down is because the glucose is going INTO cells where it is STORED as glycogen. Insulin (indirectly) inhibits the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, therefore it seems unlikely that insulin accelerates the utilization of stored glycogen.

I can't say I'm sure this is what happens, but I'm sure it's what I have read in "Lore of Running" by Dr. Tim Noakes. On p. 380, Noakes states: 'The prerace breakfast should contain easily digestible carbohydrates (e.g., bread, cornflakes, sugar, or honey) and must be eaten at least 2 or 3 hours before the race starts. Food that is eaten within 1 hour of the race stimulates the release of the hormone insulin, which, for the reasons discussed in chapter 3, leaves the runner a "metabolic cripple" who will burn carbohydrates more rapidly than normal and so have an early encounter with "the wall."

In chapter 3, 'Energy Metabolism During Exercise', Noakes states (p. 62): '...a high carbohydrate meal, especially of simple carbohydrates such as glucose, causes insulin levels to rise and impairs fat oxidation.' And also (p.79): 'Blood free-fatty-acid levels rise after a fatty meal. A high-carbohydrate meal causes blood insulin levels to rise and to be elevated for up to 60 to 90 minutes thereafter. Insulin is the "anti-exercise hormone," because it inhibits fatty acid mobilization from fat cells and also inhibits the breakdown of glycogen in the liver. The result is that during exercise after a high-carbohydrate meal, there will be increased carbohydrate oxidation (G. Ahlborg & Bjorkman, 1987; Coyle et al., 1985a). If exercise starts when blood insulin levels are high, the rate of muscle glycogen utilization may increase; there is also a risk that blood glucose levels will fall precipitously, causing hypoglycemia, although this is not always found (Devlin et al., 1986).'

I have not formally studied metabolism, and thus I am not a professional expert on this subject. My statements are based on what I have learned informally, and "Lore of Running" is one of my main sources of information on this subject; it seems to be carefully researched and documented. I certainly welcome knowledgeable input on this issue from those who are educated in it. Hopefully, we can all learn something of value to us as ultrarunners.

For the great majority of my ultras, I have eaten a light, high-carbohydrate breakfast or no breakfast on the morning before the start. At my last ultra (Barkley DNF, 16+ hours), the low-carbo breakfast was an experiment which seemed to succeed. I felt that I had a good energy level at the start and for as long as I stayed in the run.

Jay Hodde

I don't think my eating habits are way too abnormal, but I guess I'll add my opinion to the thread.

The night before the event, the pre-race meal that often comes with the event entry fee consists of some pasta-type dishes. I really don't care for pasta the night before the event. (I need to carry toilet paper the next day. . . I'll leave it at that).

My best runs seem to come when I eat pizza the night before. Arby's roast beef does a good job, too. (And I really don't know why -- or even care. But the only time I eat meat is around event weekends. Maybe there's a connection.)

I eat a bagel right before I go to bed. In the morning, I try to grab a banana and a bagel about 2 hours before starting time. Usually, I wake up just long enough to eat, then go back to sleep for a while. Seems to work well!

Matt Mahoney

Subject: Insulin Response

You don't need to worry about insulin during a race unless you're diabetic. Your stomach can absorb 200 carbohydrate calories per hour. At rest, you need only 100 calories per hour, so when your blood sugar rises, the pancreas releases insulin to stimulate the muscle and fat cells to absorb the excess sugar. You use maybe 400 cal/hr during an ultra and maybe 1000 cal/hr in shorter events, so your blood sugar can never get high in the first place.

My normal breakfast, racing or not, is about 1200 calories from raisin bran, skim milk, and orange juice, i.e. mostly carbohydrates. It never bothers me to run right after eating. I used to eat a smaller breakfast, about 800 calories, but I would get very hungry about 4 hours later. Once I had my blood sugar tested just before lunch, and it was 43 (normal is 65-115). I solved this problem by eating a bigger breakfast. I recently had a test one hour after breakfast (where they told me to fast, but I didn't) and it was 90. (They said eating would raise my blood lipids and possibly cholesterol, but since my breakfast is practically fat free, these were normal too).

John Davis

Subject: Insulin Response

Matt, you address the problem of high blood sugar. There are those of us who didn't get past Ultra Running 101 and still do not eat enough because the stomach is turning off, etc. This results in a lower blood sugar level, hopefully not down to 42. I know what a 42 does to people and it is not conducive to walking much less running. Some (I do not think I am in the group) have the problem of hypoglycemia. (Hope I got that right). It results in a slightly fragile sugar balance. Things like GU, Pocket Rocket, etc. do wonders in getting these people off the bottom end of the blood sugar limit. They drive the level way up very fast. The reaction then is to dump in lots of insulin. The reaction following is a significant drop in blood sugar levels and trouble. This is not diabetes. It is just the reaction of the pancreas to an imbalance. A solid backup of good long lasting carbohydrates (Ensure?) smooths out the problem. If you use some of the GU, then this group of people needs to load in other stuff at the same time. A good friend of mine calls this the box car effect. The engineer puts on the brakes and the first cars start slowing down but the free space between the couplings allows the last cars to slam into the first ones and really fowls up the whole process.

By the way, on the Off Road Marathon a couple of weeks ago, the wrapper count was two GU, one Pocket Rocket (chocolate), and one Power bar. They were in locations where I would suspect we had errant runners messing the trail again.

Marv Skagerberg

I can't recommend bacon with all those nitrates, nitrites, whatever BUT I probably ate bacon and eggs or maybe ham and eggs, or maybe steak and eggs, oh, 70 odd days of 86 running days in the 1985 trans-am, often starting to run within 10 or 15 minutes afterward at pretty good pace.

George Gardner, in 1983 ran an American Record 48 hour in the last 2 days of the New York 6-day race, and was heard to say afterward: "Thank god for all that bacon, that was practically all I ate the last 3 days." The food service had not been good, and his son had often been able to find only bacon in the kitchen.

Most multi-day runners will tell you of huge meat/protein cravings at some point in a race, which they generally satisfy by eating a horse or two or a silo of soybeans, or eggs and cheese, or whatever. Somewhere in an early ultrarunning magazine, there is an account of women in trench coats smuggling McDonalds cheeseburgers to me in a Sri Chinmoy 7-day. So maybe Karl will explain.

Karl King

Teds report on the pre-run breakfast was most enjoyable.

That reminds me of my lunch before KM100. Race starts at 4 pm, so what to eat for lunch? A bunch of carbos would be gone by 4 pm, and there's no way I'm starting a 100 already hungry. Solution: eat not much carbo but a fair amount of protein and fat. Lunch was four medium-size Polish sausage on buns ( with favorite relish ). A few minutes before starting I had a few bites of Power Bar but that was it. During the run I used a new drink mix with carbos, protein and fat, and electrolyte caps. At the aid stations my crew gave me a slice of bread for a little fiber. My stomach was happy all through the night.

The stress reactions in the body give us a craving for fat, so ice cream, cheeseburgers etc. have great appeal after many hours of running. We are breaking down our bodies as we run, and have a considerable need for protein, especially in the 100s.

Starting with a meal that is high in fat raises the level of fatty acids in the blood, and if you're used to burning fat, and start at a moderate pace, you should be able to conserve some muscle glycogen for later. That will be nice to have if you have to charge up a hill.

Before getting into running, my favorite outdoor activity was trout fishing the streams of central Wisconsin. That was sort of like an ultra. Get up early, eat breakfast, get in the stream and fish for 6-9 hours while wading upstream to the next bridge. My usually breakfast was ham, eggs and hash browns cooked in butter. My drink for the trip was 1 liter of water ( too little ) and lunch was a candy bar.

Of course, fishing is not as demanding on the energy supply as running is.

The bottom line? You need plenty of carbos when running hard but that doesn't necessarily mean that's what the best pre-race meal is.

Those with an agreeable stomach might find that a good strategy is eat hearty, start slow, finish strong.

Kevin Setnes

I have found this talk about "What I ate for breakfast prior to a great run" rather amusing. I have had a few instances like this, one being in 1978 in Athens, Greece. Four of us were staying at a small hotel where the manager also fixed breakfast for you in the morning. The Athens marathon was a noon start and that morning of the race the manager asked if we would like an American breakfast - you bet, was our quick and immediate answer - marathon or not, bring it on. Though we probably understood that this was not your conventional pre race meal - our stomachs over-ruled any experience or maturity we had at that age.

The result was I and another had PRs by a pretty good margin. It was a warm day and the course was not a favorable for me.

On another occasion in Wisconsin (1981), I got called to work late Friday to work an important problem, which resulted in me getting home about 2:00 AM (marathon started at 8:00 AM Saturday- two hours drive away). I stopped and got a couple of greasy cheeseburgers and fries at an all-nighter, enhaled them prior to napping for a couple of hours. Result - another PR.

Obviously these situations are not recommended. There were other factors that played a bigger role in my running well those days. And I would venture to say that if I had those situations all the time - I would be pretty inconsistant, with BAD DAYS :( outnumbering the GOOD DAYS :)


Fatty acids, low osmolality( I.E. less than body fluids), hypertonic solution(high % of salts,etc.), and fiber, radically slow gastric emptying and absorption. At 70% VO-2 Max or preferrably less efforts, an even flow of energy may be encouraged. About 15% amino acids are burned after the initial 20 minutes of exercise, while fatty acids increase in % of fuels chosen by an athlete in an "ultra" beyond the 90 minute mark. That leaves the preferred fuel, carbohydrates(CHO)for around 80-85% if it is available, and if the pace is aerobic. It takes between 60-75 minutes for anything ingested to be converted for fuel at the mitochondrial cells in the muscle(in its entire volume or maximal oxidation in muscle cell components) Certain Corn Syrup solids at a 20 D.E. have been shown to metabolize within blood level peaks as early as 15 Minutes after ingestion, but it takes them at least another 20-30 to peak in the muscle burning chambers, the mitochondrial cells, where speed and endurance energy is manifested. This may explain this amusing phenomenon, and I observed personally one older athlete using a carbohydrate & amino acid energy drink(Energy Surge) with athletic energy bars in an ultra event "Destroy" the the next 4 runners(younger)by over 35 minutes in a 50k, who tried milkshakes, hamburgers and fries (for their fuel source) during the event. This really becomes amusing if one increases the intensity(over 75% VO-2 Max effort).....OOPS! I mean not amusing, down right gastrically uncomfortable!

Jan Schlueter

Does anyone have any suggestions on what to eat for breakfast before a race?

I have a pretty good stomach during races and can eat just about anything at aid stations, and stay away from the few things that I know I can't eat. But I have a really hard time choking down food early in the morning before a race. I generally end up eating just a banana, which isn't high in calories, and then starting the race with a pretty empty stomach! I tried a generic can of Ensure once, and I won't do that again!

Any suggestions for a high calorie, easily digestable, quick, pre-race breakfast? (other than Ensure) And one that would work when you're in a hotel room without a kitchen.

Dana Roueche

Fig Newtons at 60 calories a pop.

Geri Kilgarif

Met-Rx bars work for me. Depending on the flavor, they're 320-340 calories, 26-27 grams of protein, 48-52 grams of carbs and 2-4 grams of fat. Trader Joe's has the lowest price I've found: $1.79 each.

No financial interest in Met-Rx or Trader Joe's. Damn.

Chuck Barbee

You can't beat the poor mans Power Bar, "POP TARTS", for long days in the mountains. They do crumble though.

Jay Hodde #2

Chuck said:

"Never tested in the Ultra realm but you can't beat the poor mans Power Bar, "POP TARTS", for long days in the mountains. They do crumble though."
Can't agree more! My typical pre-race breakfast:

2 Pop Tarts (cherry, with frosting)
A banana
Large Coffee (the larger the better)
A donut or two

They never let me down!

Tyler Curiel

I use full-strength PowerAde mixed with a full packet of CLIP in 16-20 oz. water. Not very tasty, but full of calories, easy to absorb and digest, and has the fluids and electrolytes you'll be needing.

Rich Schick

Just to let another side be heard, my favorite pre -- race breakfast is bacon and eggs with a short stack of pancakes smothered in syrup with a couple cups of coffee to wash it all down -- yum!! Has it all a shot of carbs and a bunch of fat for staying power. I have run many a strong fifty on nothing but fluids and felt strong all the way. If it sits a wee bit heavy on the stomach at the start I consider that a plus, helps prevent the ultra runners nemesis of going out.

While were on the subject, this breakfast often follows my favorite pre race supper. A large T-bone or porterhouse steak, baked potato smothered with butter and sour cream and a small salad (Optional). Ah, vegetarians you don't know what your missing! Again it has everything you need -- running on pure carbs is great for sprinters and 5k types, in ultras you need a good shot of protein and fat to go the distance.

Joe Magruder

Nothing better than dragging along the old toaster, throwing in a couple of frozen waffles and covering them with vanilla GU for syrup. Wash that down with a can of Boost and you've got yourself a real ultra meal. Now, off to the races...

Mike Cunningham

What works best for me is a bowl of oatmeal with either a banana or spoonful of jelly in it (no milk), two cups of coffee, and a glass of juice.

Several years of experimentation led me to this as my best pre-race breakfast. I have eaten this as little as 1/2 hour before the race start or before I run over to the race.

When I travel, I always take a little electric hot pot to heat water in. This can be used to make unflavored instant oatmeal. it is much better than trying to find someplace that is open for breakfast.

Stephen Mulrine

Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars are exactly like large Fig Newtons with fruit fillings (apple, strawberry, blueberry, cherry), 130 calories per bar.

Phil Vaughn

This was years ago, and I was coming from a background of many marathons, all on an empty stomach. So the morning of my first 50 miler, Coast Hills 50 in Siletz, Oregon (1987), I notice all these guys filing into this little cafe near the start, so I follow in for a look see. The whole counter was full of old veterans (I remember Lary Webster, Eb Engelman, Marv Christianson)sitting there plowing through oatmeal, pancakes, etc. and I'm just flabergasted. We're 30 minutes until the start ! "What are you guys doing?". "How do you run with a full stomach?"

"Oh, it slows you down a little at the start, but that's a good thing. It pays off later." Several hours later, I understood. Through the years I learned many other lessons observing the seasoned vets, but I still chuckle at that first lesson in that little cafe.

Jane Colman

I think of it as breakfast, but my standard pre-run food is always an orange or half grapefruit, a PowerBar, and a cup of herbal tea.

Last year I tried a bowl of oatmeal an hour or so before the DSE 12-hour run, and I spent so much time in the first few hours on pit stops that I never really got into the running groove (had a terrible day all around). I haven't had any trouble during races eating PowerBars, gels, fruit, potatoes, or peanut butter sandwiches, but the pre-race oatmeal (even without milk) really did me in.

Heidi Schutt

For what it's worth, when I'm on the road - I take along hard boiled eggs and string cheese (it is individually wrapped) - 2 eggs and cheese seems to work well before an ultra. If I am home - I usually have a cheese omelette and add flax seeds. Starting out in the morning with protein seems to work well for me and I feel much better than if I would do carbs first. I do a lot of carbs during the events.