THE BEST DIET FOR ULTRA-RUNNERS
Finally, you’ve found it! The best diet for ultra-runners! WRONG. There is no BEST diet. Sorry.
Keto, plant-based, gluten-free, paleo, high carb, low carb, moderate carb, and the list goes on and on and on. Every proponent says that their diet is the best. So, who should you believe? None of them. There is no one size fits all diet for ultra-runners or for any athlete for that matter. Just because something works for one runner doesn’t mean it’s THE BEST for another.
This idea really shouldn’t be much of a surprise as you can find elite-level ultra-runners that follow an endless variety of diets. But just for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on ultra-runners.
Diets of Elite Ultra-Runners
When searching for the best diet for ultra-runners, who better to listen to than some of the most elite ultra-runners on the planet, right? The problem is that amongst ultra-running elites, the diets are so drastically diverse that, if anything, it only proves there are many ways to perform at a high level in the sport.
Scott Jurek – won the Western States 100 seven consecutive years, 2x Badwater 135 champion, former Appalachian Trail FKT holder. Vegan/plant-based.
Jurek is a legitimate candidate for the best ultra-runner of all time. While most of his records have fallen with the new wave of elite ultra-runners, Jurek’s consistency may never be matched. Seven straight Western States 100 wins prove difficult to wrap the mind around. It’s one of the most impressive streaks in all the sports (in my opinion), considering the competitiveness of the event and the potential for something to go wrong in a 100-mile ultramarathon.
Jurek attributes much of his success, recovery, and consistency to a high-quality plant-based diet.
Harvey Lewis – 2x Badwater 135 champion, Big’s Backyard LMS world record holder. Vegan/plant-based.
Harvey recently set the world record at Big’s Backyard, a last-man-standing event in Tennessee with an astonishing 354 miles accumulated.
Harvey has been a vegetarian for over 25 years and vegan since 2016. He attributes his vegan diet for much of his success in ultra-running, saying things such as “It’s the single most important ingredient to my longevity in the sport,” and “My health, energy, and performance as a runner [has] changed dramatically.”
Zach Bitter – Previous world records for 100-miles on track, treadmill, and trail. Low-carb/Keto Diet.
When Bitter went on a tear, breaking world records with mind-boggling speeds, many ultra-runners were quickly jumping to the conclusion that keto MUST be the best diet for ultra-runners. Contrary to what many believe, Zach takes in carbs during heavy training days and races, so he’s not necessarily a super-strict ketogenic ultra-runner. “If I’m doing something really strenuous, carbs are an advantage from a training standpoint.”
His records have since been broken by Sania Sorokin of Lithuania. At the time of this blog, I couldn’t find much information on Sania Sorokin’s diet.
Michael Mcknight – Triple Crown of 200’s champion, multiple 200+ mile wins. Low-carb/Keto Diet.
If you could call one person the best at 200+ mile runs, it would be hard to argue against that person being Michael Mcknight. Mcknight won the Triple Crown of 200’s outright on 2 occasions and has the current FKT (fastest known time) for the Colorado Trail (supported). It should be noted that Mike does eat carbs around lunchtime, saying, “Every day I’ll have a “keto” breakfast and “keto” dinner. But lunch, I’ll go carb-heavy (80-100 grams) since lunch is usually the closest meal to my run. I never cheat by eating junk. I’ll just up my carbs through fruits or potatoes.”
Mcknight has even run a 100-miler without consuming a single calorie. Mcknight attributes his keto-style diet to less inflammation, digestive and energy issues, and improved health. “Early on in my running career, I always had digestive and energy issues. I’d either puke from eating too much or have no energy from eating too little,” says Mcknight.
It should be noted that before becoming keto, Mcknight didn’t exactly have an ideal diet, describing it as “All the sugar. Pizza. Fries. Fried foods. I had no control whatsoever. I was drinking two to four cans of Mountain Dew a day and eating a bowl of ice cream every night.”
Courtney Dauwalter – Too many accomplishments to name, really. Relaxed, unrestrictive diet.
It could be argued that Courtney Dauwalter is the best female ultra-runner on the planet. It could even be argued that she is the best female ultra-runner of all time. She doesn’t just go to races and consistently wins against other females. She often wins races outright. From 50-milers to 200+ milers, Dauwalter is a serious competitor at whichever ultramarathon she toes the line.
She loves beer, nachos, candy corn and calls her diet a “normal person’s diet.” Courtney believes that eliminating dietary restrictions allows her to listen to what her cravings tell her she needs.
Jim Walmsley – Western States 100-mile record holder. Vegetarian diet – Not overly restrictive otherwise.
Walmsley might be the fastest 100-mile trail runner on the planet right now and is the fastest ever to complete the “super-bowl of 100’s” the Western States 100. Jim may be vegetarian, but he is not overly restrictive beyond that. Walmsley eats pizza most days of the week and loves a cold beer. His go-to breakfast is granola and yogurt, and he tries to listen to his body and adjust what he is eating based on his energy and cravings.
Walmsley is one of the few elite ultra-runners that doesn’t necessarily “push” his diet, saying, “my diet wouldn’t really work for everybody,” Walmsley says. “I don’t talk about being a vegetarian too much because I’m not sure if it’s for everyone. I’m comfortable with it, and it works for me.”
Additionally, Walmsley is not afraid to indulge himself when he feels it’s necessary “When I start to feel too skinny, I give myself more of a green light to eat some donuts and ice cream. It’s not rare. There will be some nights when I just down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.”
Karl Meltzer – Most 100-mile trail-running wins of all time. Has won a 100-mile ultramarathon in 19 consecutive years at the time of this blog. – Relaxed, unrestrictive diet.
Meltzer, AKA the Speed Goat, would be another good case for the best trail ultra-runner of all time.
In addition to his record number of 100-mile trail wins, he also held the Appalachian Trail FKT for a stint, taking that record from Scott Jurek. For a breakdown of Meltzer’s typical diet, meal-by-meal, check out this article – https://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/05/food-diary-ultrarunner. In summary, it looks like Meltzer has a relatively high-calorie/energy diet, utilizing a variety of foods and food groups. “Bottom line is that I like all food. With the exception of mayonnaise, vinegar, and sour cream. I’ll eat what’s on the plate.”
What’s all this mean in regards to the best diet for ultra-runners?
What’s to make of all of this? There is NO ONE BEST DIET for ultra-runners! The best diet is the one that works best for you. Remember, just because an elite eats a certain way DOES NOT mean that is the best way for YOU to eat. The way an elite ultra-runner eats is just the way that works for them, and there is no way to say with certainty that they would perform better or worse on a different diet.
However, I think some key points can be taken away from looking at the substantial variety of diets among elite ultra-runners.
The Best Diet for Ultra-Runners: Key Takeaways
You don’t have to be overly restrictive.
There really isn’t any reason to be overly restrictive and cut out entire food groups. HOWEVER, if you want to be a 100% plant-based runner because of ethical reasons – GO FOR IT! There’s no evidence to suggest that a high-quality vegan diet will be detrimental to performance or recovery in any way. If you feel best on a low-carb, high-fat diet – then, by all means, do that as well.
Nobody can tell you how you feel and although science may not generally suggest that specific diets are ideal for endurance athletes, there are outliers in most studies. Far be it for me or anyone else to tell any of the above athletes that they aren’t eating optimally. They’ve found something that works for them, and they stick to it.
Only you really know what feels best. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of nutritional genomics, and we understand that some people may have predispositions to certain foods and nutrients.
Now, all that being said, there are some things we DO understand. There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that certain qualities in a diet are favorable for health and exercise recovery. The guidelines below could be considered general knowledge in that no matter what diet you choose, these things seem to remain valid.
The Best Diet for Ultra-runners: Good Practices
Vegetables are still KING.
One thing that is not arguable is that you should be eating a bunch of vegetables – endurance athlete or otherwise. If a diet ever suggests that you should be limiting veggies, do yourself a favor and RUN! Vegetables are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and ultra-runners need a lot of nutrients. If an ultra-runner is not eating plenty of veggies, they are setting the stage for nutrient deficiency. Almost any legitimate nutrient deficiency will negatively impact running performance and health.
Added sugar and refined carbohydrates should be kept in moderation except during workouts and immediately post-workout.
Excessive refined carbs and added sugar outside of training can lead to weight gain, inflammation, and adverse health consequences.
Notice I said outside of workouts and post-workout. Simple sugars during these times are exceptions as they do not result in negative health consequences and can improve endurance performance. For more information on that, see – Endurance Athletes & Sugar: Best Friends, Enemies, or Frenemies?
Outside of those times, stick to higher-quality, lower glycemic carbs like 100% whole grains, beans, vegetables, and whole fruits. You can lower the glycemic impact of fruit and other carbs by combining them with some protein, fat, or fiber to slow digestion.
Carbs are NOT BAD.
Carbs have got a bad rap lately. You don’t need to fear carbohydrates. You just need to eat the RIGHT carbohydrates. By far, the most scientifically backed diet in terms of improved endurance performance is a high carbohydrate diet. Again, see what works for you. As I talked about in the previous paragraph, go for high-quality carbohydrates over refined carbs and added sugars.
As you can see from the examples above, even the well-known elite keto-style athletes like Mcknight and Bitter still realize the importance of carbs and make exceptions when necessary.
Get enough protein.
Without adequate protein, an ultra-runner will be in a catabolic state and won’t recovery optimally. After exercise, getting in some protein will promote muscle synthesis and prevent unnecessary muscle breakdown.
During heavy training, make sure you are getting enough protein, not only immediately after your workout but throughout the day as well. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) recommends taking in 0.25-0.40 g/kg of protein every three to four hours to optimally influence muscle protein synthesis (Kerksick et al., 2017).
Additionally, JISSN goes on to say that 30-40 grams of protein before bedtime can further improve muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate during sleep without influencing lipolysis (Kerksick et al., 2017).
Eat high-quality fats.
Fat is vital for athletes, and ultra-runners are no exception.
Fat is essential for hormonal health and regulating inflammation. Additionally, ultra-runners typically train and compete at a lower intensity compared to conventional endurance athletes. Running in a lower gear means that ultra-runners utilize fat as the majority of their fuel.*
Focusing on high-quality, omega-3 rich food sources is recommended. Omega-3’s are critical for inflammatory health and should be used in favor of omega-6 heavy foods as an imbalanced ratio of the two can lead to increased inflammation and negative health consequences. For more information on that see check out Omega-3’s for Endurance Athletes: An Evidence Based Guide.
*Now, please don’t mistake this as me saying ultra-runners don’t need carbs. Remember, while one might be burning a higher percentage of fat at lower intensities, they’re still burning carbohydrates as well. And the reason ultra-runners train and compete at lower intensities is because exercise duration is drastically increased. All things considered, ultra-runners will burn as much (likely more) net carbs as any other type of athlete.
Take it easy on alcohol.
Hey, I like a good drink as much as anyone, and beer and ultra-running seem to go hand in hand. However, during heavy training, it is best to drink sparingly. In addition to dehydrating you, sabotaging your energy, and impairing muscle growth, excess alcohol is absolutely devastating on recovery following a strenuous endurance effort.
Alcohol also impairs the absorption of various nutrients, which are crucial for ultra-runners to perform at their best. The negative impacts of alcohol aren’t exclusive to “getting drunk” either. Even just a few drinks can negatively impact endurance recovery and performance. Finally, alcohol is a non-nutrient form of calories that can lead to unwanted weight gain and replaces nutrient-dense foods when used excessively.
I’m not saying to never partake in a drink or two. But it’s definitely best to save the benders for your offseason. We have established there is no BEST diet for ultra-runners, but it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much room for alcohol during heavy training if you want to be at your best.
Ultra-runners should eat ENOUGH.
Have you ever been told to focus on quality rather than quantity? Well, I would argue that you should focus on quality AND quantity if you’re an endurance athlete. During heavy training, a calorie deficit can negatively impact recovery and wreak havoc on your energy, cortisol, and other hormones.
Focus on eating until satiated and NEVER try to lose weight during heavy training. If weight loss is a goal, it should be done in the offseason or during light training.
Obviously, try to eat high-quality foods as much as possible. Some argue, however, that in the case of endurance athletes, it’s best to fill the gaps even if you must do so with lower-quality foods.
Ultra-runners have increased nutrient needs.
News flash. Ultra-runners run a lot. With increased time in training comes increased demand for nutrient replenishment. Certain nutrients are lost during exercise, some in sweat. Ultra-running training and racing results in significant musculoskeletal breakdown and increases nutrient needs for optimal repair and adaptation.
Additionally, nutrient deficiencies are particularly devastating when we, as endurance athletes, are demanding so much of our bodies.
Most nutrients can be obtained in sufficient amounts from a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet. Additionally, a well-thought-out supplement regimen can significantly impact ultra-runners recovery. Further, quality endurance supplements can clearly influence various aspects of performance and improve positive adaptation from workouts.
For the best supplements for ultra-runners (hands down), check out T-30 and Terminus. Bold claim? If you wonder how we come to such a conclusion, check out the blog Endurance Supplements: Cost vs. Value.
Summary: The Best Diet for Ultra-runners
Well, if you clicked on this blog with the hopes of finding the best diet for ultra-runners, then you might be disappointed. Sorry about that!
However, I think the fact that there is no best diet for ultra-runners is actually a GOOD thing. It allows us, as endurance athletes, freedom to CHOOSE our diets. Our diets are subjective and often rooted in family and cultural traditions, ethics, beliefs, and taste preference. You don’t have to sacrifice these things to be a great endurance athlete; just tweak some things.
If you want to be plant-based, be plant-based. If a low-carb approach works best for you, then go for it. Just remember there are specific attributes of an endurance athlete’s diet that clearly tend to tip the scales in favor of improved performance over time. Focus on those and adjust your diet to work for you. If you need some extra help, seek out a certified nutritionist or a dietitian, preferably one that specializes in sports nutrition.