Nutritional Needs of an Ultra Runner

April 13, 2023

Nutritional Needs of an Ultra Runner

Ultra distance running is becoming more and more popular, however there is currently limited information on the specific nutritional needs of an ultra runner.

So, if you are an ultra runner…or you are considering moving into ultra distance running then you are in the right place because we will:

    1. Highlight the rewards and health risks associated with ultra-distance running
    2. Discuss the key nutrients to focus on for this distance
    3. Give TIPS on FOOD to eat to fuel your ultra-running

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Nutritional Needs of an Ultra Runner


Outlining the definition of ultra-distance (or ultra-marathon) running and highlighting several famous ultra-events.

Definition: “Ultra-marathons are foot races that exceed the traditional marathon distance of 26.2miles (or 42.2Km)”

Some famous Ultra-events:

  • The Comrades – Durban – SA – 56 miles (90Km)
  • Western States Endurance Run – California – 100 miles (161km)
  • The Spartathlon – Athens – Greece – 152miles (245km)
  • UTMB series which includes 8 races of varying distances – the longest one being 100 miles – Chamonix, France


The rewards from running ultra-distances are both emotional/psychological and physical:

Emotional/psychological rewards could include: a sense of achievement/accomplishment, self-satisfaction and pushing personal boundaries.

Physical rewards from running these distances are tied up in the physical adaptations associated with distance running per se. For example; Increased Mitochondrial Biogenesis and Increased Efficiency of Fat Oxidation, both of which are important for peak running performance.


Delving into the potential risks from running ultra-marathons including:

  • Macronutrient and/or micronutrient depletion
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
  • Muscle damage
  • Oxidative stress – from metabolic/ biological processes occurring during running


Considering the KEY nutrients required for running ultra-distances: Carbohydrates and Electrolytes/Hydration, as well as outlining important factors affecting total energy intake requirements of an ultra-runner.

The total daily energy intake of an ultra runner is very individual and will depend on factors including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Training load
  • Training frequency
  • Running pace
  • Resting Metabolic rate (and remember this tends to slow as we age)
  • Body composition
  • Environmental conditions and terrain

The recommended daily intake of carbohydrate for an ultra-runner is 60% of total macronutrient intake with Protein and Fat intake being 15% and 25% respectively.  Although, for the older runner a more appropriate Protein:Fat split may be 20%:20% in an effort to maintain muscle mass (which naturally reduces with age) and enhance muscle repair and recovery following ultra-training and events.


When focussing on Hydration and the ultra-runner a targeted hydration strategy is required, especially if the runner has a high sweat rate and/or runs in a warm/hot environment.

When addressing hydration for an ultra-runner, it would be important to take into consideration fluids for:

  • Day-to-day living
  • During training/event
  • Post-exercise recovery

The current recommendation for post-training is to consume fluids (containing sodium/electrolytes) at a volume of 150% of exercise-induced body mass loss. To put that into context: If sweat loss was 1L/hour then following an hour of training an individual would want to consume 1.5L of fluids with added sodium/electrolytes.



See Below


TIPS on foods to eat to help fuel YOUR next ultra-run or ultra-event coming up including:

  • Food choices Pre and Post training/event would be similar to marathon training…you would just want to have more of it!!
  • It is DURING training/event that food choices change because gels and bars are just not enough!
  • Use of gels/bars/medjool dates may be sufficient for a 50K event but beyond this distance food choices NEED to change
  • For ultra-distances there needs to be a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) in the food choices made DURING the run because the physical stress on the body is immense

TIPS to help you prepare for eating during your ultra run:

  • As for all distance running start eating EARLY in the event and continue to eat approximately every 45mins-60mins throughout the run
  • Trial your food choices in training and DON’T introduce any new foods in a race/event
  • Remember your food choices need to be portable and also be able to stay firm in your camelback
  • Contact the event organiser to find out what foods will be available at the various checkpoints during the event
  • BE PREPARED….take plenty of food with you…especially if you have a sensitive digestive system OR you do not know what the organisers will have available
  • Remember, what your digestive system can tolerate will change as the run progresses. Sweet foods may become sickly so practice with savoury foods too


Food choices to consider:

  • Fruit and nut flapjacks
  • Fresh/dried fruit
  • Jam sandwiches

For a more balanced intake of macronutrients consider:

  •  Chicken and cheese sandwich
  • Slice of a potato-based frittata
  • Nut butter sandwich
  • Lentil burger in a bun


Nutritional Needs of an Ultra Runner

When comparing food choices between male and female distance runners the NURMI-Study (Nutrition and Running High Mileage – International) 2019 found that female athletes:

  1. Have a greater prevalence of unintentional calorie imbalance than males in order to reach and maintain the appropriate body composition required for an optimal endurance performance
  2. Were generally more health conscious than males
  3. Made “healthier” food choices than males with a greater intake of foods including: fruits, vegetables, and whole foods
  4. Mainly prefer to consume dietary sources containing more micronutrient density to fulfil their health-related concerns whereas male athletes seem more interested in consuming macronutrients, especially from protein sources, aiming to maintain and improve muscle mass and strength
  5. It was also found that the prevalence of consuming high-fibre meals (as an indicator of a healthy diet) was considerably higher in females than males


Nutritional Needs of an Ultra Runner

  1. Remember “Ultra-marathons are defined as foot races that exceed the traditional marathon distance of 26.2miles (or 42.2Km)”
  2. There are many rewards from running ultra distances including: self satisfaction and achievement and increased physiological adaptations such as mitochondrial function
  3. BUT, there are many risks too including: compromised immunity, dehydration, muscle damage
  4. To try to minimise these risks, a detailed and targeted approach to nutrient and fluid intake is imperative, especially CHO and sodium/electrolytes
  5. Remember bars and gels are just not enough when completing an ultra-marathon, REAL FOOD with a balance of macronutrients will be required during the event
  6. Finally, every ultra runner is individual therefore their food and nutrient requirements will be different, so consider working with a registered nutritional professional to ensure your choices are appropriate for your needs!!

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The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.

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