REAL FOOD During an Ultra

July 6, 2023

REAL FOOD During an Ultra

Ultra-distance running is becoming more and more popular, however there is limited information on what to eat to fuel these distances.

Do you struggle to eat ENOUGH for your ultra training?

The food and nutrition needs of an ultra-runner DURING training and in-event is going to be different from other endurance runners….even marathon runners.

So, in this episode we:

    1. Outline some Core Eating Habits for an ultra-runner to consider
    2. Highlight some REAL FOOD ideas for ‘eating on the run’
    3. Give some practical solutions on how to include these foods during YOUR ultra-distance run training and events

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REAL FOOD During an Ultra


Outlining the FIVE core eating habits of an ultra runner as proposed by the American sports nutritionist and author Matt Fitzgerald: These core eating habits are:

  1. Eat everything
  2. Eat Quality
  3. Eat Carb Centred
  4. Eat Enough
  5. Eat Individually

Fitzgerald established these core habits after carrying out extensive investigation into what elite endurance athletes all over the world really eat. What he discovered was that, even though their plates looked very different, there were 5 core habits that they all adhered to, that enabled them to perform optimally in:

  • Performance
  • Recovery
  • Overall health

Looking at the core habits in more detail:

Eat everything – no food is forbidden unlike that of popular diets e.g. paleo, ketogenic where certain food group are forbidden. If a balanced diet that includes everything is consumed, then health and fitness are less likely to be compromised by gaps in nutrition.

Also, a little bit of what you like (because it taste good) so, “unhealthy” is ok BUT portion control is important! 

Eat Quality – most of the food eaten should be of high quality, natural and unprocessed. From his investigations and observations Fitzgerald identified TEN food groups which can be ranked from highest to lowest in quality:

  1. Vegetables
  2. Fruit
  3. Nuts, seeds and healthy oils for example: nut and seed oils, olive oil and coconut oil
  4. Whole grains
  5. Dairy
  6. Unprocessed meat and seafood
  7. Refined grains
  8. Sweets
  9. Processed meat
  10. Fried foods


Moving on to discuss the other three core eating habits of an ultra runner:

Eat Carb Centred – The diet is not high in carbohydrate rich foods ALL of the time BUT high-quality carbohydrate foods are included in MOST meals and snacks.

Eat Enough – If an endurance athlete repeatedly undereats then they will be under-fuelled for training leading to poor performance and recovery. Under fuelling could increase the risk of injury and result in the development of over training symptoms.

Eat Individually – in otherwards, individual preference. The first 4 habits establish a framework for an endurance athlete to follow but within that, individual food choices can be made. Everyone is individual, so this framework gives plenty of scope to eat in different ways be it due to food preferences or due to religious, cultural, or ethical reasons.


Highlighting some REAL FOOD ideas to eat during the long hours of training or the long hours of running in an event.

The principle message is that eating bars, gels and medjool dates only is just not going to work!! The body will require more substantial snacks, and in some instances, a proper meal!! It will depend on how far and over what time scale an individual is running.

Some easy snack and meal ideas from the ultra runner Scott Jurek’s book ‘Eat and Run’ include:

  • Pizza Bread
  • Tofu ‘cheese’ sandwich
  • Trial wrap with a filling of hummus and olives


Sharing some of Aileen’s REAL FOOD ideas that she takes with her on her long hikes including:

  • Plant-based burgers in a bun, homemade ideally but there are some natural, ready-prepared ones available on the market. Some olives and sundried tomatoes could be added as a topping
  • Rice cakes – for pure carbs (and a little salt) as a simple snack to nibble on as you run
  • Other salty foods – for example salty nuts
  • Sweet potato wedges – cooked then cooled
  • Slices of Spanish tortilla
  • Cheesy egg flapjacks


Considering some of the practical issues an ultra runner might have to overcome when determining which foods to take on a long run:

  • How to carry the food – in a backpack, in a belt or having family and friends strategically placed around the run route
  • Accessibility of food – are the pockets of the pack/belt easy to access? If difficult to utilise then the hassle factor may lead to under fuelling!
  • What foods are available at the checkpoint stations during an event – find out and practice with them during training
  • Always have a nutrition back-up plan – the longer the run, the more likely digestive needs and tolerances will change!! For example, a runner may enjoy sweet foods at the start of the event, however in the latter stages they may cause nausea. Having some savoury and salty snacks as a backup could be beneficial


REAL FOOD During an Ultra

  1. Remember to think about putting in place Matt Fitzgerald’s FIVE CORE HABITS:
  • Eat everything
  • Eat Quality
  • Eat Carb Centred
  • Eat Enough
  • Eat Individually
  1. As distances increase, surviving on bars, gels and medjool dates is just not going to work!! The body will require more substantial snacks and in some instances a proper meal…so REAL FOOD!!
  2. When you begin practicing with REAL FOOD and recipes, choose ones that will be easy to make as well as easy to carry to help keep you inspired rather than it feeling like a chore!!
  3. Some food ideas you could start practicing with include: pizza, sandwiches, plant-based burgers, sweet potato wedges. Remember to share your experiences with us. Karen will share hers
  4. Investing in durable and appropriate equipment is essential for any ultra-runner including a back pack for all the food and fluids that will be required
  5. There are so many choices out there so do your homework and choose one that fits with YOUR needs…not what a friend recommends you purchase!!
  6. Finally, remember to PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE different eating strategies in training until you find what works for you so you can go into an event feeling confident and prepared for any eventuality

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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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