The Grocery Store Aid Station

Expert tips for what to eat while distance running

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How do you feed yourself when you’re “racing” solo, and aid stations are a thing of pre-pandemic times? Experts share their tips.

Editor’s note: Please consult the CDC or your state health department for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When spending time outdoors, please recreate responsibly.


Among the many things the pandemic has impacted is this summer’s trail race season, but it’s birthed a bunch of homemade and virtual running events. Registered holistic nutritionist Sarah Cuff, a runner herself who works with competitive recreational runners, says 60 percent of her 20 or so clients carried on with virtual racing, so if you’ve still been training, you’re not alone. Whether you’re attempting a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Colorado Trail or tackling a 10K on your local trail network, you’re going to need food, and in the time of COVID-19, you’re most likely going to have to carry it with you.

So how do you feed yourself when you’re “racing” solo and aid stations are a thing of pre-pandemic times? What’s the best real food that’s small and dense enough to pack when you’re out for a long time?

Nutrition is highly personal, and everyone’s gastrointestinal tract responds differently to mileage and meals. Just because dried fruit agrees with your friend, doesn’t mean it will sit well in your stomach. But, as registered dietitian and running coach Claire Shorenstein says, there’s no better time to experiment than now, when official races are off the table. So, let’s go grocery shopping.

Runner on a trail

10K or less

As a baseline, both Shorenstein and Cuff say hydration is the first, most important step to nutrition on any kind of run. If they’re running for over an hour, they like going out with water and a sports drink with salt and electrolytes. Food-wise, as a general guideline, they say you should be eating 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour if you’re out for less than four hours. Eat in the 60- to 90-gram range for longer runs. That broadly breaks down to about 100 calories every 25 to 30 minutes. For shorter runs (generally under an hour and a half), you can usually rely on easy-to-digest sugar, like dried fruit—Shorenstein likes dates—or gummy candies and other small sweets. Cuff says she generally avoids processed foods, but when you’re racing, they can be easier to digest because they’re already processed, and if you’re treating your “races” as special occasions you don’t need to be as worried about health impacts. “Because your body is doing so much work, your digestive system isn’t working like normal, so we want to give our bodies foods that are easy to digest,” Cuff says. “As a holistic nutritionist, I’m not going to tell you to eat gummy bears all the time, but there’s a time and place for processed candy. We’re taught sugar is evil, but that’s not really true. As athletes, sugar is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Food Ideas:

Half marathon

As you roll into longer distances and double-digit mileage, Cuff says make sure you have a good assortment of salty snacks, in addition to sweet ones, which can start to turn your stomach after a while. You still want to be taking in around 60 grams of carbs per hour. Savory foods that are nutritionally dense and won’t upset your stomach can be tricky to find, but they’re crucial to maintaining appetite, which is important on long runs, she says. Plantain chips, peanut butter filled pretzels, or jerky can sit well, and don’t tend to crumble or take up too much space in your pack or vest. Keep them separated in individual bags, and keep them on the front of your body, so they’re easy to grab when you’re going. Any step to make access easier is good. On the sweet side, to get easily digestible carbs into your body, Cuff likes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white sourdough bread, which is often easier for people to digest than whole wheat or processed white bread. You can cut sandwiches into bite-size squares to avoid squishing and create an easy-to-munch portion size. She’s also a fan of dried fruit, or candied ginger, dipped in nut butter packets, which give the sugar a bit more heft. Ginger is also good for settling stomachs, which can be a big consideration on long runs, especially hot ones, because dehydration can upset your gut.

Food Ideas:

  • Plantain chips
  • Sourdough bread
  • Jerky
  • Candied ginger

Ultramarathon

Shorenstein says runners are often fine on shorter efforts, like those under two hours, with straight carbs. But on seriously long distances when they’re on the trail all day, they need proteins and fats to even out spikes in blood sugar. So, as your mileage creeps up into the double digits, or if you’re out for multiple hours, you’re going to want some real food, not just snacks. The challenge is that it can be hard to balance volume and space when you have to carry your food for long efforts. She tends to pack simple sandwiches, and to cut them into quarters, so she can munch a little bit at a time. Tortillas, which are compact and calorie dense, are a good option too. One of her pro tips: If you want, say, a turkey sandwich, 10 miles in, freeze the bread the night before so it won’t get too soggy on a hot day. Cuff says she likes to make rice balls, because it’s easy to digest white rice. She’ll cook up a big batch of rice at home, mix in cheese or bacon bits, with any kind of flavoring that sounds good, and roll them into bite-sized portions. She relies on oats too—sometimes in the form of oatmeal cookies—as a solid, easy to digest baseline. It’s important to have variety on long runs too, because you need to keep eating. It’s hard to predict what your body might crave, so don’t stick to standard lunch options. Another thing that Shorenstein has found works well for some people is instant mashed potatoes in a squeeze bottle. That might not be appealing on a normal day, but when your body is craving salt it can be a backcountry hit. Nothing is too weird if it gets calories into your body.

Food Ideas:

  • Rice
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Oatmeal cookies

Runners on a trail

Create your own aid station

Cuff has had clients who are planning an epic run arrange for an extra car (or a very nice friend) as an aid station on the route. If that’s the case, she says, follow those same salty, sweet, easy-to-digest guidelines, but go hog wild—variety is key here. Think about what’s appealed to you at other races. Sometimes that can be a helpful baseline. She says plain bagels and soda have been popular among her clients, and while she might not recommend them in an everyday diet, they can be great race food. Just make sure you’re hydrating with water, too.

No matter how long you run

Both nutritionists say it’s important to have a good sense of how long you’re going to be out. Take into account both your pace and any stopped time when you’re predicting how much food to bring. It’s a bummer to bonk because you didn’t factor in an extra hour for photo breaks or backcountry swim stops, both of which are a benefit of nontraditional races. They say it’s not a bad idea to carry some backup emergency calories as a safety measure, even if it’s just an energy gel packet or some gummy bears. And both nutritionists have the same biggest takeaway: Don’t overcomplicate it. If something sounds good to you, and it sits well in your stomach, then it works. Simple as that.

Learn More: Runners Nutrition Basics

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