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Bullseye Nutrition Plan for Ultramarathon Runners

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

In a recent post I talked about the unique nutritional challenges ultramarathon runners face because of the length of the event, distance between aid stations, changes in the environmental conditions, fatigue leading to poor decision making, and food or flavor fatigue. I have spent so much time working through these challenges with athletes that I devised a specific nutrition strategy to deal with them.

The Bullseye Nutrition Strategy

During training, particularly during the longer runs, I have athletes experiment with different—and sometimes counterintuitive—foods to help them reach their target calorie ranges. Foods that work are easy to open and eat on the run. They taste good, don’t get stuck in your teeth, and make you run as well as or better than you were running before eating them. Foods that don’t work are difficult to open, messy, crumbly, and hard to hold in one hand. They get stuck in your mouth, are too dry, or are tough to swallow without choking. Most of all, they sit in your gut like a calorie bomb, make you feel bloated or full, and slow you down. Your goal is to find three to five foods you can count on to work in any situation. These are your bull’s-eye foods.

All the food options you try can be categorized by where they fall on a target. Your bull’s-eye foods are your tried-and-true favorites. If these core foods begin to fail, because you’re tired of eating them, craving more sweetness or saltiness, or craving a different texture, then you can choose foods from the next ring of the target. These are foods you may not eat all the time, but you have tried them in training and know they work for you.

Beyond this ring are foods that you haven’t tried but that are similar to foods you have tried. For instance, you may know that chocolate chip cookies work for you, but there are only oatmeal cookies in the aid station. Or you like regular potato chips, but only BBQ-flavored chips are available.

Anything beyond this ring is off target altogether. These are the foods you know don’t work for you and foods similar to foods that don’t work for you. It is important to list these foods out, as well, so you and your crew are reminded of the things you have tried that have not worked in training.

Developing your bull’s-eye foods

Variety is important in your short list of bull’s-eye foods. The end goal is to find a combination of three to five foods that, together, meet all the following criteria:

  • At least one engineered food (gel, chewable, or calorie-rich drink)
  • At least one real food—something you make or assemble or that is not made specifically for running (rice ball, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or pretzels)
  • Something sweet
  • Something salty
  • Something savory

If you construct this combination correctly, these bull’s-eye foods can be rotated and substituted during any race as needed, according to your target calorie range. After these core foods have been fully vetted, experiment with backup (second-ring) foods. These backup foodstuffs are what you can confidently fall back on when you lose your taste or craving for your bull’s-eye foods. The typical fallback plan revolves around the aid station fare of cookies, soup, fruit, and sandwiches.

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The bull’s-eye strategy is easy to visualize and easy to explain to your support crew. I have included an actual example of a runner’s bull-eye’s strategy in the figure below. At any point during a race, either the athlete or his or her support crew can quickly consult the target and make a good decision.

bullseye nutrition plan

Above all, I try to remind athletes to keep their nutrition strategy as simple as possible. It shouldn’t require a spreadsheet to figure out what you’re going to eat next, or where. Over time, the goal is to become comfortable consuming the amount of food and fluid required for an ultra, and confident in your ability to make good decisions – even when fatigued – about what to eat and how to adapt to changing conditions.

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Comments 11

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  8. Great info and thanks for sharing Koop.

    Question: What do you feel is an adequate distance (or time) to truly test out eating? I typically can eat any and everything for the first 5 hours and feel great but find that I start getting nauseated post 5-6 hours. As it is hard to get consistent 6+ hour training runs in, can I reliably count on what I learned during runs of lesser duration?

  9. Koop, just curious if you’ve ever had issues with the rice balls and food poisoning? Is this something that’s safe to carry on a long run or do you leave it in a cool drop bag? They sound good but they could get pretty warm in a pack, which you’d normally want to avoid with both cooked rice and egg.

  10. Fig Newton’s, cytomax, and caffeine gels esp the mocha have gotten me through centuries on the bike. Bananas oranges and watermelon at the aid stations. Yum!

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