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Nutritional Tips for Trail Running

Trail running is quickly becoming one of the most popular sports in the outdoor industry. Barely recognized as a sport a few years ago, trail running was viewed as a speedy alternative to hiking. However, with the emergence of ultra-distance running on trails the prestige that comes with winning a trail race has increased tremendously. As trail running becomes more mainstream, it is important that you as a runner remember a few crucial bits of nutritional information that will make any trail run all the more enjoyable.

Hydration: The Key to Performance

Proper hydration is at the forefront of any activity you plan to participate in. If your body is in motion, then you need to make sure that you are hydrated. Water is essential to the human body. 60-70% of our body mass is water, up to 90% of our brain mass is water, and up to 75% of muscle tissue is comprised of water. Water is also the main component of blood – the important carrier of glucose, oxygen and other nutrients. In general, your body loses 64-80 ounces of water daily through urine, feces, sweat, skin, and expired air. This water needs to be replaced by daily fluid consumption of 64-80 ounces. Another, albeit much less scientific, way to determine daily fluid requirements is to evaluate your urine. Dark and concentrated urine is indicative of inadequate fluid intake. Urine should be pale yellow to clear, and copious. Trail running is a four-season sport. You can run in practically any weather condition, on virtually any terrain.

In warm weather, the only way to ensure that you will not become dehydrated is to stop it before it happens. When you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. That is why it is important to properly hydrate before any event. The cliché eight glasses a day does not take into account your standard active athlete. If you are training in the heat, you need not worry about how many glasses you are drinking but rather concentrate on drinking periodically throughout the day. Keep a water bottle close to you at all times and sip from it continuously. This will ensure that your cells with be maximally hydrated at the start of any workout. Although water is great to be drinking if you are planning on sitting still all day, if you are active you should be hydrating with a carbohydrate solution, preferably one with anywhere between 6-8% carbohydrates. This will ensure that your body not only gets the hydration it craves but also that it maintains the right amount of electrolytes. During the trail run itself, focus on continuing to sip continuously from your water bottle. It is best if you can either run with a handheld water bottle or find a comfortable hydration pack. Weigh yourself before and after a hot weather workout to ensure proper rehydration. For every pound that you lose while running, rehydrate with 24oz of liquid or 150% of your total water loss.

In the cold you need to remember that you still have to hydrate. Your hydration needs in cool weather are just as important as in hot weather. You will not feel like you need to drink as much liquid; however, you still need to avoid becoming dehydrated. While you won’t be losing as much liquid through perspiration, you still need to have liquid on hand, especially if you plan to run over thirty minutes. Try to drink every ten to fifteen minutes to ensure that you avoid becoming thirsty.

Choosing the right liquid is critical to your hydrating success. Find a carbohydrate drink that will sit well with your stomach and budget. If you are racing, train with the drink that will be provided on the course, since that will be what you will drinking once you get out there.

Find an electrolyte containing beverage with 4% to 8% carbohydrate. Drinking a 10% carbohydrate solution can potentially cause gastrointestinal issues, which can be considerably uncomfortable regardless if you are training or racing. The high sugar content can slow the release of fluids into your intestine and delay the rate of absorption. With a 4-8% combination of carbohydrates your body is able to absorb a proper balance of electrolytes which is recommended for any events lasting longer than an hour. Though beverages with caffeine provide hydration, they are not the best choice as excessive caffeine consumption may interfere with sleep patterns and will have a mild diuretic effect. Try to limit your intake of these liquids throughout the day especially if you are planning on a long distance trail run.

Get the Gear: Finding the Right Hydration System

If you are just getting into trail running you need to find the hydration system that will work best for you. This can take time and will only improve with experience, so be patient. For a long distance training trail run, find a hydration system that is lightweight, comfortable and will be able to carry enough liquid to meet your hydration needs.

Personally, I prefer to run with handheld water bottles, because holding the water bottles reminds me of the need to drink. If I run with a hydration pack, I find myself becoming consumed in the run and forgetting to drink. However, by holding the bottles I have a constant reminder that I need to stay hydrated. The only downside to carrying water bottles is that you have something in your hands. This can become a problem on a long distance run when your body becomes fatigued and the last thing you want to do is hold onto a multi-pound water bottle. That is why running with a pack can be an advantage.

In the beginning, hydration packs were cumbersome and not worth the discomfort that they brought. However, in recent years that has changed as the outdoor industry has consistently improved on the lightweight, comfortable hydration pack. In cool weather conditions a pack is ideal. When you first start out running more than likely you will be wearing excess clothing. Shedding a few layers with no where to stash them can be a problem; however, with a pack you can easily stuff them away. Then if the weather turns malo you can just pull them back out. Also, since more than likely you will not be drinking as much liquid you can better regulate how much liquid you are carrying by how much fluid you put into the bladder.

If you enjoy running with a hydration pack in warm weather, look for one that will be able to keep your back cool. The main problem I found with early hydration packs was that they trapped the heat expelled off your back. I found myself loosing an enormous amount of liquid from the sweat caused by the rubbing of the hydration pack and my back. Either choose a hydration pack that has mesh shoulder straps and an air flow system or use a lumbar pack to remain cool and hydrated in the hottest of conditions.

Watch Your Calories: You Need Fuel!

If you are planning on running over an hour then you need to make sure that you take into account your nutritional needs as well as hydration needs. Your body size and the activities you choose will determine how many calories you need to consume while exercising.

Typically, most experts recommend that athletes eat anywhere from 100 to 150 calories per hour to maintain proper glycolic and caloric balances. Regardless of what type of food or gel you use for fuel delivery, carbohydrates remain your best source of energy for training and racing. Remember not to shun real food for synthetic food options. Fig Newtons, Banana, Peanut Butter sandwiches and Larabars are all great options that can be easily packed into a hydration pack or carried on a trail run.

As your body pushes the limits, make sure that you are providing it with the right fuel for the job. To sum up, staying properly hydrated throughout the day is crucial to your workout success. Find a 4-8% carbohydrate drink that your stomach can tolerate if you plan to be running longer than an hour and plan to consume 100-150 calories per hour of exercise. Finally, experiment with different hydrating options until you find a hydration system that works for you. Everybody is different, but taking the time and finding the right way to stay hydrated and fueled will yield major advantages for any athlete in any discipline.

-Josh Wheeler, Rock/Creek employee, trail runner and triathlete
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