For the casual exerciser, squeezing in a three-mile run a few times a week is considered a victory. But for an ultramarathon runner, not even a marathon will do.
Ultra runners make up a community of athletes devoted to long-distance running. That means anything past the 26.2 distance of a standard marathon. These athletes run races that measure up to 50 miles (and sometimes 100 miles or more). The runs take them through spectacular terrain, winding through mountain ranges and across state lines. It allows them to see the world on foot.
But how, you might be wondering, are these runs physically possible? I've always been desperately curious to know how ultramarathoners keep themselves fueled. I get light-headed if I go two hours without a snack, even if I'm just sitting still. Thus, the question: What does an ultra runner's day-to-day diet look like?
To find out, I spoke with three well-known athletes from the ultra community: trail runner Krissy Moehl, the youngest woman to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning; endurance trainer Stephanie Howe, the 2014 North Face Endurance Championships bronze medalist; and long-distance runner Kimberley Teshima, finisher of the 2016 Sun Mountain 50-Miler.
According to these women, the ultra runner's diet tends to have a few key elements: quantity, frequency, color, and whole foods.
"Eat real food: That is the foundation of my eating philosophy," says Howe. "If I can’t recognize a food as something that grows out of the ground, I don’t want to put it in my body." Of course, there's some wiggle room for processed foods and indulgences. "I am an intuitive eater, and I eat very differently from day to day," Howe says. "My nutritional and energy needs are going to be very different from another individual. Energy needs are so dependent on age, gender, activity level, fitness, and genetics.
… The best way to eat is to explore and try a variety of foods to learn what feels best for your body."
Teshima agrees, reminding us that balance is key. "I feel like if I want ice cream, a beer, or a treat of some sort, I'll have it," she says. But the majority of an ultra runner's diet can be found at the perimeter of the grocery store. "Healthy, clean, and green," Teshima describes.
The typical ultra-runner diet doesn't involve an overwhelming amount of high-fat protein, either. In fact, for some, meat doesn't factor in at all. “I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 10 years," says Teshima. "I eat as many veggies and fruits as I want, and I try to keep everything else in moderation."
Of course, during training, ultra runners' appetites increase, and so do the quantities of food. Frequent snacks and maximum hydration are essential, says Moehl.
Curious to see the actual meals of ultra runners? Just keep scrolling!
Moehl and Teshima both start their days with variations on the same theme: a superfood Greek yogurt parfait. The meal is high in lean protein and carbs but low in fat, making it easy to digest—the perfect pre-training fuel. "Typically I eat 3/4 to 1 cup of 0% Fage plain yogurt topped with chia seeds, cherries, and a drizzle of dark maple syrup," says Teshima. "Being Canadian, I'm a bit of a maple syrup fanatic!" Moehl tops her signature Greek yogurt concoction with maca powder ($11), granola, fresh or dried fruit, and a serving of 7 Sources Oil ($35), an essential fatty acid supplement.
For these ultramarathon runners, caffeine is also definitely on the table. There's some controversy surrounding caffeine's role in an athlete's diet, but the pros say it actually works to stimulate the nervous system and boost performance. Teshima never goes a morning without a "nice strong cup" of pour-over coffee, while a cup of mate tea with almond milk is Moehl's elixir of choice.
For an ultra runner, lunch is all about lean protein, carbs, and healthy fats. Typically, Teshima goes the Mexican food route with a bowl of rice and black beans topped with cabbage, mixed veggies, and guacamole, sometimes accompanied with a corn tortilla.
Moehl tends to snack throughout the day rather than eat a big lunch. In the middle of the day, she opts for something like toast with trail butter ($9)—an all-natural nut butter—and banana. (Hopefully with "thick-cut handmade bread!" she adds.)
Listening to your body and eating whenever you feel hungry is the ultra runner's M.O., so frequent snacking is essential. Moehl's and Teshima's favorites include healthy, satisfying options like hummus with crackers or chips, carrots, fruit, cheese, popcorn, dark chocolate–covered almonds, and nut butters.
Ultra runs take long stretches of time—sometimes days—to complete. Training for them is no jog in the park either. That renders "trail food" a necessity. These are quick-fuel foods you can take with you in your pockets or running pack. Moehl's go-tos include Clif Blok Energy Chews ($36 per 18-pack), Clif Kids Z Bars ($12 for an 18-pack), and dates filled with trail butter.
Like their lunchtime meals, ultra runners tend to combine lean protein and carbs with a minimal amount of healthy fats for dinner. "My favorite dinner is roasted veggies!" says Teshima. "I eat roasted veggies multiple times per week, usually rosemary potatoes, garlic roasted mushrooms, roasted asparagus, and blanched broccoli over brown rice or quinoa." (Are you drooling yet?) Her other go-to dinner is a vegan Caesar salad. "I'll eat a huge bowl of this a few times per week," she says. "The dressing is cashew based, and I make garlicky, crunchy chickpea 'croutons' for added texture, protein, and fiber.
It's so good!"
Moehl's carnivorous version consists of rice and veggies with her choice of meat. "Or I'll make a massive salad with tons of seeds, meat, rice, or quinoa," she says. "Or, just whatever I'm craving!"
Yep, if you're a 50-mile runner, you earn an extra meal. "During peak training, I've also been known to have what I like to call 'second dinner,'" says Teshima. "It's usually some sort of veggie dish, soup, or salad—something easy."
Want more fascinating diet inspiration? Don't miss this story on what happens when you eat nothing but fruit for a week.