Essential nutrition for trail runners

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Nutrition, the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth*, is a vital element of preparation for any sport. For trail runners, many of whom run long distances over many hours, it is particularly relevant. Ever wanted to know why sugary sports drinks don’t seem to be having the effect you expect on your run? What causes those nasty stomach upsets half way through a race? Why popular running ‘diets’ such as Paleo and Veganism really work?

I spoke to Nutritionist, Chef and trail runner Charlie Ramsdale Nutritional Therapist BSc (Hons) mBANT, regCNHC from Dart Nutrition to find out these answers and more…

Kelly: Charlie can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into nutrition?

Charlie Ramsdale
Charlie Ramsdale

I am 32 and originally from Northampton, but have lived in Dartmouth, Devon since leaving school. I had planned to go to medical school but went to Devon for a holiday the summer after my A levels and never left. I just loved the way of life down there; plus the running terrain is great! After doing a few ski seasons, playing a lot of tennis and working as a chef for a few years I completed a degree in Sport Science at Exeter University, where I developed an interest in sports nutrition. Whilst trying to decide which direction to take my career, I learned about Nutritional Therapy and having always had strong beliefs in preventive medicine it seemed like the natural progression. I embarked on a long, and at times tough, part-time degree through the University of West London, whilst still working full-time as a chef. Now I have a career I am truly passionate about, combining my skills in health care, sport and food to help both individuals with health concerns and athletes to achieve their potential through diet and lifestyle changes.

You are also a trail runner, with some very impressive results including placing 3rd female in the 119km TNF Transgrancanaria last year. Does the difference between advising a trail runner and a non-runner vary greatly or are the nutrition principles the same?

Charlie Ramsdale running
Charlie training on her home turf

I’ve only recently started to run competitively. My main sports used to be tennis and snowboarding, only running to keep fit for those, but a friend persuaded me to start entering some events a couple of years ago. I think the Devon hills must have put me in good stead as I seem to be doing quite well so far, and the Transgrancanaria was definitely a highlight!

In terms of the difference between advising a trail runner and a non- runner the overall dietary recommendations for good health are no different, and a good nutritional base is essential to optimise your performance and maintain long-term health at any level of sport. In Nutritional Therapy and Functional Medicine we recognise that everyone is biochemically different as a result of their genes and their environment. The programmes we develop are therefore personalised to each client.

Runners have additional dietary and lifestyle needs, including greater energy, protein and micronutrient requirements and consideration of timing of food or supplement intake compared to sedentary people. Although there is no doubt moderate intensity exercise is beneficial, it increases stresses on the body, physically, physiologically and psychologically, and I would take these factors into consideration when working with any athlete, whether recreational or elite.

A lot of runners are concerned with maintaining a lighter weight for races but also making sure they stay strong and adequately fed. What would be your advice to someone who is trying to tread this line?

Whilst it is important to maintain a low body fat percentage and not become too muscle bound for endurance running, eating disorders and dysfunctional relationships with food seem common in endurance athletes. This sustained low energy intake can have extremely negative consequences for health. During endurance exercise breakdown of muscle tissue occurs to provide energy. Those restricting calories to lose weight may have lower energy stores in the body and are therefore at risk of losing lean muscle mass.

Calorie restricted diets may also lack micronutrients essential for energy production and recovery from exercise, increasing stresses on the body, whilst the psychological stress of worrying about weight could actually produce the opposite desired effect, as stress can enhance fat storage.

For these reasons the old paradigm of ‘calories in versus calories out’ doesn’t really work, and sustained low energy intake can lead to burn out. Also, regular use of scales may be misleading, as lean muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re training and getting leaner you may notice no change in body weight. A focus on maintaining a low body fat percentage is therefore more appropriate than ‘weight loss’.

Although I would consider the overall calorie requirements of the athlete, I would focus more on ensuring the diet is of a high quality and timing food intake to ensure adequate protein and micronutrient intake for training and recovery. Eating a natural diet with lots of vegetables and fruit, combined with lean protein, wholegrain carbohydrates and healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, improving the quality of training session and ensuring adequate recovery and reducing lifestyle stresses are far superior to counting calories for maintaining an optimum body composition.

As a runner yourself, what is your opinion on gels and energy drinks for use during races? Do you use them yourself or do you stick to ‘real foods’ and why?

mixed nutsFirstly, any race or training session under 1 hour shouldn’t require any fuel apart from water so long as the runner has a quality meal 2-3 hours prior to and 1-2 hours post exercise. For ultra-distance running where the intensity of exercise is relatively low I much prefer to use real food like bananas, dried fruit and nuts. Sugary sports drinks and gels only provide energy, they don’t provide any of the micronutrients necessary for energy production and recovery, and they also make me feel pretty sick pretty quickly! I would take a couple of caffeine gels for when I really need a hit, but I am wary of taking them all in one go. They contain a large amount of carbohydrate which hits the gut all in one go, and to be absorbed optimally would need around 300ml of water to be co-ingested, which is impossible to achieve when running.

I think this type of product should be reserved for higher intensity endurance events like a fast half-marathon or marathon, where their ratio of maltodextrin:fructose has been proven to provide optimal uptake and utilisation of carbohydrate. However with most commercial sports drinks and gels containing additives I prefer to make my own using diluted apple juice, or green tea, with some ‘Beet it’ or ‘Cherryactive’, electrolytes and glucose. Making your own energy bars with blended nuts, seeds, dates, banana etc is also an option. Every runner will have different preferences for fuelling long distance training sessions or races. What is important though is that they experiment with new foods/drinks during training rather than during a race.

Many people have problems with stomach issues when running, particularly when you get to ultra distances. What would be your advice for avoiding this?

The widespread use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatories could play a part in gastrointestinal upset as they block the compounds in the body that protect the gut lining. These should be kept to a minimum, particularly before or during a run. There are plenty of dietary measures that can be used for inflammation!

Another problem is that aerobic exercise diverts the blood flow away from the gut to the active muscles. This can alter bowel motility leading to diarrhoea. In extreme cases this can cause ischaemia with bleeding into the gut and abdominal pain, so it’s clearly something we need to avoid. It’s essential to leave at least 2 hours between eating a meal and running to allow digestion to take place, and avoid consuming meals with a high fat content before running as this can slow digestion and cause problems later. Finally, try to use the bathroom before the run/race.

Another problem can be incorrect use of gels, or hypertonic sports drinks, that cause water to be drawn out from the body into the gut with pretty nasty consequences! Staying well hydrated is very important, and that means not just drinking water but also electrolytes to ensure the water is absorbed and sticks in the body.

Again it’s finding what works for you: some people may find that avoiding caffeine before running helps, others do better if they avoid high fibre foods or dairy. Experiment during training sessions rather than on race day, and if you do experience problems during a race its essential to keep well hydrated.

A variety of diets have become popular in recent years including veganism, paleo, fruitarian etc. Do you have any thoughts on these? Are there particular parts from each one which you recommend to take on board or exclude?

applesAs I mentioned earlier, we are all biochemically unique, therefore I do not believe there is a one size fits all approach to diet. Looking at the diets of indigenous people around the world we see a wide variation in dietary habits, from a mainly vegan diet in India to the high fat/protein diet of the Eskimos. The concern of a vegan diet is that the body doesn’t use vegan sources of protein so well as protein of animal origin, and the quantity of grains/legumes that provide ‘adequate’ protein is somewhat more than could be consumed by most individuals. However some people/races appear to be better adapted to this than others, and a carefully managed vegan diet can clearly be used successfully, Scott Jurek, is a prime example!

I think where all these diets work is that they are low glycaemic index (ie avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars that cause rapid increases in blood sugar), and they emphasise unprocessed, natural foods, with plenty of vegetables. I think the best way to use them is to take things that appeal to you from any of the diets, and make it fit to your preferences and lifestyle. However there are also features of these diets that I feel are inappropriate for endurance runners.

For example, I don’t agree with the way that many proponents of the Paleo diet demonise carbs, as these form an essential part of any athlete’s diet. What’s important is that we make sure we get the right carbs. In fact the Paleo diet is not low carb like the Atkin’s diet as it allows starchy vegetables like sweet potato and butternut squash and fruit. I would also be wary of the long-term health effects of a raw vegan diet for endurance runners. Certain compounds in raw vegetables such as spinach can prevent micronutrients from being absorbed, whilst raw brassicas like broccoli, cabbage and pak choi contain compounds that inhibit the thyroid gland. These compounds are deactivated with cooking, and I therefore feel that a raw diet would increase the likelihood of deficiency in an already restricted diet. Vegans are also at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which gives symptoms similar to iron deficiency anaemia, as B12 is only found naturally in animal foods. Vegans therefore have to rely on obtaining this vitamin through fortified foods like marmite, or supplements.

Do you have any advice specific to female trail runners? Anything we need to take into consideration particularly?

So this really relates to a previous question concerning the practice of maintaining a low body weight for running, together with lengthy training sessions, and this can be particularly dangerous for women. As I mentioned earlier a negative calorie balance (calories in less than calories out) can lead to a state of lean tissue breakdown, and puts strain on the hormonal system. The ‘Female Athlete Triad’ (FAD) is an all too common interrelation of three conditions, whereby chronic low energy intake through disordered eating, increased exercise, or both, exists alongside amenorrhoea (irregular, or a complete stop in having periods) and low bone density, which can lead to stress fractures, osteoporosis and infertility. There is also likely to be a psychological aspect, with increased incidence of depression and low self-esteem associated with dysfunctional eating and body image issues.

I think it’s really important that coaches working with female athletes who need to maintain a low body weight aren’t putting pressure on them to lose weight without a proper understanding of FAD and of proper nutrition. Any runner who identifies this phenomenon in herself should consider seeking professional help.

Finally, how important is nutrition to someone’s training – what percent of focus and dedication should it take up in someone’s training plan and why?

Whilst genetics and dedication to training undoubtedly underpin success in endurance running, I feel that optimum nutrition should be given equal importance in runners at any level. From a functional sports nutrition perspective, the diet should focus on promoting overall and long-term health, and we see nutritional recommendations for athletes as a pyramid, with nutrition for general health and wellbeing at the bottom, specific recommendations for sport on the middle, and supplements or ergogenic aids as the top. In other words if you don’t have the foundations you will struggle to reach peak performance, and relying solely on sports drinks, gels, protein shakes and caffeine for energy whilst running without consideration of a carefully planned healthy diet is likely to lead to problems in the future.

A diet that provides the right balance of carbs, healthy fats, protein and micronutrients helps to ensure efficient energy production, protect from injury and upper respiratory tract infections, aid recovery from training and injury, and support the stress hormones. Whilst we can focus on providing specific nutrients such as anti-inflammatory foods or antioxidants in those prone to, say injury or infections, the exciting new area of genetic testing in athletes has revealed that some individuals have inherited tendencies for injury or physiological stress. This can be used to guide nutrition for the prevention of potential future injury or disease however at the moment it is still fairly expensive.

Thank you Charlie. Please visit Dart Nutrition if you would like to know more. 

* Oxford Dictionary Online. (2014). Oxford Dictionary . Available: Last accessed 6th June 2014.

Accompanying photos from

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