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Somewhere around mile 10, I realized the math didn’t add up. Tagging along for a morning run in the Marin Headlands, I watched Magda Boulet bound up a steep trail near Pirates Cove, while I wheezed, trying to keep up. Told that we’d run a loop “about eight” miles, I knew we were still a couple of miles from the car. Later, I would learn that this experience is common—so common in fact that training partners call this “Magda Miles.”
Boulet, 46, of Berkeley, California, is a decorated ultrarunner, with a win at Western States, the most prestigious 100-mile race in the country, on her first try, in 2015. She’s made the podium at many of the top races around the world, including a win at Marathon de Sables, a stage race across the Sahara Desert. She competed on the US Olympic team in 2008 as a marathoner before making the transition to trail running.
Boulet’s experience goes well beyond her own training, too. She coached the cross-country and track teams at the University of California Berkeley, has a Master’s in Nutrition Science, and works as the VP of Innovation and Research at GU Energy Labs where she’s spent the last two decades researching how nutrition affects runners.
Boulet knows how to fuel. As we crested the top of our last climb, she pulled out a few chews to fuel our last couple of miles. After our run, I sat down with Boulet to learn a bit more about nutrition plans and training tips for trail runners.
What are your top three nutrition tips while training for an ultra?
Strategically plan your nutrient timing: timing is key! Reduce intake of fat, fiber and protein near workouts to prevent GI discomfort, but increase their consumption the rest of the day. Carbs are king for high intensity or very prolonged exercise because your body prefers this fuel source.
Second, train the gut: training with key nutrients like carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluids during activity will increase the gut’s absorptive capacity of those nutrients, thereby reducing the risk of GI issues.
Last, train your event-specific nutrition plan: leave nothing up to chance race day! Know what you will have before, during, and after, and practice the plan! Mimicking the conditions of your event as closely as possible gives you the greatest chance of nailing it when it really counts.
What do you eat the day before your race? Does carbo-loading work?
Starting two days before a big race I like to keep things simple. I reduce fiber, dairy, fat and protein intake day before the event and focus on increasing my carbohydrate intake throughout the day. But, I don’t carb load night before, eat unfamiliar foods or overeat because it compromises sleep quality and could upset the digestive process. I also like to eat my dinner earlier in the day to allow the meal to fully digest and absorb and have a light snack before I go to bed.
Starting two or three days before the big event I maximize hydration and electrolyte intake using hydration tabs in water. Eat like a baby—easy-to-digest foods, nothing too spicy, keep it simple—and add a little extra salt to all meals. My go-to meal is a rice bowl with lean protein like fish, eggs or tofu, and an avocado.
What are the biggest mistakes someone can make?
The biggest mistakes someone can make are not drinking enough fluids with solids to encourage digestion and trying something new on race day. It’s always important to practice ahead of time.
What kind of stuff do you eat during the race?
I like to keep it simple.
A successful nutrition plan takes into account the number of calories our bodies can handle in an hour. But remember that everyone is different and every day may present different conditions. For example, body size, air temperature, activity type, intensity and personal preference will affect our nutritional needs and preferences. There are races where I prefer to drink my sports nutrition. For example, at Western States in 2015 I relied exclusively on Roctane Energy Drink Mix for the entire 19 hours, because it was very hot that day and drinking fluids put the least amount of demand of my gut and made my nutrition plan very simple to execute. And I was very thirsty!
I try to eat breakfast three to four hours before the race if possible, but if not I snack an hour before. During the race, I have a set regime, including a half liter of water, 200 to 300 calories and about 500 mg of sodium each hour. After every race I’m focused on muscle recovery, including 20 ounces of fluids per pound of body weight lost, 20 to 30 grams of protein within the first hour of finishing and one gram per pound of bodyweight of carbs.
And for longer races?
The challenge with longer races like a 100-miler is that blood flow is redirected toward muscles, not GI tract, making it harder to eat and drink. When I race 50K I put the least demand on my gut and stick to gels and drinks. When I race 100-milers, especially in big mountains where the temperatures are cooler and the pace is slower, I mix and match my food options and enjoy PB&J bites, stroopwafels, pretzels and chips, in addition to strategically placed gels, chews and drinks.
After a race, how can I help my muscles heal? Is it a bad decision to have a beer?
Adaptation to exercise takes place during the recovery period following activity, which makes this a critical time to support through good habits. Recovery nutrition should focus on rebuilding, refueling and rehydrating. For all hard workouts or races, I’d recommend 20 grams of fast-acting whey protein to stimulate muscle recovery and repair and help reduce muscle damage and soreness. Pair this with carbohydrates and electrolytes to restore and replenish nutrients lost during exercise.
If you enjoy a cold beer after the race, make sure to have your recovery drink first! Skipping your recovery and reaching for that beer first will result in a lack of muscle recovery for several days post the event. Again, timing is key.
Single best piece of nutrition advice?
Eating is training. This means tailoring your nutrition intake to meet the demands of your training cycle with planned, purposeful fueling. It’s feeding your body the right nutrients, at the right time, in sufficient amounts to maximize recovery and encourage positive physiological adaptations.
Invest time in figuring out what works for you personally and remember that you spend the majority of your day resting, recovering and preparing for the next workout. Think of this time as an opportunity to improve your performance with healthy eating habits.