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Candy and Chips: Forbidden Fuel?

Why the things your mother told you not to eat too much of may have a place in your trail-racing nutrition

There is no shortage of engineered, endurance-specific nutrition products. But visit any aid station at a trail race or ultra and you’ll find a buffet of chips, pretzels, chocolate bars, cookies, candy and other foods critical to supplying the calories necessary to maintain energy levels, in addition to sports drinks, gels, soups and stews. But is it OK to throw conventional dietary rules out the window when fuelling for a trail race or ultra?

Going the distance

Fuelling yourself for an adventure on the trails is slightly different from fuelling for miles on the road. The rugged terrain and hilly trails mean you’re moving at a slower pace than you would on the road; you might even be stopping to walk across a log over a creek or power-hiking up hills. The slower pace gives your digestive system more time to process foods that would otherwise be hard to eat and digest during a faster-paced race.

Running long distances is a calorie-deficit sport. The way our bodies metabolize food, it’s very challenging to take in as much as what is being expended. An average runner can take in about 250 to 350 calories an hour while simultaneously burning around 100 calories per mile (60 calories per km).

Ultrarunners may eat junk, but the strategy makes sense

To be sure, processed foods such as cookies, candy and chips aren’t usually the foundation of a well-planned diet for runners. Part of the reason whole foods like veggies, beans and oats are consistently connected to better health outcomes is that they take longer to digest and help keep you full until your next meal. But despite processed foods’ bad reputation, they’re surprisingly good fuel for a trail race or ultra, since they provide sugar that an athlete’s body can quickly convert into glucose (energy). If it’s already processed before you consume it, your body has one less thing to do, which can help save energy.

What’s more, many of these foods are energy-dense, meaning they provide you with more calories per serving, which can help minimize an energy deficit.

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