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Ultrarunning and Fueling on Whole30

I have had mixed success with fueling on the Whole30 Program.  

Below I recount my personal experiences running long distances on this diet. I based my evaluation on three major runs: 44 miles at Bull Run Run, a 21-mile training run dubbed Kerry's Death March and a 50K race at Capon Valley. 

First things first: I would not recommend racing in the first 14 days of the Whole30 program. Almost everyone experiences very low energy and lackluster workouts during this period as the body adapts from using carbohydrates to fueling with fat.

Let's start by analyzing my DNF at mile 44 of Bull Run Run 50 Miler. It fell on Day 28 of my Whole30. While my body had adapted to using fat as fuel, I believe the diet itself was not to blame, rather, I failed to properly carb-load in the days leading up to this race.

The Carb-Loading Fail. My meals for three days prior to my race (by pure accident) included almost all low carbohydrate vegetables: 

  • Spinach 
  • Asparagus 
  • Brussels sprouts 
  • Jicama 
  • Zucchini 
  • Tomatoes  
  • Salad greens

I should have been adding fruit to my meals and eating high carb veggies such as:
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Beets  
  • Parsnips 

What I Used as Race Fuel. Below is my race nutrition. My energy was steady all day.
  • A blend of sweet potato puree, applesauce, apple juice and coconut milk 
  • a couple handfuls of dates
  • half a banana 
  • LARABARS (5 or 6), Lemon and Cherry Pie flavors 

The Good. Here's what I noted about how I felt during Bull Run Run vs. typical past ultras.
  • I never felt like I was bonking. 
  • No bloating or sloshing. In fact, I can't remember a race where my stomach felt better.    
  • Even energy throughout the day. It was different than the sugar "highs" I used to get on gels and junk food - but notably, the lows that accompanied them were also absent.

Alkalinity and Acidity. If you scroll down to the bottom of this discussion, you'll find some interesting answers on severe cramping during endurance running. Based on the pain/sensations described, this is exactly what I experienced during Bull Run Run. I've never cramped that badly before, to the point of being unable to walk. 

In short, my low carbohydrate intake left my pH too low going into the race. That resulted in horrific cramping - and nothing I ate or drank during the race could have remedied that. The die had been cast.

Success on Kerry's Death March Training Run. KDM is a wonderful and very tough 20+ mile loop in Shenandoah National Park. It has significant climbing and is ideal for Laurel Highlands 70 training. I completed this leisurely-paced 5+ hour run and felt AMAZING all day long, with steady energy throughout. In addition to the fuel I used at Bull Run Run, I ate a burger in a lettuce wrap at Elkwallow Wayside. It's possible this additional protein and fat contributed to my overall success.


Middling Results at Capon Valley 50K. I ate sweet potatoes like they were going out of style in the two days leading up to this race. I added dried apricots and cranberries to my fuel quiver, and I ate some bananas and orange slices at the aid stations. Again, I'm not certain my results here can be attributed to my diet alone. I had pain in my right hip during the entire race as a result of a new climbing technique I implemented at KDM. Furthermore, my legs were still fatigued because I hadn't tapered. In the last miles, when I'm usually raring to get it done, I did a lot of walking and frankly didn't care a bit about my time.
We Are All An Experiment Of One. My ultrarunner friend Katie (read her Whole30 report) has had really strong runs using the sweet potato puree + applesauce + coconut milk blend. Katie PR'd by an hour at Bull Run Run (she was on Day 28 of the Whole30, like me). She has gone from mid-packer to making the podium at a couple of races. Keep your eyes peeled for It's up! Katie's ultra fueling post to learn about all of her fueling secrets.

Hubz had several great training runs and his recovery after hard efforts was amazingly quick. He remarked several times in amazement that he had little or no soreness after seriously tough runs. However, he bonked hard just past the halfway point at his 100 mile race this weekend and was not able to recover. Furthermore, while his energy was good and steady up to mile 50, it differed significantly from energy he got in the past from his Gatorade + Carb BOOM! mix. Even before he bonked, he said he "just didn't have another gear."   

In Conclusion, I feel unsatisfied with my evaluation of the Whole30 diet on just three big runs.
I will continue to experiment with my ultrarunning fuel as well as the ratio of fat + protein + carbs in my daily diet.
I'll tinker with the sweet potato blend, adding more coconut milk. I'm going to try using gels again and a few new products. Does anyone have a non-sugary fuel they use with success?



  1. Hey there,

    While I'm not officially on the Whole 30, I use a "paleo" like frame work most of the time. I get my "carb loading" from sweet potatoes, banans, apples, and some of the other foods you mention.

    I've experimented with in-race fueling with Ucan, but have moved on to ViFuel as a base, but would then add bananas, lara bars, dates, etc. The less intense the effort, the more "real" food I'll eat and less gels etc. So again the bananas, lara bars, but I'll also use pemmican, hard boiled eggs, and the like when possible and when effort level is low enough...

    1. Thanks Sean, Hubz was checking out ViFuel last night. Thanks for your input!

  2. Thanks for the update, appreciate the details. (and sorry for Hubz....)

    I haven't tried it but have been reading a lot about Vespa lately - seems to be related to being fat-adapted and helping any carbs you do take in work well. Might want to look into it.

  3. Thank you so much for the details! Our current fixation is on how to best recover post long hard training (or racing) - DH cut gluten and also dairy, and we are trying to eat less processed sugars. Any tips you can share on recovery eating (in addition to this great post about race and pre-race fuelling) would be awesome!

    1. Donna, the recovery after our long runs is the one thing that has been fantastic. We've hadvery little soreness or stiffness. We bring food so we can eat soon after our run. We take in plenty of protein and high carb veggies.
      I've been reading The Paleo Diet for Athletes and the prescribed recovery is high carb veggies (like sweet potatoes), protein (and maybe a little fruit) 15-30 minutes after your workout. Still reading and experimenting!

  4. Hey there!

    Just a few thoughts on what may cause muscle cramping/soreness during a race:

    - Magnesium depletion. There is a clear connection between magnesium and muscle cramps, and during times of stress and exercise, there is an increased use of magnesium, and therefore a higher chance of running low. For many athletes, and especially those that participate in long-duration activities, I would usually recommend a magnesium supplement. It's both cheap and safe, and should yield noticeable benefits for performance. Magnesium is vital for cellular energy production, and a deficiency can definitely reduce metabolic efficiency

    - Going harder than you did in training. Asking muscle fibers to do a job that you didn't prepare them for can result in cramping and excessive soreness. For example, the climbing of hills will likely require the recruitment of more powerful muscle fibers than running flat, but if you hadn't trained in a way that allowed you to build these muscles to perform such a task, you could have cramping as a result. (Not saying that you didn't train properly, just offering some thoughts).

    - Perhaps a lack of protein intake during the run could have contributed. Protein-containing foods are harder to eat while running, though, and will use up more energy to digest, AND will potentially contribute to GI distress, which is not something that you want to have happen in the middle of a 50 mile run. Maybe you'd benefit from adding some BCAA to your home-made fuel mix?

    How much of your fuel were you taking in during the race? How much food do you eat on a regular basis?


    - James

    1. James, thanks for your very thoughtful input. Great points to mull over. I definitely think magnesium played a part, I had an unusually stressful week leading up to BRR. I believe I took in enough fuel during -- 8oz of sweet potato-applesauce-coconut mix per hour plus some LARABAR, but think not enough coconut milk in it. On an average day I eat a LOT.

  5. Thanks for continuing to post about this, Kirstin. I'm still trying to figure out an optimal fueling plan, but seem to be stuck between my old one and a better one :). I'm fascinated by this Whole30 approach, so I really appreciate all the info you are providing!

  6. While I've decided Whole30 is not for me, it is very interesting to read your experiences on it! I may do another one someday, so your fueling notes are good info.

  7. K - You may want to check out Olga King's latest post. She has been having some real nasty leg issues, tried a new product that helped her recovery. http://runmoretalkless.blogspot.com/2013/05/recovery-and-last-push.html?utm_source=feedly
    one of her writeups on leg problems

  8. I just started using generation UCAN during my long training sessions. It isn't Whole 30 compliant, but it helps you keep your blood sugar stable and allows you to burn fat while continuing to restock your glycogen. Might be worth a try before going back to gels, etc.

    1. Thanks Victoria. Will look into that too.

    2. The Pom-blue kind of tastes like a berry smoothie!

  9. Great description! As someone who was on Whole30 twice for the duration and on Paleo for 6 months, and who had experienced those pains (and who's husband was the one started the conversation you linked to) - I appreciate people keep bringing it up and trying to figure it out. I really liked the response of Evolvedrunning - it makes sense for the Mg, and I also always said same thing about "not trained for the effort" thing. And lastly, I was thinking about my last 2 episodes - while training! - of those leg sensations, when the training effort wasn't THAT hard - as you pointed out as well - those 2 runs were fulfilled on a morning following extremely LOW carb dinner (and whole day as well), like, some spinach and tomato kind of day (even though with enough protein). As for his last tip, and I am still checking into it via my source who gave me that fuel to try MJ pointed to, I asked the guy who is company's scientist why they think their stuff works - but from what I see James mentioned, that stuff has BCAA. I am taking that powder to San Diego 100, lets see its magic:)

    1. I actually just wrote a post about protein ingestion during exercise that sort of covers the basics http://evolvedrunning.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/protein-ingestion-during-exercise/

    2. I read it, and I quoted your post in my own:) Thanks!

  10. Look what else I found for you!
    Schlarb: ...a grain-free diet and making the body a fat-burning system. I think I had 1,500 calories for 17 hours.
    iRF: The entire race.
    Schlarb: The entire race. I didn’t bonk at all. The first hour and 25 minutes I didn’t take anything. Then after that it was about 100 calories every 40 or 45 minutes. The last 10 to 15 miles there were a couple times I hit it at 35 minutes. That made me efficient and with a 100 being so aerobic, it was just perfect. I had no salt, no salt caplets. It was nothing but the basics of running on fats and hitting the carbs just every once in awhile. That just worked out perfectly. That’s the result of going grain-free/Paleo. That really worked out well. Training has really come together and figuring out what works for me—doing that and having fun."

  11. This is so interesting. I´ve got my first marathon on Sunday so am preparing to carb-load Paleo style. I don´t know how you´ve got on since this blog, but it seems like sweet potatoes, squash and coconut milk are the way to go? Another friend of mine swears by Chia seeds, but he may have been reading too many books :)

    1. I eat a lot of beets, sweet potatoes, or plantains in the week leading up to the race. I fuel with the blend of sweets/coconutmilk/applesauce, and those babyfood squeeze packets mostly. Depending on how long the effort is, I use Vfuel gels and maybe eat a little protein.

  12. Thanks for posting your experience. I'm paleo, whole30 style, and trying to optimize for basketball 2 time per week - fast recovery and high energy.

    One thing about paleo I've noticed is electrolyte/water explosion. I get dried out easy.

    I wonder if your less-than-satisfactory results with paleo and running (I'm guessing your gunning for kick-ass results) suffers due to electrolyte/hydration.

    There was a study on a guy who was so fat, he ate nothing for a year, under doc supervision, but did add vitamins/minerals/electroytes to his body to handle whatever was happening.

    Basically he burned his fat for a year.

    So … I'd love to hear your success formula for long runs - hoping to garner some useful bits for my hoops optimization.

    Good stuff ...

  13. I think I do much, much better when taking in magnesium/calcium/potassium like Nuun or similar. I don't know that I've noticed feeling dehydrated, though my stomach doesn't slosh anymore. I chalked that up to the absence of sugar.
    My most successful race was the LH 70 Miler last June (took a few months off racing after that, then got injured). Here's my fueling report: http://ultrarunnergirl.blogspot.com/2013/08/fat-adapted-running-ultra-on-paleo-diet.html
    It wasn't strict Whole30, but as close as I could get.

  14. Hi Kristen, glad to hear that I'm on the right track! Last year I used different blends of applesauce, mashed banana, mashed sweet potato, electrolyte powders, and coconut milk to fuel my training runs and half marathon race. It was successful, but this year I want to be even more careful/well thought out with my approach, since ultras are an entire different game.

    This year I've added in "protein balls" which are essentially homemade larabars with some whey and flax seed in them. I've had good success with them so far.

    I'm glad that you mentioned carb loading a few days out. That's a great tip. I'll be sure to keep that in mind. I'll have to check out Katie's posts too, to see what I can learn from hers. I'm looking forward to working my way through the rest of your Paleo related posts. Thanks for directing me here!


  15. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    I have been looking for someone who detailed their experience with running and Paleo lifestyle. I recently also did Whole 30 and then switched to Paleo. I also started doing a lot of my training runs in a fasted state. I have made some other changes, regarding running form, etc, and I dont think I have pulled all the pieces together. This helps a lot but you are right. We are all an experiment of one. I am still too afraid to race without gels however. I have met one or two people who have been able to transition to running half marathons and even fulls with no fuel though!

  16. Just curious, what is the recipe for your sweet potato-applesauce-coconut mix?

    1. Mostly sweet potato, cooked til very soft. You can roast or cut up and steam. Thin to desired consistency with the applesauce and coconut milk. Some runners have issues with apples (high fructose) and their gut, so I'd go sparingly on that. Season to taste with cinnamon, salt, whatever sounds good.


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