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Aid Station Strategies for trail & ultra runners

Aid Station Strategies for trail & ultra runners

Hey there!  I’m Steve, a native New Yorker (based out of Manhattan), and Vert.run coach.  I’m not what you might think of as a typical Ultrarunner.   As an overweight, out-of-shape child and teenager with low self-esteem, I started running over twenty years ago and have used the sport to not only get fit, but to push self-perceived limits, and learn to be grateful for everything my body (and mind) can accomplish.  I was introduced to trail and Ultra running about 15 years ago after meeting Dean Karnazes and reading his book “Ultramarathon Man.”  After starting to run on trails, I was hooked.   The connection with nature and sense of adventure while on the trails is hard to describe.   Running is a lifelong passion for me, and I thoroughly enjoy helping others develop a rewarding relationship with the sport.  I believe running is not just about achievement or exercise.  It doesn’t matter how fast you are, where you live, what you weigh, or look like.  It’s a discipline and process of becoming the best you can be.   When I was just entering Ultrarunning, I made the common mistake of focusing solely on the training and not giving enough consideration to fueling or equipment change during the race (change of shoes, socks, poles) at different sections.  

Why is this a common mistake? Well, the thing is that trail running (and thus trail races) are really different from road running in lots of ways. 

Firstly, they differ in terms of terrain. In a road race–like a marathon, a 5k, or a half marathon–you’re pretty much guaranteed that you’ll have exactly the same terrain the whole time (nice, flat pavement). You can also safely bet that the most “wild” or unexpected thing you’ll have to deal with during a road race is rain; and basically what this means is that in a road race, you never need to think about having different shoes (or backup shoes). But in a trail race, all bets are off. You might have sections of dry pavement followed by slippery, muddy trails; you might have some smooth, single-track trail heading up, and then some gnarly, root-and-rock trails heading back down. All of this means that things like shoes, poles, and socks need to be part of your race–and aid station–strategy in a trail race. 

Secondly, road races differ from trail races in terms of length. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about distance, but about the amount of time you’re out there. (For those of you who know Vert.run well, you’ll know that all the workouts on our training platform–from our free 5k plan to our hardest 100 mile plan–are all based on time, not distance. We strongly believe that this is the best way to train, because it’s healthiest for us mentally, and also helps us keep perspective. You can read more about why here.) I digress. The thing is that for a trail half marathon, you might be out on the trails for three, four or even five hours if it’s a really tough course with lots of elevation gain. 

Comparing this with a road half marathon, where most runners might spend only an hour or two running, it’s easy to see what I mean when I say that trail races can really easily take longer to run than a road race of the same distance. This extended time out there–moving, getting uphill, navigating technical trails, being exposed to the sun/win/rain/other elements–means that you need to be extra-prepared for a trail race, even if you think that it’s a “short one.” So, you need to be über-ready with sufficient calories and water…and even with things like sunscreen, sunglasses, and protective gear like hats, gloves and gators. 

So, now that you understand a little bit about the “why” behind the need for trail race aid station strategy, we can start digging in. 

What supplies will you need and when?  What is the right strategy?  Will I be running in a transition between day/night, meaning I’ll need warm gear and a headlamp to start, but will want to shed those things later on? What is the mandatory gear for my race? What types of food or hydration will be available at the aid stations throughout my race? How many aid stations do I have during my race–and how far apart are they? 

Yes, that’s right: you should have a well thought-out plan of how you will utilize the aid stations to fuel your body and change out clothing or care for any possible injuries.  Here are some things to consider as you are training for your next race, and some of the key things I learned along the way of my own trail running journey. 

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Fueling Needs:

Let’s start off with some of the technical info for you. It’s not actually that complicated once you break it down–let’s go. 

The standard for estimating how many calories (and carbohydrates) you need while running an ultramarathon is one gram of carbohydrate per minute.  With four calories per gram, that’s 240 calories per hour for the average runner. 

Remember: this number of calories includes everything you consume – food, gels, and liquids.  And also remember: each person is different! Some trail runners love to eat “real” food while they race, while others go for an all-liquid strategy. In terms of “real” foods, some classic, trail runner race favorites are crackers, plain rice, avocado, dates, applesauce, and oranges. Other runners prefer a mix of the two: opting for energy gels as the base of their calories, and then supplementing with more solid foods at aid stations along the way. And finally, some runners love to go all-liquid, all the way: using things like energy drinks/powders (don’t be fooled by the fact that they’re liquid…some of these powder drinks can pack up to 1,000 calories per bottle!) or even opting for the “hack” of dissolving energy gels into water to make it go down easier. 

Then, if you’re running an especially long trail race or an ultramarathon, you can start thinking about protein. When? The golden rule is that after 4 to 6 hours of running an ultramarathon, you can start incorporating protein, at the rate of 1 gram of protein for every 3 or 4 grams of carbohydrates.  This doesn’t change the total amount of fuel, just the percentage of carbohydrate to protein.  (From 100% carbohydrates to 75% or 80% carbohydrate with the remainder coming from protein).  

Finally, you might wonder: if I’m running so hard for such a long time, shouldn’t I also be consuming some fat? Well, the answer is this: nope! Focusing on consuming fat during a run is not necessary. The body has plenty of fat storage, but it’s okay to have some fat as “comfort” food during long races.  It won’t necessarily improve your performance, but it won’t hurt it either!

What type of fuel did you train with?

It’s important to try out different foods and drinks while you are training. Everyone’s body and digestive response to food while exercising is different.  The same way you would test out a new pair of trail shoes during training before your ultramarathon, you’ll need to do the same thing with foods. It’s up to you to understand yourself, what your body will tolerate, and what has the proper nutrition (calories, carbs, protein, salt, etc.).   Not only are we all different, but some of us have allergies or pre-existing conditions.  Personally, I have IBS, so I know that I must be careful on the days leading up to the race just as I must be during the race itself.   Once you find food that works for you, do NOT introduce something new into your stomach on race day. Let me repeat that again: DO NOT ever try anything new on race day! Sure, that pizza looks great at the aid station at mile 50, but do you think your body will tolerate large amounts of dairy sloshing around for another 50 miles? Unless you’re used to racing while eating pizza, it’s best to save these splurges for after the race is over.

How far apart are the aid stations?

Remember, you must consume around 240 calories per hour.  Some races have aid stations that could be 15 or even up to 25 miles apart.  That means you should carry with you enough fuel, and even a change of socks or shirt, to sustain you for the time between stations plus some additional food and liquids (just in case).   Once at the aid station, be sure you know what you need, communicate it clearly to the amazing volunteers (and thank them!), take some additional fuel for the next stretch of trail, and be on your way.  Lingering at a station can eat up valuable time that you may not have freedom to lose.  Plan and tell yourself how long you are going to be at each station.

Do you have a crew and are they at the aid stations?

 If so, great!   Be sure they know the plan in advance, so you don’t have to waste energy and time explaining to them what to do.  (ex – at aid station 3, change my socks, dry my feet, wrap hot spots in bandages, give me a new pair of shoes, fill my water bottles, give me peanut butter sandwich and some coffee, give me my poles and send me off)

Do you have a drop bag at an aid station?

First of all, even though many of you probably know, it’s important to answer one question: what is a drop bag in running or ultrarunning? Think of it like this: a drop bag is like a present you mail to your future self in a race. Before your race, you’ll fill your drop bag with extra clothes, food, changes of shoes, water bottles, etc…and then you’ll be given that bag at a specific aid station or mile of the race.

What should go into a drop bag? Most importantly, make sure it’s stocked with everything you need and may need to continue to the next station.  Food, liquids, socks, shoes, poles, new water bottles, sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen, etc.

A good aid station plan can make a great race out of one that you thought about dropping out of earlier on.  A poor strategy can cause you to have to drop from lack of fueling needs, unattended injuries, or faulty equipment.  Plan for what you can, train consistently, and anything else that happens is out of your control.  Enjoy the process and learn forward!

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