A top ultra runner's diet. Dan Lawson on intuitive eating and training.

As a nutritionist, keen runner and part time running coach, I’m very interested to hear what people eat during training and what they believe to be the key things which helps them run well.  So who better to speak to than my friend, the Brighton based ultra runner Dan Lawson.

Dan’s record is impressive: He runs for the GB Ultra Team, who are the current world and European champions at the 24hr distance. He is a world record beater for the longest distance run in a week on a treadmill and he’s the course record holder for Ultrabalaton,  Steenburgen Ultra, Grand Union Canal Race and the Ridgeway Ultra. Last year he finished second in the iconic 153 mile Spartathlon Ultra Marathon, the 2nd fastest British time ever.  

This interview took place the week before the Belfast 24 World Championships. Unfortunatley Dan had to pull out at 22 hours due to a leg injury. There will be a follow on post looking at how he has used nutrition to help aid his recovery. 

What’s your typical day to day diet?

Dan: I eat a mainly plant based diet, around 80-90% of the time, and have done for many years. However I don’t follow strict regimes, I try to listen to what my body needs. If I’m feeling lethargic and my runs feel slow I’ll add in some other protein sources like eggs and oily fish

My staples are porridge for breakfast and salads later on in the day – I eat a lot of them, in large quantities.  A typical dish will contain watercress, spinach, rocket, beetroot, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions and I’ll add some wholegrain carbs like quinoa, oh and avocados, I eat them every day, I can’t get enough of them! I also have a good amount of starchy veg like sweet potatoes and butternut squash as well as a decent amount of nuts and seeds.  My diet isn’t that varied though, I eat this stuff all the time but it seems to work for me.

But does your diet change when your training ramps up for a race?

Dan: Well yes and no. I still eat the same foods but I will up the carbohydrate content and include more things like sweet potatoes and wholemeal bread,  as well as making sure I include a good amount of protein like eggs and fish.  At the top of my training I’m running around 325km a week , that’s a serious amount of calories that needs replacing!  However, I don’t follow a precise diet plan checking the carbs to protein to fat ratio or eat at regimented times.

Your intuitive approach to nutrition and training is quite unexpected for someone competing at your level isn’t it?

I know at my level expert opinion would advise me, and believe me they’ve tried, to eat a plan which is more regimented, following tried and tested methods. But I am pretty confident in what my body can and cannot tolerate,  I believe there is no “one size fits all” plan when it comes to nutrition,  what works for a competitor isn’t necessarily going to work for me. I have run and eaten like this for a long time and I feel that it works for me well.

What about supplements?

I’ve started to take probiotics and use Symprove.  I think it has helped keep my stomach feeling strong and better able to cope with the stresses ultra running puts on the digestion.

You seem to eat a lot of dietary nitrates, which is shown to increase exercise effeciency, do you also take beetroot juice before a race as a lot of atheletes now do?

If I remember I might take a shot of beetroot juice. My diet is already high in dietary nitrates and to be honest I don’t think I could increase by much more.

What’s your nutrition preparation in the lead up to a race; say the week before and on the morning of a race?

Dan:  I will try to drink more the week before as know this is important. I don’t usually drink very much during the day and can run a fair distance without  having to take on much fluids.  However  I do make sure I drink more in the lead up to a race, and I will add a carton of coconut water and make sure I drink this every day.

I will try to eat 3-4 hours before a race to give my body plenty of time to digest everything. The race on Saturday doesn’t start until 12 which is good so I’ll have wholemeal toast with peanut butter and banana. 

What about during a race. How do take on enough fuel to run well without the digestive issues ultrarunners can face. I remember during the world record you really struggling with this.

Yes I have struggled with this in the past and still find it really difficult to eat actual food when I’m racing. In the last few years I think I’ve finally got my race nutrition nailed.

In the first few hours of a race I will take on small amounts of protein at regular intervals. Spanish omelette in small cubes is something that works well for me at the moment. During the race I can tolerate some fruit, small amounts of watermelon, grapes and tinned fruit don’t upset my stomach.

I have also started using Tailwind Endurance Fuel. This is the best sports drink for me; I tolerated it much better than other drink or gels which feel heavy in my stomach. I will increase or decrease the concentration depending on the weather conditions and fluid loss.  I have run my best times since using Tailwind, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

So you believe getting your nutrition right has really helped your performance and contributed to your recent record smashing races?

Absolutely.  I always used to start of strong and then bonk towards the end. I just didn’t have the energy to get me through. Getting the right amount of energy to keep me running hard but without upsetting my stomach can make the difference between being on the podium of not.

What about your post race nutrition recovery plan?

Hmm, I think this still needs work. I find it difficult to eat solid food after a race for quite a long period of time and 4-5 days post race my body struggles. I need to be able to bounce back quicker. It’s a continual tweaking process to find out what works best for me.

Like a lot of ultra runners Dan's diet is very healthy.  Dan has an intuitive approach to nutrition and training and holds some strong beliefs. Therefore nutrition advice and guidance needs to be tailored accordingly. Dan has eaten a largely raw, mainly plant based diet for a long time and any changes suggested to improve his training and performance has to take this into account.

Always work with a qualified nutritionist who can understand what will work for you to deliver the performance you want and is able to do this in a healthy and sustainable way.