Marathon Fueling Tips with Alayna Sonnesyn

Rachel PerkinsFebruary 11, 2020
SMS T2 skier Alayna Sonnesyn with the 2019 American Birkebeiner win. (Photo: James Netz)

The countdown is on. Marathon season is underway and we are inside the final two weeks before the American Birkie. At this point, “the hay is in the barn” when it comes to training, but there is still time to dial in a nutrition plan to stay fueled and all the way from Cable to Hayward. 

For pro tips, FasterSkier reached out to last year’s Birkie winner, Alayna Sonnesyn (SMST2), for insight into the system that powered her performance. This season, 23-year-old Minnesota native earned three podiums at U.S. Nationals in Houghton, Michigan: 2nd in the 10 k skate, 3rd in the classic sprint, and 2nd in the freestyle sprint. She also earned her first European World Cup starts in Nové Město and Oberstdorf, improving on the results from her first World Cup starts in Quebec City the previous season.

“My dream came true.” An emotional Alayna Sonnesyn after winning the 2019 Birkie. (Photo: Screenshot

For Sonnesyn, the Birkie has always been a family affair. In a blog post, she recalled watching through the fence as racers flew by like “superheroes.” All four members of her family raced the 2019 Birkie; her sister, Marit, took 7th, her mom was 72nd, and her dad 180th.

While bottle hand offs and extra supplies may not be a luxury available to the recreational skier, Sonnesyn’s fueling plan embodies the “eat and drink early and often” wisdom, finding a product that sits well and meets your needs, and erring on the side of over prepared. 

Pre-Race Fueling:

The night before the race, I ate a ton of Rigatoni pasta (which contained beef for protein) that my mom made along with a salad. 

On the morning of, I had a big bowl of oatmeal with a spoonful of Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of protein powder. I’ve found that extra protein before a big race can give me that extra energy to really dig deep later in the day. I also drank A LOT of coffee that morning, sipping it all the way until the start line.

During the Race:

Last year I carried a water bottle that had Tailwind Nutrition electrolyte mix in it. I’ve been using Tailwind for two years now and I LOVE IT! It’s so easy on your stomach and doesn’t taste overly sugary like Gatorade or Powerade. I prefer the “Naked” flavor which is essentially flavorless but also really like the Berry flavor. I know it’s sold at Gear West!

At about 15k I took a gel and chased it with water at one of the aid stations. It’s nice to know the trail so well that I could anticipate the aid stations well in advance.

My goal was to have finished my first water bottle by the time I got to OO (kilometer 20.6) where I dropped my bottle and received a new one from my Rossignol rep. This second water bottle contained more Tailwind Nutrition mix and also a crushed up caffeine pill. Not sure if the caffeine pill helped much but I felt great!

At about 35k I took another gel that contained more caffeine and followed this up with water from an aid station. I had the option of getting another water bottle from my Rossignol rep at this point but I was feeling good and didn’t think it was necessary.

Finally, before crossing 77 (6 k to go), I received a “flat coke” feed from another Rossi rep, dropped my drink belt and put the hammer down!

Overall, I didn’t have a “calories/hour” goal but I wanted to take feeds early and often so that I could prevent any bonking. I’m not a fan of gels so I really wanted to be sure I had water after taking these to make sure I got them down well. Also, food and blocks are too much for my stomach during a race like that so I kept things relatively liquid. 

The elevation profile of the American Birkebeiner. (Photo: Screenshot

The Race Logistics:

I was fortunate enough to have INCREDIBLE support from my Rossignol team. I gave a Rossi rep a spare set of poles that would be available about 10k into the race in case I needed them. Another Rossi rep had spare poles at OO. Luckily, I didn’t need to use these!

My aunt was also available at OO with extra everything. Poles, gloves, water, food… again though, I was lucky not to need any of this.

My race suit doesn’t have any pockets but my water bottle carrier did. I stored three gels in this pocket that I knew would be plenty to get me through the race (I used two of them). Last year it wasn’t too cold so I wasn’t worried about my feeds freezing, but keeping them close to my body made sure they would stay warm just in case.

Overall, I wanted to be over prepared rather than under. I made sure that if anything went wrong, I was prepared for it. Two days before the race, I practiced skiing at high speed with a water bottle carrier and taking a feed from it. Practicing this helped me feel way more confident in the procedure and all of the logistics for the race.

The women’s podium of the 2019 American Birkebeiner. Alayna Sonnesyn took first ahead of Anja Gruber and Katie Feldman. (Photo: Screenshot Instagram @asonnesyn)


Rachel Perkins

Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646

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