How to fuel for endurance racing
BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
In-race feeding seems to be one of the hardest things to master as athletes transition from shorter events to long distance racing. Shorter races allow athletes to operate at a deficit, and catch up later. Once we go over the 4 hour (or so) mark, nutrition has to be at the forefront of preparation: too much and we deal with bowel issues, cramping, and indigestion; too little and we face bonking, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. The sooner athletes realize that their approach must be individualized, the more quickly they will find a program that works for them.
I, for one, love to eat and drink separately, consuming a large variety of solid foods. One of my canoe partners does an all-in-one combo of drink/gel/calories/electrolytes that I find disgusting. We are both at the top of our sport, weigh the same, and are known for having strong race finishes. Our fueling preferences are completely divergent, but both work well.
So, how do you find what works for you? Start by breaking it down into steps, and then do some field testing to fine-tune a customized nutrition program.
When searching for an electrolyte drink, you’ll discover that hundreds of options exist, all claiming superiority. How do you know which one to choose? The best one works best for you: the most palatable, easiest on your stomach, can be diluted or strengthened based on preference, and allows you to perform at a consistent level.
For some athletes, Gatorade works best; for others, a homemade lemonade/salt concoction, and still others choose a “custom blend” from a sports beverage company. The major differences among sport drink options exist in marketing and flavor profile. Your friend, mentor, or family may find your favorites disgusting, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter where it’s from, as long as it works for you. Try a few different types and flavors during long training, and see if one rises to the top. Then get a few flavors of that brand so you don’t get tired of having the exact same thing over and over. You may find that having one or two brands in a couple different flavors works best. Just drink the same thing for 10+ hours—although it is good for your support crew to at least have a backup option on hand.
You may ask, “What about water?” An occasional drink of water may settle your stomach, and keep you from getting disgusted with a chosen flavor, but it does not contain electrolytes. If a flavored electrolyte drink isn’t something you can stomach, you can dissolve plain electrolyte tabs into your water, or eat the tabs while drinking water. I find it is easier to have the tabs dissolved since taking a pill is another step that requires me to pause—even though momentarily; it makes this option less attractive. Realize that whatever route you go, you may find your choice isn’t a forever solution. Our tastes and needs change over time, so be flexible enough to realize when something is no longer working for you.
For in-race eating, there are many different camps on the best system— liquids, gels, solid foods, or a mix of all three. This, like hydration, is going to vary from person to person—even what is required nutritionally during an endurance event between carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This may seem like it could be standardized and formulaic, but having competed in over 40 ultra-endurance events, I’ve seen that not even the top athletes are doing exactly the same program. Find something that works for you, and know that it may change as your training loads, experience, and goals do.
Liquids are the easiest to consume in-race, but they aren’t always satisfying. Some athletes swear by them to prevent stomach cramps and because they digest easily, while others find them to be somewhat of a diuretic. Like with electrolyte drinks, there are plenty of options within the sports nutrition sphere, and some even use nutritional supplement drinks such as Boost or Ensure. You may find that certain brands of nutritional beverages are higher in fat or protein—that may be great, or it may be something you steer away from. It will take some trial-and-error to narrow it down to the right options.
Gels and gummies are a great supplement to any distance nutrition plan, but probably won’t provide enough calories alone to maintain a consistent effort over the course of many hours or days. For myself, any event over 4 hours will require additional food beyond gels, but this again will vary from person to person. Some choose to put the gels straight into their drink mixes. Others like to take them as directed by the packages. Another group uses them only to supplement other nutrition.
For solid food, there is so much variety. To narrow down the focus, you should start with something that sounds good to you mid-race, or is easy to digest. Fruits, potatoes, candies, Jell-O, and cheese are fairly common choices. For bigger “meals,” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ramen soup, or oatmeal can all be appetizing and relatively easy to eat when prepared with racing in mind. If you need some salt to break up the flavor profile, try some pickles, crackers or chips. If you crave something while training, try it during your next long workout. Even hot dogs have made the cut in some races for certain athletes. Try to have at least a few things for morale; maybe they aren’t nutritionally important, but they sound good when you are tired.
Even when you have all the pieces in place, you may find it a struggle to pace your consumption. As a rule of thumb, something should be eaten every hour during a long race, along with at least one cup of fluids. Your needs may vary, but listen to your body—if it is full of liquid when you drink one quart per hour, that’s too much. Fueling needs to start early, so you aren’t stuck playing catch-up. Remember: for most of us, the endurance events are a fun challenge, not our livelihood. Therefore, approach your nutrition the same way—as an obstacle, but something that is fun to work through.