Ahhh… Race nutrition. One of my favourite topics. That’s why in every one of our interviews with OCR athletes, we ask how they fuel up for races. Turns out that none of them bother taking anything with them for shorter runs like a 5k or a 10k, which can be completed even on an empty stomach. This is a stark contrast from the cringe-worthy episodes you probably will have seen yourself, where people consume energy gels at every mile of a short race. Admittedly, I used to be one of those people. That was back when I was a total newbie and so I want to tell you today that you don’t need those high-carb, sugar-ladden energy gels. Depending on your level of training, you could even complete a race in a completely fasted state and feel just fine.
For longer runs and races (think Spartan Beast, Tough Mudders and other extensive endurance events) most athletes bring along hydration packs, energy gels, honey, and even mustard packets to keep their performance up and the cramps at bay. Naturally, I will pack some similarly useful stuff as well, but none of it will be full of carb or sugar. If you’ve ever had to deal with stomach troubles during a race, this post is for you. I’ll go over the key things I bring with me, and the people I coach, that will help you fuel up for long races and for tough training days as well, with no trade-offs for your (gut) health.
Absolutely Essential: Electrolytes
Forget about the food, energy supplements and anything considerably ‘solid’. Depletion of electrolytes is why people tend to ‘lose energy’. Low electrolyte levels are linked to excessive activities and dehydration, both of which are par for the course in OCR. While you hustle over obstacles and up the hills, your body sweats to cool itself off and, in doing this, it loses some essential minerals thus weakening your electrolyte profile. Without these electrolytes, any water you consume will simply be pushed out of the body as urine. Vicious cycle, much? If you’re lacking electrolytes to help absorption so that your body can actually use the water, no amount of water stations spread across the racing grounds will help you.
What can help are electrolyte tabs. What I do is simply put 1-2 electrolyte tablets into my water-filled hydration backpack so I skip water stations all-together. So I not only save time but what I fuel up with is electrolyte-rich water, far better than the usual fare offered at water stations. If you’re interested in purchasing these tabs, good brands (no affiliation) include Nuun, Powerbar and Zero. My personal favourite are Nuun. They come in a variety of flavours but without artificial sweeteners. They also have a good electrolyte profile, including magnesium, potassium and natrium chloride (salt). Crucially, they don’t come in a funky and acid-coloured wrapper (always a good sign).
As a test, you can drink a tab with water prior to a run or a training session. You’ll notice the effects soon enough into your workout – no dehydration or dry mouth. You’ll be better able to push further and be your best self.
From here on out, the article splits into two sections: the first section is aimed at carb-fuelled athletes and the other at those on fat-adapted diets.
The zero-carb, fat-fuelled lifestyle isn’t sustainable for everyone – and that’s totally fine. There are some key elements in a carb-inclusive diet which can better aid you in terms of logistics and packing for the event than fat fuel. Here I’ll list the key items I would always consider taking when I train and race during a carb refeed cycle. Added in is the key information we also gathered from the elite athletes we’ve so far interviewed on Grit Camp.
The basic premise of carb-fuelled racing is that you are going to burn around 300 kcals every hour. This roughly equals 2 typical energy gel packs (at 150-200kcal each). Anything more than that will result in stomach cramps, excess sugar being fermented in the stomach and bloating – none of which you want on your race day checklist, eh?
So let’s say you have a race lasting approximately 3 hours – would you really need 6 energy gel packs? That is an insane amount of items to carry and consume. In such a short amount of time, it’s almost inevitably going to cause you stomach distress. Is there anything you can do to stay focussed and keep your glucose levels up for a smoother racing experience? There is indeed.
Most athletes we interviewed had a tendency to supplement rather than binge on calories during a race. This approach is widely known as the band-aid approach. During any activity where your adrenalin is high, the fight-or-flight response kicks in, time becomes relative (flies) and you basically turn into an animal. This combo then helps you push further, use your own fat for fuel and survive on a minimal amount of extra calories. Thus having 1 energy gel per hour and electrolyte-rich water should be more than enough.
What energy gels should you pack? This hardly make a difference. All industry products are filled with shady ingredients that are difficult to pronounce. A good method for selection is to opt for the less shiny and less colourful wrappers as well as a shorter ingredients list. Personally, I pick gels with some caffeine content for an extra energy boost. Common brands (no affiliation) include: Sis Go Isotonic, High 5 energy, Cliff Block Shots, Hammer Gels etc. My personal favourite are the Cliff Block Shots, which come in a bar like wrapper and contain multiple jelly gummies with almost the same profile as other energy gels. What makes the difference with the Block Shots is obviously just the convenience of easier consumption.
Alternatively you can produce your own healthy energy elixir. We shared a recipe for a healthy preworkout previously – check it out here. For longer races you might want to add more honey or mix it up with a conventional energy gel solution. You’ll probably also need to figure out a prtable solution for such a DIY energy elixir.
Fat-fuelled and keto athletes
Any high-intensity event longer than 30 minutes is where fat fuelled nutrition is irreplaceable. Helena and I have been experimenting with this for quite a while and no other diet has worked as well for us, fuel-wise, as the fat-adapted diets. The biggest benefit is in having your body conditioned to burn fat first, be it extra fat products or your own body fat storages. Running races that require more effort (45mins or longer) makes your body use its own fat with no backlash on glucose levels. You can virtually run for hours with no drop in energy. The downside however is that you have to keep this lifestyle at all times, because any excessive carb consumption may trigger your body back into using carbs instead of fat for fuel.
There are of course some instance where it’s ok to consume carbs, because you will burn them right away and be ready to burn fat after that just as easily. For example, right before a longer race, I could eat some carb because I’d burn it soon into the race and then the body would again dip into my fat storage. However, here I’m going to discuss a fully fat-fuelled approach.
Since fat can give you up to 4x the caloric output in energy versus the amount you consume, you can pack much less fuel for racing. A simple example here could be me packing a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil and being able to dominate a 3-hour race with hardly losing any strength, grit and without getting super tired. An equivalent amount of carb would be 5-6 energy gel packs.
But you don’t need to pack coconut oil in a foil as I used to do in the beginning of my fat-fuelled experiments. There are some great products available on the market, such as small packets of squeezable almond butter with coconut oil, pure almond butter etc. These have a great nutritional profile consisting of almost all good fats, very little to no sugar and they’re simply delicious. Common brands include (no affiliation): Pip & Nut, Justin’s Nut Butter, Hammer Gel, Artisana etc. Not all of these are functionally labelled as energy packets, but they can absolutely be used as such. Some pack a higher amount of carbohydrates, but don’t worry – you will burn it all right away and be just fine. My personal favourite: Pip & Nut Almond Butter with coconut oil. It’s easy to get in the UK, comes in small packets and contains only a tiny amount of sugar.
Note that just like with carb fueled racing overfeeding and stuffing your stomach with unnecessary amount of fuel will cause cramping, bloating and general discomfort. Keep it to the minimum.
In order to thrive and hustle, you need less than what you’ve been conditioned to think by the fitness industry. At the end of the day, they’re just trying to sell as many products as possible. Luckily, our bodies were crafted in a unique fashion to perform even in fasted, harshest conditions. Being aware of this and understanding how your body operates is a huge advantage. Always listen to your body first.
Speaking of which, how do you fuel your body up for longer races?