Fuelling for multi-day Adventure Races
This list of Adventure Racing Food Tips is part of my blog series
Adventure Racing Tips to advance to the next level
Check out also:
- Logistic & communication tips for Adventure Racing Teams
- Adventure Racing Gear Advice (coming soon)
Why is nutrition and fuelling so important for Adventure Racing?
Your body is your vehicle and most important piece of gear
You might know the phrase ‘Your body is your temple’. Agreeing with the general idea I prefer a more dynamic metaphor. I look at the body as my vehicle through life. The body is necessary to get whatever you need done. Hence, you must take good care of the body, in life and during an Adventure Race.
Be a smart driver for your vehicle
Govern wisely and objectively over your body, treat and teach it with respect and care, so you can rely on it to get you where you want to be. Pushing boundaries and testing your limits is a big part of Adventure Racing. I like to support my body as much as possible to make sure it supports my lifestyle.
The best driver for the body-vehicle is a cool and reflected intellect. Meaning you make decisions over your body based on reason, considering facts and their long and short-term effects (Research, test, reflect & adapt). That can become quite tricky, especially when we are under pressure. Besides the rational intellect you’ll always have your emotional co-pilot trying to steer the wheel. Therefore, particularly when we are tired, hungry, excited, competitive… (and all the other things you will feel in a race situation) your unreasonable emotions can easily take over. When that happens, when you stop thinking rationally and make decision based on un-reflected emotions, you are in danger of damaging your vehicle.
So that’s it for my personal body philosophy. Let’s translate it to the real world 😉:
Food is fuel for your body
While there are many factors to consider when talking about preparing and caring for your body during Adventure Racing, fuelling correctly is probably the most basic and crucial. At the same time, food and fuelling are often the last thing on the AR-prep-list. That’s why I decided to write about it a bit more comprehensively and before continuing on to Gear tips for Adventure Racing (coming soon).
I’ve split my Adventure Racing Food Tips in 5 main categories:
- Adventure Racing Food Strategy
- Adventure Racing Fuelling Plan & Food Logistics
- Rachel’s Snack Packs – Examples for Adventure Racing food
- Hydration during Adventure Races
- Food Hygiene & Adventure Racing
1. Adventure Racing Food Strategy
There are many variables to consider when planning your personal and team food strategy for an Adventure Race. The type of food you choose will depend on factors like duration of the race, intensity, temperature, and accessibility. The most important thing is to have your body’s best interest in mind.
Follow your preference & stay flexible
In general, you need to dial into your nutrition, but still leaving lots of space for flexibility as your taste, cravings and needs will change, sometimes unpredictably.
For example, I used to love making up little bags of salted and unsalted nuts with dried fruits. Handy, pocket sized bags of food that preserves well, heavy in good stuff and calories, I thought its genius. They worked well for a few events but that changed in the middle of the Eco-Challenge Fiji. From one day to the next, for no apparent reason, I couldn’t eat another nut. Ever since I cannot stomach them during training and events even though I still love them in everyday life.
Eat real food – give the body what it needs
My best advice on fuelling during an Adventure Race is to eat as much ‘normal’ food as possible. Don’t solely rely on protein bars or sugar loaded gut bombs. Multi-day events can’t be compared to a few hours training session. Your body (and mind!) need proper nourishment.
Soft, easy to digest and warm
I tend to go for food that is softer in texture. For one, it’s easier to chew, and your mouth can get sensitive when racing for days. Furthermore, I recommend food that is easy to digest, whatever that means for your body. If possible, I try to have at least one hot meal per day.
Some tricks that help your body perform better are simple. In warmer conditions try to have cooling food and the reverse in colder climates or during the night. I often keep a flask of hot soup in my transition box. Something to look forward to when arriving in wet and cold.
I’m also a fan of soja chocolate milk at transitions – easy to preserve and goes down fast, I either drink it cold or add boiling water to make a hot chocolate.
Try, plan and simplify – find out what works best for you
Try to keep your fuelling choices simple. That means easy to store, fast to prepare and comfortable to eat. Favour food that is less processed. It usually is of higher nutritional value and less of it, fuels you more.
Look after your gut (!!!) so you have sustainable energy for the full duration of the event. It makes no sense to eat things that give you tummy problems – even if others swear it’s the best. Create your own food plan and practice what you will eat in training. Don’t divert too much off what you like to consume on a daily basis and don’t try copy what your teammates are eating. We all have our own unique gut, needs and rituals. Never solely believe what someone is saying, always test and find out if it works for you and your body. Don’t be shy to dismiss what doesn’t serve you well!
Nutrition is gender specific – consider your cycle
As a woman, you require more carbohydrates around the time of your period. You also may not feel thirst as often as you need to hydrate, and your core temperature is elevated. Be conscious of these facts and observe during your training how your cycle affects your nutritional needs. You can never collect too much data on yourself! I’ve put together a few Adventure Racing Food Tips specifically for women and will release them soon in a blog about women specific AR and endurance sport tips (coming soon).
2. Food logistics – Creating an AR -fuelling plan
Creating a food plan is a bit of a trial & error exercise in several phases.
Phase 1: Find the nutrition that suits your needs
Identify what food, in general, you like to eat during training including before and after. Check if it meets your requirements for nutrition and make a list of potential candidates for your food plan.
Phase 2: Train with your food
Train with your food. See how it packs and preserves. Is it easy to eat during running, cycling, kayaking etc.? Can you chew it when your mouth is dry or can you stomach it when a little exhausted? Note down your observation.
Phase 3: Event specific prep
While the first 2 phases are more about collecting general data, phase 3 starts your preparation for a specific event.
Top tip: Don’t be too tight when buying race food and look for quality and nutritional value. It’s not only about calories but what the calories are made of! This is not the place to be stingy.
Take factors like duration and temperature into consideration. Calculate that you will need min. 10,000 calories for 20 hours – if you eat less you are in deficit. That’s 500 calories an hour! It is difficult to consume that amount of food and you will probably go into deficit. Just be aware and keep fuelling as best as you can!
Look at each leg of the race course and estimate how long it could take your team. How much food you carry on each leg depends on how long it will take you to get to the next transition box.
Top tip: If you prepare some super delicious special treat, bring a little extra for your team mates. Maybe they return the favour if they are any good in the kitchen.
‘Carry on’ and ‘transition’ food
Personally, I like splitting my food in ‘carry on’- and ‘transition’- food. I like to prepare snack-packs containing about 6 hours’ worth of food. When I arrive at a transition point, I pop a snack-pack (or two or four – depending on estimated time to the next transition) into my bag and pockets. Usually, I have separate food ready to quickly eat at transition or chew down while getting out the door.
Storing your food
I do my best to avoid plastic packaging, but during races it’s not always possible. Pack your food waterproof and as small and light as possible. Unfortunately reusable containers are often heavy and too bulky. Whenever I can I use zip lock bags which I wash and reuse for the next race (they usually last me for several races). For events in hot climates, consider using a foldable cooler bag to keep things cold and fresh for longer. In cold and wet climates, I advise bringing a thermo-flask of your favourite tea, soup, or hot water to add to a freeze-dried meal. Cooler bags and thermo-flasks obviously stay in your transition box.
Some transition points will have hot water but perhaps not all. There might be a big line up, waiting for the next refill to arrive and you don’t have time to wait. For many reasons, try to be as self-sufficient as possible!
Help your tired brain by labelling everything
Again, when tired and exhausted our brain can’t work on high capacity. You can help your racing-self by doing the thinking beforehand. I usually label all my snack-packs which usually contain a mix of my favourite foods, mostly savoury such as wraps, energy-balls and potato-cakes.
Easy access to your food
I use good ‘solid’ shopping bags as my transition bags. Like the ones you can buy in any supermarket nowadays. One for gear and one for food. When I arrive at transition, I take them out of the box, and everything is organised. (Thanks to Susan from Team Swiss Powerbar who gave me this tip when racing with them in Belize). To me it’s important that everything is easy to see without digging around. This again eliminates extra thinking, creating a mess and prevents wasting time.
Automate and create rituals
My snack-pack system prevents me from having to think a lot during transition. Let’s face the facts: Arriving at transition you will be exhausted and/or pumped with adrenaline – either way bad conditions to remember details and make smart decisions for the upcoming leg. Creating a sort of automated ritual can help to prevent mistakes. Don’t risk forgetting your water bottle, running out of food, or carrying unnecessary extra weight.
3. Rachel’s snack-packs
As mentioned before, the food you pack for an event will vary depending on factors like duration, intensity, disciplines, and accessibility of other supplies.
Try to eat ‘real’ food and to stay somewhat within your usual eating habits.
For example: My usual diet is mostly plant based but during events I eat cheese and fish. I still stay away from super greasy meat stuff, simply because I know now it sits in my stomach and makes me feel sick – so what would be the point.
To give you an idea of what could end up on your AR-food plan, I put together a list of what you would find in my snack-pack:
The good old spuds. Boiled baby potatoes, sweet potatoes, potato cake, – all with lots of salt. Prepared just before the race they stay ok for around 48 hours without having in the fridge (not in extremely hot climate)
Sometimes I add in protein powder, oats and banana. They can also be savoury and stay ok for around 2 days without refrigeration.
I find these easy to digest and like them with hummus, cheese & cucumber. The wraps themselves stay ok for days. Once wrapped I eat them first. Bagels are a good alternative too.
Little packages of cheddar preserve surprisingly well outside a fridge when unopened. ‘Happy cow’ or baby bell can also save the day.
There are various options for tofu that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. I like smoked tofu to put into sandwiches or wraps.
Homemade energy balls
I’m a wild woman in the kitchen making random creations with dates, peanut butter, oats, spelt flakes, coconut flakes and seeds. (That’s the stuff you would want to bring extra for your team-mates)
I’m a self-confessed peanut butter addict. I add it into almost everything and often keep an extra tub in the transition box. Sometimes I do a quick wrap with a banana and peanut butter. It’s best to go for a pure peanut butter with no additives, personally I like the crunchy one from the Nut Shed.
I usually make my own mix adding in chocolate chips, seeds, dried fruits etc. In the end I add a bit of dried milk powder and put the mix in vacuum sealed bag. During the race, I cut the bag open, add in water and off I go. This process works with many foods and saves buying too many expedition meals.
I just love soup during events and often have a flask in my kit bag at transition.
Sugar rush, easy to swallow and digest + you get calories in.
John West Tuna pack or cold pasta salad – super handy when you arrive at transition, no issue with storage and you can just pop it in a wrap.
My favourite is Alpro chocolate soy milk, again no need to keep in a fridge and if you add a little boiling water to it at transition, you have hot chocolate.
Preserve forever. I love peaches – a soft, juicy sugar boost.
Freeze dried meals
An Adventure Racing Food Tips list wouldn’t be complete without the classic freeze dried meal. Remember you want to pack light! Their energy vs. weight ratio is top class. They are great for long expeditions. Add the boiling water when you arrive at transition before you start to get ready and take it to go or eat before you leave. Some of these have a shaking system to heat without water and some are for eating cold. They can be costly but I recommend going for the best quality without thinking of the cost too much. The Great Outdoors offers a variation of brands.
Mash potato & veg
It doesn’t happen in every Adventure Race but sometimes you will come across a deli. Usually, when everyone goes for fish and chips or chicken wings, I go for mashed potato and veg – easier to digest, warming and comforting all the same.
A few things to add:
Almost minutes after I published this blog, I realised a few things are missing on my snack-pack list.
How could I forget about the liquid form of energy? Someone once told me coffee must be my spirit animal . Even though coffee is my oldest addiction, I still get a good kick out of it. I use that effect strategically during races. Usually, I try to stay off coffee as long as possible, to then get the most out of the kick.
Lots of people take them during races. Surprisingly, caffeine pills don’t do anything for me. I need to savour the delicious hot brew to enjoy its energising properties. Call it placebo effect, I’d say I’m lucky it works for me.
However, we all know that coffee and caffeine also have side effects. Being aware of how it effects your body is an advantage.
A can of coke
Probably the number 1 Adventure Racing food tip for a quick fix – A can of coke. The combo of sugar and caffeine sends me ultimately wired. I don’t like coke, and never had it outside of a race. That’s probably why I can get a massive boost out of a small can. Be aware though – whatever shoots up fast must fall down steep. Some end up bonking hard after a few minutes of coke-rush.
Crisps and other salty snacks
You will always find salt and vinegar Hunky Dory’s and pringles in my snack pack. I never consume them in real life and crave them during races. Get to know your crazy cravings and pack your favourite salty snack.
Like crisps I always pack salty crackers for Adventure Races. Tuc biscuits are not too dry and soft enough to be eaten effortlessly. They can be bought in small packs and are therefore a convenient ‘carry on’-food.
I like the taste of this form of ‘German bread’. It preserves well, is easy to pack and packs a lot of good calories into a small slice.
Not a food but can be found in almost every AR athletes’ bag. Personally, I only take them if absolutely necessary. Be aware that, due to their numbing properties, you might miss an important signal of your body. For some people they can also cause stomach and kidney problems. However, I recommend talking to your GP and having them with you for emergencies.
Stay on top of your hydration! Don’t forget to fill all your water bottles at transition. Best to make it a part of your atomised ritual or put someone in charge of reminding everyone.
Tip for cold climates: For short events in very cold weather, I like to mix my electrolytes with hot water in my front bottles, it keeps my chest warm and makes drinking easier. I do the same when heading out on the bike in cold temperatures.
I always add electrolytes to my water bottles and would advise everyone to do the same. Drinking only plain water when sweating can lead to health problems.
Finding the right electrolyte product is another trial & error exercise and should be part of phase 1&2 of your AR-fuelling-plan. Some well-known brands can be real ‘gut bombs’. That means that certain products can be ok for you to consume during short duration exercise. However, if you consume lots of it, they give you diarrhoea, and that’s the opposite of what we want to achieve.
Tip for a happy gut: Food in your pocket, hydration in the bottle!
Rachel’s hydration of choice
I started to use Skratch about a year ago after doing a lot of research. It contains the right amount and mix of ingredients for me and I appreciate that it’s relatively low on carbohydrates (too much carbs mixed in hydration can be gut-bombs especially for women). From the start I liked the taste and, after lots of test runs, it still goes down easy even in extreme conditions. So far it didn’t give me any stomach problems even if I’ve consumed lots of it over several days.
Speaking of the unpleasant tummy rumbling. Diarrhoea can become a serious dehydration issue, weaken you significantly or even take you out of the race. Do what you can to avoid stomach issues by choosing the right food and by maintaining hygiene (find more on food hygiene later in this blog).
The good old Dioralyte has often saved the day. The sachets contain basically the same as an electrolyte sport drink, are easy to carry with you and are a good back-up to have- my favourite is the purple one.
Where to find water on the go
Whether or not you can fill up your water in between transitions depends on the situation. If you come across ‘civilisation’ it’s usually easy to find a shop or a pub etc.
Top tip: In Ireland there is almost always a water tap inside a graveyard entrance and sometimes at the side of a church. It has saved me on more than one occasion when wandering through the night and all the pubs are closed.
Out in the wild you sometimes must rely on streams etc. As you might know, just because the water looks clear doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink. Research the water quality of the area you are racing in beforehand and bring water purification tablets if needed.
Avoid unfiltered water if you are uncertain of the quality. For example, in Fiji, friendly locals offered us water out of their tap. On a closer look their tap water comes from a big, open container that collects rainwater. Assume your body won’t be able to digest this without purification and discreetly pop a purification tablet into you bottle.
5. Food hygiene
Do you want to scratch a race because you can’t get off the loo? If your answer is NO, I have a few ideas to share with you regarding food hygiene.
This is the obvious one and I’ve covered it before. Bring food that won’t go bad before you can eat it. Be careful with highly processed foods since it’s sometimes difficult to tell if they are already full of bacteria or not. For example, if meat is cooked with lots of salt and sauce you might not taste if it’s gone off already.
In ‘real life’ we would always wash our hands before we sit down for a meal. In AR-life we hopefully won’t have the kitchen sink with us. During events, a pack of wipes is often my emergency ‘bathroom’-kit. It does the trick after fixing your bike chain or when unerringly landing a fall in cow-dung.
Just because you don’t go to bed doesn’t mean you get away without brushing your teeth. While not that important for short events, for multi-day races I keep toothbrush and paste in my transition bag. I do a quick brush on the way to the bathroom or, when there is no time at all, I use a bit of mouthwash. This helps to prevent ulcers and mouth sores – don’t suffer more than necessary
Smart food packaging
Even the best wipe can’t live up to the standard of water and soap. To prevent contaminating my food with my dirty hands, I simply try to not touch my food. Over time I came up with all sorts of packing strategies that help to get the snack into my mouth without touching it too much. A part of the strategy is to pick food that doesn’t go too mushy.
In Ireland you should also wrap your snack-packs to be waterproof. Plastic zip-lock bags are a great help to keep your food organised. I usually wash my zip-lock bags and reuse them for the next event.
Keep your stuff organised
Try to keep things as tidy as possible is not only great advice for your gear. Don’t mix ‘old’ and ‘new’ food in the same bag and try to keep your food away from wet clothes etc.
Usually, I carry a light dry bag with me to separate dirty, wet clothes that I no longer need, from the rest. Like with my snack-packs, I put my dry clothes into zip locked bags with labels. This way I can quickly take extras in my backpack and easily find a change of clothes at transition.
What do you think about my Adventure Racing Food Tips?
Let me know if you found this blog useful or if you have any other questions about Adventure Races and nutrition. Life is a journey of learning. Every training, event and race adds to your experience. I’m looking forward to adding things to this list of Adventure Racing Food Tips as I go along.
Hope to see you at an AR event soon!
Great tips Rachel ! Thank you
Thanks Niall! Appreciate the feedback. Let me know if you think there is anything I should add in or if you think of any other topics that would be of interest. Cheers
Brilliant post, thanks for sharing Rachel
Hi Anita, hope you are keeping well and thanks for reaching out. Happy to hear you enjoyed the blog… Any specific tips you would add in for water sports- fuelling for when you are on the water?
Thanks Rachel, fantastic tips. Great to hear a female prospective. Nice to hear you eat ‘normal food’ I find that I am a bit odd that on race day everyone has gels which don’t agree with me and have been told to keep using them and that my body will adjust. I also have had stomach bother with electrolytes in the past, a bit more experimenting is needed i think.. looking forward to your next installment.
Yes I think it’s important to get more women out there taking about how food effects us as ‘We are not small men’. Our bodies are always evolving so I guess what we all try to do is get to know ourselves as best possible and adapt where needed. For the hydration, try going for electrolytes with less carbs. Often when too much carbs are in the liquid mix, it was cause stomach issues. I recommend reading the book Roar by Stacy Sims, you will get a few more tips for female specific training, nutrition and more..
Thanks Rachel, will definitely pick up Roar …