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Nutrition can be a source of anxiety for a lot of athletes. What to eat during training, pre-event, during the event, and when the event is over can feel like its own intimidating gauntlet. So many diets, supplements and plans claim to give you a physiological advantage, how do you know what’s right for you?
There’s the truth, and what dances around the truth, in nutrition. While we’re not going to tell you what specifically to eat, we want to guide you to the soundest nutritional options for your body, and give you the knowledge on how a body runs during a long-distance endurance event so you can make the best choices.
We encourage all our PATHFINDER athletes to have a nutrient-rich training diet. If you’re training for a Star, you should know all this by now, so we’re going to leave our advice short and sweet: don’t eat crap. If you open a bag or a box to get your food, maybe try and do that less often. If you can name the single-source ingredients of your overall meal, bonus points. Drink water more than ACRT, eat protein and veggies and complex carbohydrates like grains.
Over the years, we’ve noticed that as people get closer to their Events, their desire to be more virtuous in their diets gets stronger. We’ve seen (ok, and done) some ridiculous things to get “Event ready.” Even if you know better, sometimes the temptation is there to be “better." I’m here to tell you right now: going Keto, Whole30, 1200 calories a day, all beer and bread, only meat, Halloween-candy-only diet, etc. are not the right moves within a 12-week Event training window. Are they okay outside of training? Sure - you do what you want with your body. But if you’re in your window, you want prime cellular output. You get prime cellular output by eating plants, animals, and grains.
BLINDING YOU WITH SCIENCE
First, the basics. The body runs on three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Carbohydrates are the major fuel for energy production. Carbs are the only macronutrient whose stored energy generates more energy. It’s stored as glycogen in your liver and muscle and when it’s released into your bloodstream, glucose is carried to your muscles and used as fuel. Your body doesn’t keep large stores of glucose, so this is why we encourage you to consume carbs in greater quantities leading up to your event.
Like with carbohydrate usage, fat usage during endurance exercise depends on the intensity and duration of your exercise, and it is the second fuel for energy production. With endurance training, your body has adapted to use fat more efficiently as fuel but can be second to carbohydrate usage, even though your body (even if you’re very lean) holds far more calories to use from fat than from your glycogen stores. With a long-distance endurance event, 50% of your bodies fuel will come from carbs, while the other half will come from fat stores. As your event progresses, your body will use more fat for fuel. All this being said, you do not need to eat much, if any, fat during your actual event. Your body definitely dislikes attempting to digest fat during exercise and it will let you know in no uncertain terms. Rest confidently knowing you’ve got all the fat you’ll ever need to get you through your event.
Proteins role as an energy source to fuel your exercise and events is small. Protein is better eaten late in your event, or after exercise to fuel recovery. Protein can be difficult to process during exertion and it can satiate you too much, leading to insufficient carbohydrate calorie consumption during your event.
CARB LOADING BEFORE YOUR EVENT
The research bears it out. When you have an endurance event lasting longer than 90 minutes (safe to say a Star Course qualifies many, many times over), an athlete benefits from “carb loading” in the days prior to the event. Eating more carbs helps muscles store more glycogen. If more glycogen is stored, it takes longer to deplete the body’s preferred energy source. This is also why we taper - to maximize the amount of glycogen in your ‘tank.’ (Don’t pop on the scale during taper week either - you will likely see a small weight increase - carbs require holding water for storage.)
A note of nutritional caution: While refined carbohydrates definitely count as carbs, an influx of them into your healthy body can make you feel sick. When considering how you will eat on the days leading up to an event, take into consideration how you typically eat. If your diet is already full of sweet potatoes, carrots, rice, apples, quinoa, and other complex high carbohydrate foods, eating a box of Pop-Tarts will make you feel disgusting. Look at your typical daily eating habits and calorie count, and select foods that you like, are good for you, and STILL achieve your carb-loading goals. There is definitely a right way, and a wrong way, to do this.
If you’re paleo, and have been training, or want to train as a fat-adaptive athlete, this should be started no less than 8 weeks prior to your event. If you have not trained with a protein-intensive diet, this isn’t the time to start. Your body will struggle with the transfer from running off of carbohydrates to running off of fat, and there’s no easy or quick way to convert your fuel usage. This can lead to significant and costly physical struggles during your Event. If you’ve been training as a fat-adaptive athlete for a while, our advice to you is: keep doing what you’re doing. A vegetable carbohydrate increase (more squashes, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and possibly rice) would be a wise addition in the week prior to your event.
EXAMPLE PRE-EVENT CARB LOADING WEEK:
- Day 1-3: Moderate-carbohydrate diet (50% of your calories)
- Days 4-6: High-carbohydrate diet (80% of your calories). Calculate this as 4.5 grams of carbs per body weight pound. If you’re a 170lb person, that is 765 grams - or 3,000 calories - from carbs a day.
- Day 7: Star Course Day! Dinner should be >80% of your calories from carbs
- *keep in mind, each gram of carb = 4 calories to help you calculate your needs
The “last meal” prior to your event should be full of familiar, high-carbohydrate foods that are gentle on your system. Sandwiches; sweet potatoes; bagels; no-butter, low-sauced spaghetti; roasted carrots; a plain-ish baked potato. If something looks good, but seems suspect, err on the side of caution. Don’t eat anything unusual or outside of your normal diet right before your event.
*If you have medical dietary requirements that would preclude you from eating carbs in any significant quantity, make an appointment with your doctor or nutritionist to go over your specific nutritional needs during a 50+ mile endurance event. They will be best able to guide you with a program specific to your needs.
TIPS TO PREPARE YOUR GUT BEFORE YOUR EVENT:
Your gut can be very particular about endurance exercise, especially coupled with jitters, and no one likes to NEED a bathroom when one isn't around. Considering the factors below can minimize urgency.
Heat, and overheating, can make a tummy feel funny. If heat is a factor for your event, get heat acclimated during your training. This usually isn’t an issue for ruckers unless you’ve trained on a treadmill to get your miles in, but if that’s the case, include several long-distance outdoor rucks into your training, do your WODs outside, take a hot yoga class at least once a week, and if your gym is equipped with a sauna, take advantage in the six weeks leading up to your event.
Stay hydrated before, and during, your event. Hydration is whatever you’ve trained with. We recommend you train with an electrolyte/carbohydrate blend (we like everything from Nuun to Tailwind - what works for you and your system during training is the most important). Considering the distance being covered on a Star Course or other long-distance ruck event, it’s important that you keep your salts and minerals in balance. While we don’t want to scare anyone about consuming too much water (hyponatremia), it is a very real occurrence. Whenever you exercise for longer than two hours, or during an event, plain water should be consumed in moderation. Electrolyte-balancing drinks with a sodium content greater than 100mg/8oz are what you should consume most. Keep an eye on your urine color when you stop to use the restroom and let that be your guide. Too pale, you’re overhydrating. Too dark, you’re under-hydrating.
Avoid over-nutrition before and during the event. It can be tempting for people to overeat prior to an event - you’re worried about having “enough” and it’s easy to go overboard, causing GI distress several hours later.
Limit protein and fat intake prior to your event. You want to eat high-energy, high-carbohydrate foods (pasta, white or sweet potatoes, rice, whole-wheat bread) prior to your event, with a focus on healthy nutrition. Stay away from junk food: Donuts, ice cream, pizza, greasy wings, and lasagna taste good, but they’re super gross for your body to process during an endurance event.
Limit NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen), alcohol, caffeine, supplements and check with your pharmacist about any antibiotics you might be currently taking to make sure they have no impact on endurance athletic events. They can have a negative effect on both your gut and how your organs function during strenuous work.
PRACTICAL TIPS FROM OUR CA’s
Our CA’s have many hundreds (likely thousands) of miles between them, and I’ve collected some of their most salient advice for Pre-, During, and Post- Event nutrition strategies:
“Eat something periodically, even if it’s small, and even if you’re not feeling really hungry. Stay on top of it from beginning to end. Don’t let feeling good at the beginning, or thinking you’re close to the end and able to push through without proper care mess with your plan...Small, split-up quantities of food are easier to properly digest than huge amounts that you try to cram in at once. Digestion requires too much energy away from your rucking muscles by overwhelming your stomach with a lot at once.” - Jennifer Lee
“For me, I stick with what I know works. No new food types! Eating continuously is important for me, as I know this works for my body. I don’t wait until I’m hungry. For that reason, I also chose Tailwind because it contains calories and electrolytes.” - Shannon Bass
“This is mostly a personal preference for me. Pre-event, I’ll eat a real meal - something substantial, since it’s my last meal for a while. Personally, I like protein because it’s satiating. I don’t want anything too heavy or fibrous.
During, I like to eat real food because 20 hours is a long time. I bring snacks with a mixture of flavor profiles and macronutrient combos, to suit whatever I’m craving at the time (salty, sweet, sour, oily, carb-heavy, protein-heavy, etc.) I’ll eat a snack/bar sized package of something about every five miles.
After: I eat whatever I crave, which tends to be acidic foods, salt, protein, and vegetables.” - Jennifer Lee
“BACON!” - Shannon
Another Horizon CA, Emily Baggett, has an awesome, informative podcast on All Day Ruckoff (listen to it here), and in it, she notes she sets a timer every hour to remember to eat. Those hours can tick by quickly at times, and other times, you feel confident you don’t need to eat.* This alarm helps her stay on track and stay honest. Also in the podcast, she recommends carrying food in your pockets as well as in your ruck so you don’t need to slow down.
* If you feel like you don’t have an appetite in the middle of an endurance event, and it’s been a while since you’ve eaten, this should serve as a reminder that it might be too late glycogen-wise and you need to force the food. A lack of appetite, coupled with a difficult attitude to adjust, can often be a marker of central fatigue. A short rest with lots of carbs can help remedy the situation.
EATING DURING YOUR EVENT
You want to refuel with 150-300 calories of mostly carbohydrate during the event, as frequently as needed. Recommendations are to eat this quantity every hour, but if your body isn’t a fan of that much digestive effort, splitting that quantity up over two hours is fine. Toggling between carbohydrates and protein and then back to carb snacks during your Star Course can help your body systems keep up their processes and keep additional fatigue at bay. Utilizing caffeine during your event can also be useful, in moderation.
EATING POST EVENT
You did it! You’re done! You’re starving! But what do you eat?
You have three goals when you’re eating after your event. One, eat plenty of carbs to refuel your glycogen system. Two, restore your fluids and electrolytes, and three, eat nutritious foods and protein to repair your body’s damage.
There’s an optimum ‘window’ of 30-60 minutes after completion to maximize the refueling of your muscle cells. (You technically have 24 hours to refuel before body systems level off, but your body just absorbs more slowly after that first hour.) Start with bananas, oranges, bagels, dried fruit, sports drinks...basically gentle, high carb foods. Beer is super tempting, but give yourself at least a little time before you crack one open - it can dehydrate you and it can wait until you down a Gatorade. If your body feels solid after those first snacks, break open the pantry! Order the pizza, eat the wings, guzzle the chocolate milk, but be careful not to overdose on All The Food. Try and include some potassium in your meal.
So now you’re winding down, and are a little peckish before you head to bed. Eat a Greek yogurt, have some grilled chicken or a protein shake, and maybe drink an ounce or two of Tart Cherry Juice before you go to sleep to help your body recover optimally.
Give yourself anywhere from 3-7 days to recover. Every body is different, and every body recovers a little differently every time. Stay hydrated, move back to nutritious foods, give yourself some time to truly rest, and then make a plan to get back out there.