Racing Nutrition 101

Racing Nutrition 101

By: Jason Jaksetic

During a Spartan Race you are going to burn calories. How many calories you convert from potential to actual energy will depend on the duration of your race and how hard you push yourself throughout it. Your race is the result of the calories you burn, and these calories have to come from somewhere.

Many of these calories are going to be the calories you’ve stored in your body over the days leading up to your event – the ones you’ve brought to the starting line. But if you are going to rely only on these calories, let alone your own water stores, you are going to be hurting by the finish line – if you can get there at all.

To get to the finish line in style, you will want to eat and drink your way there. This article is going to tell you why you need to eat during a Spartan event, and the basics of how to approach this process.

There is an old saying in the world of triathlon: You only have so many matches to burn. The implication is that during the course of an event where you have to perform multiple tasks (swimming, biking, and running, for example) you, as a human, are subject to finite amounts of potential energy stored in your body to use during a particular interval of time. You can only burn all the calories you have available, and then you are toast. This is the nature of ‘bonking’ – that miserable zombie like march where one can barley move faster than a slow walk. If you burn to many matches (calories) in the swim or the bike portion of a triathlon, you will be burned out before the run.

This match analogy applies 100% to obstacle racing, and the wisdom implied is made even more pertinent given the more diverse and dynamic demands of multidisciplinary fitness found at a Spartan Race. You can’t burn all your matches in the first mile of a Spartan Race because you never know what’s up ahead, and how long you still have to go. Because of this, one should be eating continuously to replenish nutritional stores so they can be utilized, and your ability to cover more distance in limited time can be maximized.

This does not need to be rocket science. Race nutrition can be as easy as drinking at water or sports drinks at aid stations and eating a banana or two throughout the race. Is this pseudo-plan optimal? No – but it’s better than no plan. It will work, too. Don’t over think it. When you see a banana eat it, when there is water and a sports drink in a cup at an aid station, drink one of each. Don’t obsess about math, but trust your judgment and experience. Don’t trust your gut – eat something before you are hungry, and drink something way before you are thirsty. There are time lags between your stomach and brain that can lead to you finding yourself in a caloric jam, whereby you realize you are in need, and the aid stations are behind you. Race day nutrition can be quite complex, too, where you break down the exact amount of calories you want to consume (and hopefully absorb and use) per hour of your event, and now the exact constitution of those calories as broken down by composition. Protein to carb ratios show up in these talks, whereby athletes look towards target amounts of carbs and protein to eat per hour. Also, specific intervals with which to consume nutrition are planned as to make all consumption as gradual and effect as possible.

The goal in advanced sports nutrition is to consume no more than you can process, and to avoid nausea, which can be difficult for elites and age groupers alike, when racing at high intensity and long durations. Many reputable sources suggest consuming between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise. This can easily be done with bars and gels. When doing an event like Spartan, with high intensity and explosive use of your muscles frequently, protein consumption becomes a factor. Some athletes will look for a 4:1 or a 2:1 carbs to protein ratio in the fuel sources they will consume during a race. All in all, shoot for between 90-200 calories per hour, with 30-60 grams of carbs, and include some protein. Road cyclists have been known to consume (and absorb) up to 400 calories per hour, but most average athletes can’t stomach this amount – let alone carry it and get it down while running on trails.

If you are doing a Beast or an Ultra-Beast, you will want to be plenty comfortable stuffing your face while out exercising. You might find yourself dining out at an aid station, in other words. Practice this by stopping at a cafe or food place during a workout, to practice having a muffin, or a slice a pizza, during a long workout. The sky is the limit, and your ability to not throw up on yourself.

But it’s not always a good idea to rely on aid stations to be your buffet line. There is no guarantee that the race director’s nutritional strategy will come close to yours. Hydration packs are awesome tools, as they not only give you an easy way to carry your fluid needs (and fluids are great delivery system for calories) but also a means to carry more food than you’ll probably want to eat. Also, fuel belts with pockets offer hand-free ways to bring your lunch to go on the race course. Don’t carry a water bottle, however, with so many walls to climb, it’s best to have both hands available.

Whatever your level of experience, race day nutrition is something you practice during training sessions. NEVER go into a race trying something brand new. If you are running 30-90 minutes experiment with both raw foods like apples and bananas, as well as gels and bars. Everyone handles food differently, and it is a mistake to think you’ll respond the same way as your training buddies when you try their products.