Coach Lindsey has told me that the number one question she gets from her athletes is how to fuel while training and racing. It’s also the most difficult to answer. This is a difficult question for a number of reasons. First off, everyone reacts differently to fuel. There are some athletes that can go breezing through an aid station, eating whatever is on the table in whatever amount they want, and have whatever hydration is offered. However, there are others of us who dread the thought of eating anything at all because we know it brings the possibility of vomiting, or trips to the potty sending an otherwise decent race spiraling downhill. Third, the way in which your body reacts to fuel can change over time and according to race conditions.
The reality is that fueling one of the most important puzzles to put together during your athletic career. Endurance training carries with it the real possibility of harm if fueling isn’t properly executed. Dehydration and hypernatraemia are very scary realities that can do lasting damage to one’s body.
Some athletes will struggle with how to properly fuel for years, while it seems like others get it right on the first try without worrying about medical issues. It is so difficult to speak to each individual athlete in one article. However, if you are struggling, there are a few universal tips that I can leave for you.
1. Experience helps.
When Born to Run came out, I was first in line to begin fueling with chia seeds. This was about the same time the news about the benefits of tart cherries and coconut for athletes came out. I had never heard of this combination before, but I was going to try it. I remember really enjoying coconut yogurt with tart cherries and chia seeds one morning before heading out for a moderate run. As I normally did, I ate an hour before my run and laced up my shoes. Twenty minutes in, I really regretted my choice of breakfasts. To this day, when I hear of anything containing chia, my stomach turns. I realize that it is still incredibly popular among athletes and clean eaters, but it is not the food for me.
I am one of those athletes who has always had stomach issues while running. Once I think I have it down, something throws me for a loop. However, I have gotten to the point where I generally know what I can eat and can gauge what I need based on how I am feeling. What I can eat has changed dramatically over the years. I have found the following about myself:
a. I am rarely hungry during an endurance event, so “eat when you’re hungry” doesn’t work for me.
b. I can only eat small bits of food at once, so I have to carry food with me, rather than eating everything at aid stations.
c. If I am pushing the pace, I can’t eat real food; I have to stick to liquids.
d. My needs are drastically different in cold weather than in warm than in hot.
I have struggled with fueling for as many years as I have been an endurance athlete, and I suspect that I will continue to struggle for as many years as I am. However, every race I learn something more about myself and my needs. You can read all of the recipes and advice that you want, but until you have tested it, it’s not a solution for you. Remember that recipes and advice are suggestions. You may not have an answer until you have erred more times than you succeed. In other words, your mileage may vary. Don’t worry; just view it as an experiment in progress that’s part of your athletic journey. It will advance as you do.
2. Know what’s available.
Read, read, read, read, read. Read and research. Read some more. Know what products are out there and what the experts say. Know what the successful athletes suggest for different race conditions and body types and preferences. You can be vegan, paleo, gluten free, or anything else. Try those things that appeal to you. Huge advances are being made constantly in the world of endurance athletes, and it is now possible to race entirely on liquids that actually taste good. I’m going to shy away from mentioning brands because I think that goes against the point of the article, but for the prose lovers and the data lovers alike, there are charts and articles and blogs and recipes galore on the interwebs.
3. Try before you buy.
Being an athlete is expensive enough without throwing your money into countless jugs of Costco-volume fuels. Being a triathlete is moreso. Besides, most of us don’t have the storage for that kind of experiment. If you hear of a new fuel you want to try, make sure you phone around to local retailers to see if anyone carries small or sample sizes. Ask your athlete friends if anyone has tried it and may have a bit available for a test. If you can’t find a sample size anywhere, phone the company that makes it to see if they will send you a small amount to try. If all else fails, co-op. See if some of your peers will go in on a jug with you to do the experiment with you. That way, it’s an equal and lighter gamble for each of you.
4. Know your conditions.
When it’s cold and rainy, I carry real food with me that I can eat on the run. When it’s hot, my fueling goes to liquids and shots of pickle juice. There are very real reasons for this. In the cold, real food keeps better and is comforting. Plus, I’m not overheating, so my stomach doesn’t feel as taxed. In the heat, cramps are more likely (pickle juice). My stomach won’t tolerate as much volume. My salt intake needs are different. Additionally, much of my “real food” will turn into a melted mushy mess in the heat. It won’t be appealing, and it will be difficult to consume.
Coaches and athletes alike will praise the concept of replicating race conditions. This is very true for so many reasons, including fueling. How many race reports are out there where the author says, “I didn’t realize until six hours into the race that x didn’t work for me under these conditions?”
Honestly, it may not be possible to replicate all race conditions, but do research how to try. Saunas can replicate heat. Heat can help with altitude. Treadmills and overpasses can replicate hills – not a problem for the local athletes. However, there is no substitute for time training. I will repeat that. There is no substitute for time training.
5. Know your aid stations.
I am allergic to tree nuts. I don’t eat meat. I can’t have a lot of gluten. I have a very sensitive stomach. When I run an ultra, these statements tend to knock out many of the aid station choices. Nutella, bacon, chicken soup, and pizza are all really popular ultra aid stations choices. I also don’t like many of the choices for liquid fuel offered.
Race directors and aid station volunteers are of course doing their best to please the most people based on their experience. However, it is their experience and not yours. Keep that in mind. Food preferences, dietary restrictions, health considerations are all things to take into account as an athlete that the aid station workers didn’t necessarily think of.
It isn’t fair to race directors and volunteers to make demands on their supplies. It is always a good idea to give feedback, but make sure that they aren’t pressured into changing things just for one squeaky wheel.
The fact is that many runners LIKE Nutella during a race. They sometimes sign up for a race just for the bacon or the tequila shot at mile 75. Pizza and chicken soup are staples to many. These are gimmicks and future memories for your peers.
It’s always good to find out, if possible, what will be served at your race. However, keep in mind that things happen, like food doesn’t get delivered as planned or the stations run out. Keep in mind also that some races are just poorly planned. The point is, aid stations are there to help you, but you should plan to take care of yourself as much as possible.
6. Know your delivery method.
Do you eat solid food only? Do you eat only liquids? Do you eat soft solids like gels? There are, of course, a number of options for these. It goes without saying that you should practice getting and eating your fuel as you go.
For those who eat solid foods for fuel, baggies are the go-to for most. However, you can play with more sustainable packaging if you want.
For those who use liquids only, again, this is a no-brainer. In addition to your water bottle or pack, you may choose to carry a smaller water bottle with you.
For those of you who make your own gels or sludge, things get a little tricky, if only because you have more options. Once upon a time, we put homemade gels in baggies and tore open an end to consume. This was pretty clumsy and tended to be impractical for many. Some gels will work with small reusable squeeze bottles (that you can buy on Amazon, of course). This requires you to understand what a serving size is like while moving, as it isn’t practical to carry MANY small reusable bottles, and each bottle must hold multiple servings. Others will work in freezie baggies (again, Amazon). The best solution I have seen uses small serving sizes and a Seal a Meal vacuum. You pre-snip the edge ketchup-package-style, and you pack it without worry. You consume it much in the way that you would consume commercial gels. This is a beautiful solution, but it requires some investment and time preparation.
7. Here are recipes anyway.
You can find dozens of recipes for every type of fuel online. However, if you followed along this far, I feel like you deserve a recipe or two anyway.
Coach Lindsey made these Peanut Butter Chia Bites last week and says they are amazing (I told you that chia is still popular!). For those who prefer homemade snacks on longer rides these are not a bad option, they would probably fall apart on a run though.
Peanut Butter Chia Bites Recipe
Next, I will give you my favourite. It’s really a dessert, but it’s a fun pick-me-up during a low point in a run or race. Plus, it’s super easy. Who doesn’t love dessert? Coach Lindsey has been known to bring these along on long trail runs because...chocolate.
Trail Mix Clusters
2 bags of coconut, shredded (unsweetened!)
1 bag of dark chocolate chips or chunks (bark or a bar will work)
Peanuts, seeds, or other nuts
Dried fruit (optional)
Graham cracker pieces or crumbles (also optional)
Really, anything else you would put in trail mix
1. The chocolate
You will need a double boiler. Alternatively, you can make your own. Grab a sauce pan and a bowl that is wide enough to sit inside the pan. The bowl should be shallow enough that you can put a good enough amount of water in the sauce pan without the water touching the bottom of the bowl.
Place the chocolate in the bowl and water in the pan. Do not cover the bowl. Bring the water to a boil, then turn it to low. Let the chocolate melt.
2. The coconut
This is the only tricky part. Place the coconut on a cookie sheet, spread out as thinly as possible. Do not use oil or sugar. Set your oven to broil. Place the cookie sheet in the oven. DO NOT WALK AWAY! Burnt coconut is okay, but toasted is much better. When it browns on top, take it out and stir it. Do this 4-5 times, or until all of the coconut is toasted. It happens very quickly, so truly do not walk away.
3. The nuts
I like my peanuts whole, but if you like them crushed, this is easily done. Put the nuts or seeds between two tea towels or inside a baggie. You can crush them lightly with a hammer. However, I find rolling over them with a rolling pin or glass is just as easy.
In a bowl, mix the coconut, the chocolate, the nuts/seeds, and the optional ingredients. Really, you can use any optional ingredients that sound good to you. However, I would caution against fresh fruit, as it tends to spoil faster and be messier. Put them on parchment paper in bite-sized pieces. Let them cool. It’s basically bite-sized trail mix, and it’s pretty healthy if you don’t overdo it on the chocolate.
Note: These are not good to travel with in the summer…AT ALL. They will melt. Instead, keep them in the fridge, and eat one when you get home from your long training day.