Nutrition strategies for races always seems to be one of the topics that people find the most interesting to explore. My strategy is probably almost totally the opposite of what most people would be expecting to hear.
I didn’t adopt any specific nutrition strategy for the Spine. I have a more holistic approach. Race nutrition for me goes beyond the race. Instead it is not only something to be trained for, it is something that is integrated into my lifestyle.
Over years of experience of participating in multi-day adventure races I came to the realisation that conventional wisdom on race fueling was, quite simply and plainly, wrong. It’s all based around the idea of glycogen depletion. To prevent glycogen depletion conventional wisdom would say you have to carb-load before a race to ensure that glycogen stores are topped up, and then eat enough carbs (X calories per hour, or whatever), on a continual basis during the race to ensure that our stores don’t empty. Given that we have roughly 2 hours of glycogen fuel available, that’s a lot of topping up. Hence you hear lots of people describing ultras as eating competitions on the move.
But for long races I learned through experience that this was rubbish. I could end up spending so much time preparing maps before a multi-day adventure race that I wouldn’t get a chance to eat properly before the start. I would find myself going for hours and hours in the middle of a race without eating (because I didn’t feel like) and still be the strongest person on the team. I could run out of food mid-stage without it being an issue (whilst some teammates would panic if the same happened to them). Often I’d happily give food away to other people as I had more than I needed and they would run out. I didn’t know why this was, but I did know it proved that conventional nutritional wisdom was way out of line with reality.
I then met Barry Murray when he was selected to run on the Irish Ultra Trail running team. As well as being a good ultra runner Barry was also a professional Sports Scientist/nutritionist. We arranged to go on a long training run together, where I expected to hear the normal conventional nutritional advice from him. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We had one of the best running conversations I’ve ever had. Barry not only agreed that conventional nutritional wisdom was wrong, but he was able to explain the science of why it was wrong. Even better, he explained the concept of training to be an efficient fat burner. Unlike conventional carb obsessed nutrition theory, this explained perfectly what I had experienced in reality through years of multi-day race experiences.
So armed with Barry’s knowledge transfer I have been able to fine tune and optimise my general nutrition and my training. I now err towards a more Protein and Fat based diet, and try to greatly reduce my carb consumption. I also strive to eliminate sugar (very much including added sugars) as far as possible (but with a sweet tooth, this is a hard one for me!). I now cook most of my own foods from basic ingredients, and have eliminated most processed foods from my diet.
It’s in training that the (to my mind) most important work takes place. I now never eat any foods before any training session. For my long runs/cycles at weekends I don’t have any breakfast, but go straight into training. I never eat anything on any training sessions. This is all designed to trigger fat burning adaptations or increase fat burning efficiencies. Most people understand the principle that training should be stressful to some extent. The body reacts to stresses by adapting to better cope with them. That’s why we do hard training sessions. The hard sessions apply stress. The adaptations occur as a result in the rest that follows. The same principal applies to nutrition (and many more things, in my opinion). Stress to adapt.
One of the end results of all this (and it’s not an instant result… like all training it takes hard work and time for the effects to manifest themselves), is that I generally don’t need to eat at all during most races. I’ve been pushing out how far I test this over the last few years. I have set national records at 24 hour running races without eating during the race. I’ve won the New York 6 day race when I ate almost nothing (just a few ice cream treats in the heat) for the first 5 days (and only ate on the last day because I was so far in front that I could indulge the luxuries!).
So for the Spine I knew my food requirements were pretty simple. I had no food requirements! It’s simply something I don’t need to worry about. If I had to do the whole race on no-food, I know I could. To meet the mandatory kit requirement of 2 days worth of food the reality for me is that amounts to no food. However I brought a few things along anyway.
What I brought with me were treats. Things I knew might give me a psychological boost, or that I might get a craving for (although generally my cravings are for specific liquids these days). So I had few different types of chocolate bars… An Aldi version of a Snickers, an Aldi version of a bounty bar, and genuine original Fry’s Turkish delight. 3 very different types of flavours, deliberately chosen to be so. I had extra supplies of these in my re-supply bag. I also had two bags of Jelly beans in my re-supply bag for a special treat later in the race (or in case I wanted a quick sugar hit near the end of the race… the only place I would allow myself to do that in a significant way).
I brought no “sports” foods, like power bars or gels. As far as I’m concerned they are bad tasting, but yet expensive, heavily marketed junk food. If I’m going to eat junk, I might as well make it a cheaper tasty version that I’ll enjoy, rather than an over-priced, worse tasting, heavily marketed version of the same thing.
Over the course of the entire race I think I ate 2 of the coconut bars and 2 of the turkish delights. The only other on-course food I ate was a cake I picked up at the cake shop in Bellingham (special treat). Everything else I ate was at full CPs or safety checkpoints supplied there (counting Damon as a safety checkpoint!).
Even at the CPs I wasn’t over-eating. I ate nothing at CP1, had one or two small bits of Kendal mint cake at cp1.5 for traditions sake, had the chicken curry offered at CP2 (Because I love curries!), ate about 1/3 of the food offered to me at the Tan Hill Inn (some soup, a bit of cheese, and chocolate cake), had a small bit of the vegetable bake in CP3, but left behind what I hadn’t finished when I was ready to go, had some scrambled eggs at CP4 (Was originally offered pasta, but I would regard that as bland junk food, so I’m grateful to the volunteers there for whipping up a much better alternative), along with some porridge before leaving, and ate nothing at CP5. I think I had some porridge at Byrness. On the Cheviots I had Damon’s chicken stew, and the delicious homemade soup at Hut 2, in both cases as they sounded like a tasty treat. The Cheviots were my epicurean section!
So adding it all up, it comes to about one day’s worth of normal food spread out over the course of the race. I think I could have skipped all of it without any real downsides. I never had any near-bonks or energy crashes (The only lows I had were due to early sleep deprivation issues). I never felt hungry at any stage on the race. In fact I wasn’t even hungry at the end of the race.
For liquids I have a simple formula for managing when to drink. I drink if I’m thirsty. I don’t if I’m not. I had 3 water bottles. Two were carried around as useless items necessary to pass the mandatory gear list. One was actually useful and used. The bottle would get refilled at aid stations. I didn’t need to pick up any water out on the course, and never ran out of liquids. In fact on the last section, from Bellingham to the finish, I drank less than 100ml of liquid from my bottle (It’s easy to recall throwing the contents of a nearly full bottle down the drain after finishing).
Again, no expensive over-marketed “sports” powders or drinks were used. I carried a small “squeezie” of water flavouring with me, as I can get very bored of the taste of water. On the first day I had my bottle filled with fruit juice. I had it refilled at CP1 with the dilute blackcurrant available there. From then on I refilled it with water at each CP. In Bellingham village I bought a litre of fruit juice and filled my water bottle with that (which mostly was transported unused to the finish). I also bough a half litre bottle of strawberry flavoured milk here, for variety, and drank most of that at Hut2 (rather than carry it to the finish).
At CPs I mostly drank coffee in the earlier ones (for a warm caffeine hit). From CP4 on I mostly drank hot chocolate (for taste). I also drank some coke where it was available. A craving for the taste of lemonade later in the race was satisfied in the middle of leg 4 where I picked up a can of lemonade at Horneystead farm.
The world is full of contradictory information on Nutrition. I had a long standing mist-trust of mainstream nutritional theory which has lead me to question most orthodox advice. There is a particular paucity of material on effective nutrition for endurance sports beyond marathon length efforts. However there are a few sources out there which I do trust.
In real life I have the best conversations on nutrition are with Barry Murray. Barry has his own website where he occasionally post some excellent thought provoking blogs. Following him on facebook has led to many interesting sites.
For general non-sports nutrition one of my favourite sites is Authority Nutrition. This has lots of interesting articles (like this one, for example), and all their articles will have references to the scientific papers they are drawing on. They also don’t appear to have any industry bias.
One of the most accessible and interesting scientists in the area of Sports Science is Professor Tim Noakes. He has tons of material out there, (including lots of easily viewed videos, such as this one), and he has authored several excellent books (But beware, he will tell everyone to rip out the nutrition chapter from his best known book, the Lore of Running. I have huge respect for anyone who admits they were 100% wrong rather than digging in and defending their position). Similarly Volek and Phinney are doing some excellent research on fat-adaptations in elite endurance athletes, and turning up results which should make anyone interest in high performance endurance athletics stand up and take notice.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to nutrition, question everything!