My favorite thing about adventure racing is the endless variety of ways to push my body. But the reality is, hours and hours of bushwhacking, mountain biking, out-paddling alligators, running through O-courses, and saying to your team captain "we're not lost, I know exactly where we are, I just need to check something on the map real quick..." requires a LOT of energy.
In fact, research shows that the energy expenditures of 365–750 kcal/hour have been reported in adventure racers, with total energy expenditures of up to 18,000–80,000 kcal required to complete longer expedition races. (1)
And just like most endurance sports, it's almost impossible to consume enough calories during the event to compensate for what you will burn. So in order to successfully reach that finish line, you've got to continuously fuel your body.
The following adventure race nutrition tips are general suggestions based on current scientific evidence as well as my personal experience as a coach to endurance athletes, and an athlete myself.
Please know that race day fueling is highly individual.
What works well for one athlete may be a gut-bomb of a disaster for another. So you absolutely have to experiment to find what works, and you have to constantly practice your nutrition during training and racing to get it right.
But, it is my hope that if you are a beginner adventure racer, or an intermediate athlete who still hasn't quite figured out the nutrition side of the sport, that this post will help.
What Should I Eat Before an Adventure Race?
Before we even get to the race, let's talk about what you should eat before the event starts.
"Plan on pre-fueling with about 60-90g of easily digestible carbohydrates (lower fiber, higher glycemic index) around 90-60 minutes out from the start of the race", says Wilfredo Benitez, MScN, M.Ed., head nutritionist behind On Pace Wellness. Coach Will also shared the following suggestions for pre-adventure-race-fueling:
- For races < 4 hours: focus mainly on carbohydrates in your pre-fuel, as long as you’re fueling with carbs during the race as well.
- For races > 4 hours: You may benefit from adding in protein into your pre-fuel; aim for 10-20g of protein in that same timeframe, erring on the higher amount for longer events.
In adventure racing, you can be "out there", in unknown and often challenging terrain, for many hours. Whether you’re racing for 3 hours or 24 hours, and whether you’re performing in three disciplines, four, or more, you’re demanding a lot of your body. So you’ll want to make sure you’re heading into the race with sound sustenance.
Types of Foods to Eat Before an Adventure Race:
According to Coach Will, some examples of food combinations that satisfy the above recommendations include:
- ½ cup oatmeal + 1 small banana + 1 slice toast w/ ~1-2 tsp nut butter
- 2 slices whole wheat toast + 1 tbsp nut butter + 1 medium banana
- 1 cup white rice + ½ tbsp soy sauce + 1 tbsp peanuts + 1 large orange
- 2 medium potatoes (salted; additional condiment okay) + 2 tbsp hummus + 1 serving fruit (e.g. orange, melon, pineapple)
- For more protein, one can add a protein shake on the side or you can include foods such as egg whites, lean meats, tofu, or a protein bar
How Much Should I Eat During an Adventure Race?
The general recommendation for long distance endurance athletes (like adventure racers) is to aim to consume between 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour, or 120-240 calories per hour from a mix of carbohydrate sources (such as fructose and glucose).
However, longer distance endurance athletes are encouraged to aim higher, closer to the 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour (240-360 calories per hour from a mix carbohydrate sources).
These higher carbohydrate intakes have consistently been associated with faster finishing times across numerous multisport endurance athletes...but also come at the risk of gastrointestinal distress.
(So, you've got to PRACTICE your fueling plan!)
If you're brave and you have a stomach of steel, know that more recent studies have found an intake of 120 grams of carbs per hour by mountain runners had lower training stress and less muscle damage during the running events. (2)
In adventure racing, there are a number of variables that are going to effect this range, including:
- Your personal caloric expenditure. The amount of calories needed during an endurance event are going to vary from person to person. For example: my 210 lb muscular husband is going to require more calories over the course of a 12 hour race than my 130 lb self...especially when I'm on the other end of a tow rope attached to his bicycle.
- Overall intensity during any given discipline. Are you pushing hard to paddle against a current and a headwind, or are you casually riding your bike on a gentle downhill? Your hourly caloric needs will vary based on effort.
- Gut tolerance. That's endurance talk for how many calories your digestive system can absorb and handle before it starts to get overworked. "Bonking" from under fueling is no fun, but needing to run for the nearest bush because your digestive system is protesting is even worse.
Gut tolerance can absolutely be trained, and further, will be affected by intensity. During a sprint event, you may be pushing hard to finish, and working closer to your overall maximum effort. In this case, blood is diverted away from your digestive system towards your muscles in order to sustain the effort. Without the necessary blood flow, your digestive system doesn't work as well, and nausea and other issues may occur.
However, during a 12-24 hour or expedition event, your overall effort will likely be much lower. Lower effort allows more blood flow to the digestive system, which means you are likely able to tolerate higher levels of carbohydrates and calories.
Why Carbohydrates? What about Fats & Protein?
In the simplest of explanations, the food we eat consists of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. At times, our body uses all three of these macronutrients as fuel sources.
However, carbohydrates can be metabolized both aerobically and anaerobically (with or without oxygen, depending on the intensity of exercise) and are metabolized much faster than protein or fat, making carbohydrates a highly efficient fuel source. This is why the majority of engineered endurance fuel sources (gels, chews, drinks, etc.) focus heavily on carbohydrates.
There is definitely a time and place for eating fats and proteins during longer races, which we will address in the "How to Fuel for a 12 Hour Adventure Race" section below.
How Often Should I Eat During an Adventure Race?
Your exact fueling strategy as to how often you should eat during an event is going to vary based on your needs, and what you've practiced (because you should be practicing. More on that below). However, most endurance sports nutrition experts recommend the following:
- Start fueling early. Do not wait until you feel hungry. To avoid the risk of GI distress, you should begin your fueling strategy within 30-45 minutes after the start of the race.
- Eat frequently. Just because the recommendation is "per hour" doesn't mean you have to consume all of those calories in one go at the top of each hour. Splitting your hourly calories up into every half an hour, or even every 15 minutes may help you avoid GI distress, as your system may better tolerate smaller doses of calories in more frequent intervals.
Tips from Team HSEC: It's easy to get caught up in the race and forget to eat...until all of a sudden you're feeling sluggish and hangry. So while we all keep an eye on the (non GPS) clock, one of our captain's jobs is to remind the rest of the team to eat and drink at regular intervals.
Personally, I like to eat every 45 minutes, and so almost without fail, every 45 minutes, Captain Geoff will say "EAT!" and the whole team eats at the same time to ensure no one falls behind on calories.
In absence of your own Captain Geoff, an interval timer on a chrono watch can be a helpful reminder to stay on top of your fueling strategy!
What Types of Foods Do You Eat During an Adventure Race?
While most endurance athletes are familiar with sport specific nutrition items like "gels" or "bars", the reality is you are NOT limited to these types of products. During an adventure race, you can eat whatever you find your stomach tolerates well, and you find easy to carry, whether it was designed for endurance sports or not. Here are some common examples:
Endurance Specific Products:
There is absolutely no shortage of nutrition products designed to be used during endurance events or training, and marketed towards athletes. Things like:
- Drink powders
...and more. The benefits of these types of nutrition sources is that they are typically high in easily digestible carbohydrates, they are easy to consume, and easy to carry.
The downside of endurance specific nutrition products is that you can easily get really sick of them, pretty quickly. Further, some athletes have a hard time tolerating the high concentration of sugars in these products, and wind up with
Liquid Calorie Considerations During an Adventure Race:
There is no doubt that sports drinks providing liquid calories can be convenient for endurance athletes. When it comes to adventure racing, creating a highly concentrated drink can be an ideal solution for figuring out how to carry enough nutrition, as it's going to be far more calorically dense.
However, there is much debate - at least in the ultramarathon world - about separating your calories from your hydration. And here's why:
Your caloric needs typically don't change drastically during a race if you are consistently moving, however, your hydration needs can vary greatly. If it’s hot out, your hydration needs will increase, but your ability to absorb carbohydrates will not. So if you only have liquid calories, you either end up over fueling, or underhydrating.
For these reasons, I always recommend that if you are using liquid calories, you also have separate plain water sources available as well, especially if the weather is predicted to be warm.
Pre packaged snacks - like granola bars, trail mix, potato chips, dried fruit, and even baby food - can make fantastic adventure race nutrition. They are easy to carry, and can feel more satiating (and easier on the stomach) than endurance specific fuels.
Tips from Team Hart: if you happen to have kids, or just eat like one, you probably have tons of these options laying around already. Lunch boxes are just mobile aid stations in disguise.
When opting to use everyday snacks as a fuel source during an event, make sure your food choices consist of a high amount of easily digested carbohydrates (for example: a rice crispy treat over a high fiber bar).
Homemade or "Real" Foods:
Take it from me, there's very little on this earth that is more satisfying than a cold piece of pizza pulled out of an aid bucket at a TA 8 hours into a 12 hour race. Homemade or non packaged foods can not only be physically satiating in the middle of a race, but they may provide a huge source of mental/emotional comfort as well.
Some examples of "real" foods our team has eaten during an adventure race include:
- Cold pizza
- Peanut butter & Jelly sandwiches
- Peanut butter "roll up" - PB spread on a flour tortilla and rolled into a tight tube.
- Cold (but cooked) pierogis
- Cold soup out of a can (Geoff prefers minestrone)
While my ultramarathon background has me accustomed to grabbing a hot grilled cheese off of an aid station at 2 am, the reality of adventure racing is that you may or may not have access to such accommodations. Rather, you may go for 4 to 8 hours or more before being able to reach a drop bucket or aid, and even then, "hot foods" might not be an option.
What is MORE likely in an adventure race, depending on where the race is taking place, is the possibility of stopping by a store/gas station/ food truck/road side stand/restaurant/you name it, and purchasing food mid race.
While I would never rely on that as a fueling strategy, it's always a possibility, and as long as you aren't traveling on an off limits route, typically well within the rules of the race.
Freeze Dried/Backpacking Food
If you're like me, when you hear the words freeze dried food, your brain immediately goes to the freeze dried ice cream rumored to be eaten by astronauts on spaceships. (I am SUCH a child of the 80's...)
In reality, freeze dried foods have become very popular in the backpacking and backcountry adventure communities because they are lightweight, nutrient dense, and relatively easy to prepare.
Therefore it's no surprise that many expedition length adventure racers choose to carry and consume these types of meals during an adventure race.
Adventure Race Nutrition Tips:
While I am no stranger to endurance racing, my true claim to fame is a history of low blood sugar and being "hangry" that dates back to nearly as long as I've been alive. As a young child, it was equal parts a running joke and a serious warning among my family members to not let me go too long without eating, otherwise all hell would break loose.
Not much has changed in the last 40 years, other than the fact that now I'm the one responsible for making sure I eat, and I participate in sports and races that require I eat a lot (and frequently).
Personally, I have found my adventure race nutrition and fueling strategy to be very similar to what I use for ultramarathon distance foot races, with some slight variations due to the inclusion of multiple disciplines, and the lack of frequent aid stations resembling the aisle of a gas station (seriously, they are a sight to behold, especially if you love snack cakes, chips, and candy).
Here's what I've learned so far:
Fueling While Paddling:
Eating during a paddle leg of an adventure race can sometimes be pretty straight forward...and can sometimes be incredibly difficult. For example, while riding along in a tandem kayak, one person can easily continue steering and making forward progress while the other teammate takes a few seconds to eat.
Other times, you find yourself in choppy water with insane winds, and the second you stop paddling, your boat is blown off course.
For that reason, during the paddle, I prefer liquid calories or gels that are easy to quickly consume, without having to take a long break from paddling.
How to Carry Food While Paddling:
When you're paddling a kayak, especially one you sit in (rather than on top of), there's not a ton of room to fiddle around with your stuff. In fact, in my boat, my bag gets shoved into a bulkhead that I cannot reach unless I get OUT of the boat. So my food needs to be stored close by.
- PFD pockets
- Liquid nutrition in bottles
- Deck bag (etc.)
Tips From Team Hart: whatever you choose to eat during the paddle portion, make sure it's in some sort of waterproof container. Soggy sandwiches aren't very fun.
Fueling While Biking:
The ease or difficulty of fueling while riding a bike is going to vary greatly based on terrain, intensity, and your bike handling skills. I, for one, am still not super confident with my mountain biking skills, so trying to open a package of crackers while barreling down a single track isn't going to happen. Hell, I still have to stop to open a gel on a flat dirt road.
But if you're confident multitasking, eating while riding a bike is arguably easier than eating while running, because the general lack of vertical oscillation (bouncing up and down while running) makes it easier to chew food and swallow.
How to Carry Food While Biking:
- Water bottles / water bottle cages
- Top tube bag
- pockets on your hydration pack/backpack
- cycling jersey back pockets (if you wear one)
Eating while Trekking /Running:
Logistically, I find it easiest to eat while on foot. I don't have to worry about falling off of my bike or losing momentum in my boat. Sure, I may have to slow from a run to a slow trot or even walk in order to shovel snacks into my face, but my hands are free and willing to do so.
How to Carry Food While Trekking:
Store your food in the endless easy to reach pockets that I hope you have available to you. Whether the pockets are on your backpack, on a waist pack, in your shorts or pants, on your jersey, make sure they can be reached while you are moving
Tips for Fueling During a 3-6 Hour Adventure Race:
How you fuel during a 3-6 hour sprint distance adventure race will depend on your approach to the race as a whole. The shorter distances and overall time of a sprint event certainly lends to athletes racing faster and harder if they want to.
For a faster, "racing" approach, I personally would choose to focus on endurance specific fuel, as it's compact, calorically dense, and easier to eat while moving.
Tips for Fueling During a 12-24 Hour Adventure Race:
Once you start racing for half a day or more, making sure you stay on top of your calorie intake becomes much more important. For any race over 12 hours, you'll more than likely want to have a variety of foods to help keep you fueled. This will ensure you have a constant supply of calories, without getting sick of one single type of gel, chew, etc. Further, you'll want to incorporate protein, and possibly fat, in addition to carbohydrates.
According to coach Will: "Athletes want to start including protein in their fueling strategy probably around 3 hours, and including fat in their fuel probably around 5-6 hours (though sometimes including fat and protein go hand in hand depending on the source. The dominant macronutrient would remain carbohydrates."
As for guidelines on how much much protein and how often, Coach Will says this will vary on a case by case basis, but generally think that 8-15g of protein per hour would be helpful.
As for fat, Coach Will says it's an "occasionally mix it in and don't go crazy kind of thing. People's tolerance of fat will depend largely on how they've practiced fueling in training and their pace or effort in the race."
Final Thoughts on Fueling for an Adventure Race: Practice, Practice, Practice!
As you can see, there's a lot of general suggestions when it comes to fueling for an adventure race or endurance event, but there's also a lot of room for individual variability.
The bottom line is you've got to practice to find what works best for you.
Find out what types of foods you enjoy, and probably more importantly, what types of foods your digestive system can tolerate. Practice fueling at regular intervals, as well as carrying your food with you during your adventure race training sessions.
Remember, there is no right or wrong when it comes to adventure race nutrition. If you can carry it and you can eat it, it counts, even if it wasn't intended to be endurance fuel in the first place!
Have an unconventional favorite race day fuel? Leave a comment and let us know what it is, so others can give it a try as well!
- Ranchordas, M.K. Nutrition for Adventure Racing. Sports Med 42, 915–927 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03262303
- Urdampilleta, A., Arribalzaga, S., Viribay, A., Castañeda-Babarro, A., Seco-Calvo, J., & Mielgo-Ayuso, J. (2020). Effects of 120 vs. 60 and 90 g/h Carbohydrate Intake during a Trail Marathon on Neuromuscular Function and High Intensity Run Capacity Recovery. Nutrients, 12(7), 2094. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12072094