The first thing to understand about “proper fueling” is to know that proper fueling does not begin the morning of your race or adventure.
Giving your body the energy that it will need for a multi-hour race actually requires days of preparation.
This past weekend I raced my first ski-mountaineering race of the year (second to date). The course included 6,000′ of vertical gain (with an equivalent amount of loss) in a distance just shy of 10 miles. My time out was just over 3 hours. (If you’re interested in learning more about ski-mountaineering racing [affectionately called skimo racing], you can head over to the Northeast Rando Race Series blog spot to learn more…and maybe even register for a race 😉 .)
To fuel for an event like this, there are a few general guidelines that I try to follow throughout the entire week leading into the race. (Note: perfection is impossible; I’ve certainly managed to miss some of these guidelines in preparation for events in the past, so if you’re planning to follow these guidelines, don’t harp on yourself if you don’t master them every time, but do try!)
1.Be Prepared and Do Not Go Hungry!
I learned this the hard way a couple of years ago. It was the first time I’d taken on a coach to help improve my strength, endurance and running form (if you’re interested in a coach I highly recommend Mountain Peak Fitness based in Suffern NY). I wasn’t accustomed to actual “workouts”, so I caught myself in icky situations at least a couple of times where I had not eaten enough during the early part of the day to properly fuel my afternoon workouts. Needless to say, I couldn’t even complete the workouts because I was so hungry.
We live in a super high-speed world where we are expected to do so much in so little time. Oddly and sadly, food often gets forgotten, or put on the back burner of our minds. When we are training – and training hard – we can’t let this happen. Food is literally the fuel for our training and the fuel for our brains. If we don’t eat – before and after! – we won’t get the most out of training, or worse yet, we will actually injure ourselves or make ourselves ill by pushing our bodies to their limit, without giving them with the right fuel to go there.
So, plan ahead. Be prepared and have your meals ready at the beginning of the week (3-6 meals a day if you’re in the midst of intense training), batch-cook enough meals to feed yourself for a few days, do this once or twice a week, freeze leftovers, bring more than enough food with you to work, have snacks ready, and don’t skip on eating them!
2. Eat Often
These go hand in hand. If you’re not missing meals or snacks, then, yes, you will be eating all the time and that’s okay, heck, it’s great! Don’t be fooled by your office mates who can’t understand why you never stop eat. You’re working your butt off, literally! You need to eat!
Your body can’t digest a day’s worth of food at once. Hence my recommendation to eat 3-6 meals (yea, smaller meals) throughout the day, and sometimes with snacks in between!
I often recommend to clients and friends that grazing is a normal and healthy way of eating; you just have to eat the right stuff (i.e. real, whole food).
3. Focus on Energy-Dense Foods
So what is the right stuff? When you’re fueling for high-intensity and/or long-duration activities, your body wants primarily carbohydrates and fats for fuel, and protein for muscle tissue repair.
Carbohydrates provide energy for your brain (you need your brain to stay in your workout) and for your strength and power work; you also need these on endurance days. Focus on starchy plants (yes, starch is necessary) like sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, beets, carrots, parsnips. You can also eat whole grains as healthy sources of carbohydrate; my favorites are rolled oats, buckwheat groats, and brown rice.
Fats are the most energy-dense of the three, providing 9 calories per gram of fat. Fats are your body’s go-to fuel for endurance exercise. My absolute favorite fat is coconut: coconut oil, full-fat coconut milk, coconut flakes, and shredded coconut. Other popular fueling-fats in my belly are: cashews, avocado and peanut butter. For the omnivores out there, egg yolks and butter are also excellent sources of fat.
Load up on carbohydrates and fat in the 5-6 days preceding your multi-hour race. And by load I do not mean stuff yourself. I do mean don’t skimp on these. You should really never eat until you are uncomfortably full. For events shorter than 60 minutes, you don’t need to think too much about additional fueling in the week leading up to it; just remember to eat 😉 .
You will want to take in protein too, in the meals and snacks leading up to your multi-hour race. My go-to’s for plant-based protein are lentils and beans. I also include a wide variety of nuts and seeds in my diet, as well as veggies like spinach, winter squash and cauliflower, which also provide protein. A few seeds act as complete proteins – buckwheat and quinoa – so I do eat these fairly often, too.
Hydration is perhaps the most important part about pre-race fueling, and also perhaps the most over-looked part.
It’s not just plain water your body will need. In the week leading up to your event, you will need to drink water with low levels of electrolytes in it. The simplest way to add electrolytes: squeeze half of a lemon into 16 ounces of water, and drink that 2-3 times a day, in addition to regular, plain water. Alternatively, add a pinch or two of sea salt to your 16 ounces of water – this should not taste salty, but it should taste slightly more satisfying than plain water.
5. Bring Snacks
Wherever you are, whenever you are, you could wind up there longer than intended. Be prepared. Bring snacks.
The simplest things to snack on: fresh fruits and veggies (especially those that are in season where you live), nuts, seeds, nut butters, olives, hummus, smoothies, homemade popcorn.
People who know me call me the bag lady. Whenever I leave the house I carry an extra bag filled exclusively with…you guessed it: snacks!
Healthnut February Preview
As a little preview to what’s coming up in February in Happy Belly Life’s meal plan program Healthnut, here are a few of the meals that I fueled on during the week leading up to my skimo race this past weekend:
Peanut-Lime Brown Rice Pasta
Roasted Winter Squash with Quinoa and Parsnip
Toasted Buckwheat and Coconut Cereal with Organic Soy Milk
If you’re interested in receiving monthly meal plans featuring recipes like these – including a shopping list, batch-cooking instructions, and access to a community of other healthy home cooks and nutrition experts – then check out Healthnut.
You can join us one month at a time, or subscribe yearly to receive two new, seasonal meal plans on the first of each month.