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Sole Food:
Strategies to Keep You on Your Feet, in the Saddle and With the Paddle

By Sarah Tuff

Sole Food"Nutrition will make or break your race day -- or days," says sports dietitian Bob Seebohar of the Boulder (Colorado) Center for Sports Medicine, who preps participants for Xterra off-road triathlons, ultrarunning races and adventure races. "For any ultra-endurance athlete, my goals are delaying dehydration and delaying malnutrition. They're both going to happen. But if you're smart, you can delay it so you cross the finish line feeling decent."

As most athletes know, the human body relies on a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat when you compete (and, actually, when you do anything). But what kinds of foods and fluids, and what ratio of components will produce optimal performance? Sorry, there's no one answer here, as when it comes to eating and endurance, a key word is "depends." (No, not that kind of Depends, as much you feel you might need them during some races.) Winning nutrition battles for several-hour or several-day competitions depends on the particular event, the athlete, the weather -- you name it. Even the standard prescription of 60 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat has been thrown off course by the latest generation of adventure sports athletes.

Nutritionists can tell us this: In shorter races (up to three hours), you can rely on your nutritional stores, topped off with a gel or sports drink. But longer events require a different, more delicate mix of food and fluids. You need a full tank of calories, plus a top-off of protein and fat to keep the pistons firing. And regardless of what type of race you're in, you need to rehearse how you'll refuel. It's one of the most important -- and most overlooked -- parts of a race.

The following are some foolproof food tips that might help you cross the finish line not only feeling decent, but feeling victorious:


However you organize your training regimen, you should include a least a couple of dry runs for race-day refreshment, which will allow you to test out your gastrointestinal tracts. "In an ultramarathon, for example, a lot of athletes don't know what their body will do at the 80-mile mark," says Boston-based nutritionist Nancy Clark, author of the Sports Nutrition Guidebook. "So your first adventure event might really be just to practice."

And remember, everyone is different. What works for some, doesn't work for others. Experiment a bit before race day; you may be surprised what works for you. "I saw one triathlete who put a Big Mac in his special needs bag and ate it on the bike!" says Seebohar. "But he trained by eating a Big Mac on every long ride -- whereas another woman in the Ultraman ate a couple of boiled eggs and her race was done, because she had never tried that."


Determine your caloric needs (calorie calculators are available online) and potential fluid loss (See "Drinking Problem?" on Page 36), and match up your resources. Will any food or water be available on course? Will hot or wet weather melt -- or rot -- your food stores? How long will it really be between transition areas? Talk to veterans about the event and find out what worked for them and what didn't. Communicate extensively with your team, especially if you have different tastes -- or tasks.

"Vytenis [Benetis] concentrates on maps while Tracey [Cote] and I focus on the food in the backpack," says Team Revo captain Patrick Watson of Los Angeles. "But we have to figure what 'V' likes; for the 24-hour events, it's all on you and your teammates and trying to time it between the transition areas, which could be two hours -- or eight."


"During the taper, you're filling up your muscle glycogen tanks, but the morning of the race you're refilling your liver glycogen stores, which are about 80 percent empty when you wake up," says Chicago-based Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete and sports nutritionist for USA Triathlon. "This is the carbohydrate that's going to keep your blood glucose levels nice and steady during the first part of the race." An hour or two before the start, eat around 300 calories of a carb-rich food that you know will settle well, drink at least 16 ounces of fluid and allow yourself about 30 minutes to empty your stomach.


"My mistake from my first few races was to bring lots of energy bars," says Karen Clark, an adventure racer from Jericho, Vermont. "I just didn't touch them after a while -- that stuff is only good for the first few hours." Sport scientists have found what athletes have suspected: during prolonged exercise, your tastes actually change. At first you may diligently down bananas and an energy gel, but then reach for Ruffles and Reese's Pieces at the 12-hour mark. This is a natural sign of your body craving the calories crammed into junk food, plus a little protein or fat or salt, as you start dipping into these stores for energy. "I definitely rely on junk food," says Idaho's Patrick Harper, a professional adventure racer with Team Montrail. "A Twinkie is a great race food -- it's just not something you need on a daily basis."

Once again, however, it comes down to individual choice; Clark prefers organically-derived sports drinks, like ReCharge, because they feel more natural in her body; she also used to bake Pillsbury croissants and mash them in a bag until she discovered they contain hydrogenated oils. Top athletes are also mixing in more supplements, such as electrolyte caplets made by Hammer Nutrition and things like SportLegs, a calcium and magnesium mixture also favored by some skiers and mountain bikers.

The bottom line? "Adventure racers need solid food," Seebohar says. "I try to space food, drinks and gels, so athletes cycle them and don't get sick of one thing. A lot of athletes ask me, which one should I eat or drink, and I say, 'Whichever one you will finish, because if you don't, you're gone.'"

Racing Green:
Training for Endurance Events on a Vegetarian Diet

By Scott Boulbol

Four athletes, multi-day racing, not an ounce of meat in years. For those who think vegetarian diets cannot sustain endurance athletes, Boston-based Team Vegan is here to prove you wrong. Chris Edmundson, Ken Gowell, Kristoffer Nielsen and Michelle Bent are not just vegetarians, by the way, but full vegans -- they eat no animal products whatsoever.

Team Vegan isn't a group of pushovers, either. The team won a Genesis Adventures race in March and competed in the Appalachian Extreme race in May.

Though still relatively uncommon, vegan and vegetarian ultra-endurance athletes are a growing breed, and the trend is helping dispel the myth that meat-source protein is mandatory for multi-hour workouts and races.

"I don't think that athletes think we're nuts, but they do underestimate our capabilities," Edmundson admits. Vegetarianism is not just a matter of quitting meat. Especially for ultra-endurance athletes, eating vegetarian means research, experimentation and hard work.

"Being a vegetarian endurance athlete] is risky if they're not responsible about what they eat every day, because vegetarianism presents some challenges nutritionally," says University of California-Davis professor Dr. Liz Applegate, a renowned sports nutritionist, author and endurance athlete. "The challenges aren't hard to overcome. You can do it, but more often than not, a majority of these individuals haven't educated themselves."

Knowledge of nutrition is especially important to vegetarian endurance athletes, (For this story, we are addressing vegans to lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat no meat, fish or poultry, but do eat eggs and dairy) as they need to plan their diets carefully. Protein and iron are clearly the two most important nutrients for vegetarian endurance athlete, Applegate says, followed by calcium, vitamin B-12 and zinc.

But, as Applegate suggests, plant foods can be great sources of everything the body needs as well -- it just takes more variety, creativity and volume. Because many veggie diets are overall lower in calories than their carnivorous counterparts, vegetarian athletes need to consume 3,000 to 6,000 calories daily to make sure their body is getting enough nutrients and properly processing food.


Protein, which builds and repairs muscles and strengthens the immune system, is the biggest concern for vegetarian endurance athletes. Most experts agree that endurance athletes should consume 1.5 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, (1.2 to 1.7g for non-athletic people). For example, a man who weighs 170 pounds (77kg) should consume about 127 grams of protein a day.

A shortage of protein can lead to fatigue and muscle loss, but it can also cause other ailments like digestive problems and even immunity weaknesses that lead to respiratory problems, Applegate says. "You may have a spell of poor eating," she says. "You do some hard workouts, and, oh, you've got a cold. You might blame it on your friends, when really that was a sign of you having a compromised immune system. Why? You didn't get enough protein." Proteins can be found in ample supply in dairy, beans and legumes, pasta, nuts and grains and many other sources that most people eat regularly. But, as Scott Jurek, a five-time winner of the prestigious Western States 100 trail race and a strict vegan, points out, all bodies have different needs.

"I think the major issue is quantity," he says. "If you're eating enough food, and it's high quality, from grains, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds, it's very easy to get enough." Still, for athletes just crossing over to vegetarianism, Jurek suggests making a slow transition and gradually phasing out meat as a primary source of protein.

Athletes cannot, obviously, live on protein alone, or the protein will not do its job. "Even if you take in enough protein, the key is still getting enough energy intake (carbs and fats)," says Monique Ryan, sports nutritionist for USA Triathlon at this summer's Olympic Games in Greece and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, "so those amino acids (protein) are used for muscle building and repairing and boosting your immune system, as opposed to being broken down for energy."

Team Vegan's Michelle Bent, who turned vegan after being diagnosed with a rare bone cancer, doesn't seem to have a problem getting this balance. She eats a lot of tofu and meat replacement products, such as veggie burgers. She and her teammates also eat big bowls of oatmeal -- a good source of carbs -- before races.


This critical mineral helps the body produce hemoglobin, responsible for oxygen transport in the blood -- obviously essential for endurance athletes. The trouble with iron from plant sources, called "non-heme" iron, is that it is absorbed into the bloodstream at a much lower percentage than meat-source, or "heme" iron. "The [absorption rate] is as low as less than 1 percent to probably, at best, up to 15 percent," Applegate notes. However, she adds that absorption can be enhanced with the addition of vitamin C at the same feeding. So put some strawberries in your bowl of iron-enriched cereal. The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA) for iron is 18mg.

But even when vegetarian athletes get enough iron, they tend to lose some during training. Most commonly, iron is released simply through sweating.

Runners and adventure racers face an additional challenge because the repeated pounding can lead to damaged blood cells and internal bleeding, impeding the uptake of iron. Ryan recommends regular medical checkups to make sure iron levels are adequate. "It is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world," she warns.


Zinc is most commonly found in whole grains, beans and lentils. And, while vegans may have trouble finding calcium and B-12, as they are most common in animal products (such as dairy) most green leafy vegetables are also a good source. For all of these, Ryan, along with the American Medical Association, suggests taking a multi-vitamin, which she says everyone should take anyway. And read your labels. Soy milk and orange juice, for instance, are often fortified with B-12 and calcium. The USRDA call for 1,000mg of calcium, 6 micrograms of B-12 and 15mg of zinc.

With some creativity and a bit of nutritional knowledge, vegetarians can endure whatever carnivores can. "Most everyone assumes that vegans are weak, wiry, sickly people, and they can't imagine us getting through the day, let alone making it through a long-distance event," Gowell says. "We just want to dispel that myth."

Drinking Problem?:
Next-Generation Sports Drinks Offer a More Effective Hydration Solution

By Mark Eller

Endurance athletes who compete in events lasting several hours or longer are often admonished to drink as much fluid as possible before, during and after a race. It seems like good advice -- after all, most North Americans are chronically dehydrated. If a good percentage of competitors are low on fluids even before they step up to the starting line, it seems logical that ingesting copious amounts of water is a good idea.

Accordingly, athletes sip and gulp their way to the finish in hopes of achieving better results. But do all those plastic hydration pack bladders really contain the right stuff to produce fast finishes?

Hydration scientists have recently identified several key strategies for improved performance in multi-hour events. At the top of their list is an increase in the recommendation for sodium intake -- the latest studies show that plain water isn't nearly as good at keeping athletes hydrated as a sports drink that contains a moderate amount of sodium. Many sports drinks also deliver glucose, helping to maintain energy levels. Plus, the studies show, racers who fill their reservoirs with flavored fluids are more likely to drink adequately than those who rely on water alone.

Plain Water: A Poor Solution

When it comes to water, too much of a good thing can kill you. Electrolytes, especially sodium, are rapidly depleted during exercise, primarily through sweat. If this loss occurs for several hours (typically four or more) without replacing the electrolytes, the nervous system can't function properly and it may even shut down -- short-circuiting little things like breathing and circulation.

Hydration scientists refer to this condition as hyponatremia -- literally mean- ing low levels of salt. Drinking excessive quantities of water -- beyond the amount lost in sweat and urine -- exacerbates the problem because it allows the victim to further dilute the very salts needed to stay alive. (Statistics show that women are more susceptible to hyponatremia than men.)

The danger of hyponatremia is highest among endurance athletes. "Racers in events that last an hour or more will see a definite and unavoidable reduction in performance, and ultimately in health status, when their sodium levels become depleted," says Dr. Doug Casa, an exercise physiologist and hydration expert at the University of Connecticut. Casa prepared a 2024 advisory issued by USA Track and Field (USATF) that suggests most of the current recommendations about sodium intake for athletes are inadequate. While old guidelines recommended minimal sodium intake, the recent USATF paper suggests adding 0.5 to 0.7 grams of sodium to hydration beverages will, "stimulate thirst, increase voluntary fluid intake, may decrease hyponatremia, and causes no harm."

The American College of Sports Medicine's 2024 Roundtable Discussion on Hydration and Physical Activity, which will be released later this year, will reinforce the need for higher sodium intake during exercise. Adventure racers may be particularly at risk, because events frequently go beyond the danger zone for hyponatremia: efforts lasting four or more hours. Another risk factor in adventure racing is that there are usually several opportunities (i.e. in transition areas) for athletes to hyperhydrate themselves with water.

Core body temperature is a key indicator for distinguishing between heat stroke and hyponatremia, Casa says. In cases of heat stroke, a core temperature of 104 degrees or more is expected, along with central nervous dysfunction. Victims of hyponatremia often exhibit a core temperature between 100 and 103 degrees -- which is high, but within the normal range for hard exercise -- and, of course, low levels of blood sodium.

Replacing What you're Losing

Before you load your hydration pack with any old sports mix or liquid drink, take a minute to read the label. Many products contain no or very low levels of sodium, and only a few formulas provide enough salt to meet the new recommendations.

Gatorade and PowerBar have both recently introduced drink mixes with markedly increased sodium levels, although others are likely to follow suit. Gatorade's "Endurance Hydration Formula" provides about 800mg per liter, and PowerBar's "Endurance Sports Drink" contains about 680mg per liter.

Figuring Sweat Rates

Because individual sweat rates vary greatly, Casa recommends athletes to perform a simple study to determine just how much fluid they are likely to lose during an event. Then they can figure out approximately how much fluid they'll need to drink per hour to maintain their weight and optimal hydration. Here's what to do:

- Empty your bowels and your bladder as much as possible.

- Weigh yourself naked.

- Do a hard 30-minute workout that mimics your event. (Multi-sport athletes will have to repeat this experiment for each discipline to determine sweat rates for different sports.)

- Do not hydrate or urinate during the training effort.

- Weigh yourself again after the session and convert the amount of weight loss into kilograms by multiplying by 0.45. (It is much easier to figure a sweat rate in metric measurements because weight and volume are 1:1 equivalents.)

- Multiply the weight lost by two to find your sweat rate in liters per hour.

- As an example, say a 150-pound (or 67.5-kilogram) athlete loses two pounds during the test workout, which equals about 0.9kg. That person's sweat rate is 1.8 liters per hour, and that means the athlete needs to replace 1.8 liters (or 54 ounces) of sodium-enhanced fluid per hour to reach optimal hydration.

Keep in mind that losing just 2 to 4 percent of your total body weight through sweat loss leads to significant decreases physiological capacities. Try as you might, when you lose fluids you will slow down, and you'll be more likely to make mistakes.

Remember, Casa says, that it is much better to be partially hydrated than totally dehydrated. Even if you are sweating more fluid than you can comfortably consume, keep drinking. Core body temperature rises far faster in an athlete who is 5 percent dehydrated than in an individual who is 1 or 2 percent dehydrated. A few percentage points can mean the difference between finishing a race feeling bad and a trip to the hospital.

"When complete rehydration is not feasible, make an attempt to restore as much of it as possible," Casa advises. He adds that taking fluids through an IV is not as effective as oral hydration because the brain isn't alerted by receptors in the mouth that additional fluid is being ingested. As a result, the body can continue farther down the path of dehydration until it has ample time to recover.

Casa also recommends drinking about 20 to 25 ounces of a modestly sodium-enriched sports drink about two hours before a competition or hard training effort, and an additional 10 ounces about 10 to 15 minutes before you get started.

All of that drinking may leave you desperately searching for a dense patch of bushes to hide behind just before the starting gun sounds, but that's less embarrassing than collapsing on the side of the trail a few hours later.

Food on the Go

Ultrarunning races, adventure races, 24-hour mountain bike events and long training days often mean eating a lot of quick snacks on the go. Here are some unique alternatives to consider if you can't stomach one more energy gel or bar in the wee hours of the morning.

1. Jerky. It's loaded with sodium, high in protein, and it comes in dozens of flavors. And does it ever get stale?

2. PICKLE JUICE. Extremely high in sodium, it helps replace the nutrients lost through sweat and urine. It's best served chilled, but you've really got to like the taste of pickles.

3. Chocolate espresso beans. Loaded with sugar, carbs and caffeine, they're ideal for races that span one or more nights.

4. Pretzels. Good source of carbs and sodium. Plus, they'll make you hanker for a cold beverage.

5. Pringles potato chips. They're high in sodium and carbs and the half-sized tube is easy to carry without smashing.

6. Ensure. Yes, the same meal-in-a-can prescribed to your grandparents. High in carbs and protein, and the Vanilla flavor is surprisingly tasty at 2 a.m.

7. Pedialyte. Yes, the same electrolyte-rich drink toddlers get when they're dehydrated. Also available in Freezer Pops, which can be quite a treat on a long, hot day.

8. Steamed rice. Carry it in a plastic baggie and season it with salt. It's a good source of carbs and easy on the stomach.

9. Sardines or Tuna. High in sodium and protein. But it usually contains no carbs, so you'll need to mix in a piece of bread. Also, pack some breath mints to cut the aftertaste. Your teammates will appreciate it.

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