Race Nutrition

Authors: Anil Menon, MD, Jay Sharp, MD, Grant Lipman, MD and Brian Krabak, MD MBA


RacingThePlanet is an extremely physically demanding endurance race spanning a week of intense physical activity. Subsequently, proper nutrition is essential to fuel the body to continue operating properly during such a long, physically demanding period. For many years, there have been much generalized recommendations addressing the amount and type of caloric intake required for exercise. This has left many athletes to trial and error during competitions, finding what might work for them or taking suggestions from training partners and fellow athletes and testing their performance in real time during competition. This has lead to success for some, and for others, devastating consequences. In the last decade, endurance racing has increased in popularity and the demand for information on adequate nutrition has led many researchers and organizations to investigate the proper nutritional guidelines for racers.

Findings have suggested that every person is unique and no recommendation will fit all athletes. Each person will vary by size, weight, and efficiency with which they each convert calories into energy. This article will help highlight some basic recommendations, but remember, no one recommendation is right for every person, but many of the basic tenets hold true for all.

During times of high-intensity training, adequate caloric intake is required to maintain body weight, maximize training, and maintain health. Low-energy intakes can result in loss of muscle mass, menstrual dysfunction, loss or failure to gain bone density, and increased risk of fatigue, injury, and illness. There is a limit to the number of calories that an athlete can consume during competition and this is usually far under the amount of calories burned during competition. To make up for this deficit, your body will utilize glycogen and fat stored prior to exercise to fill this fuel gap. Long endurance events will require that the athlete compete at a moderate level as opposed to shorter events during which athletes can operate at high intensity levels for shorter periods of time. This lower intensity will allow the body to utilize glycogen and fat (which can provide 3250 calories per pound of fat) as energy to make it through the long period of exercise. After exertion, it is necessary to replete the calories burned, especially the glycogen stores, so the body is ready for the next workout.

Typically, during exercise, 800 calories or more can be burned per hour, while roughly 250-300 calories can be absorbed through the digestive tract. Most calories consumed during exercise should be obtained through ingestion of complex carbohydrates mixed with water and "sports" drinks that combine complex carbohydrates with water and electrolytes to provide adequate hydration and replenishment of vital nutrients. RacingThePlanet requires racers to carry their own food throughout the competition. This requires one to place great thought into not only the nutritional component of the food, but also the weight which it will add in the backpack. With this in mind, energy packs such as Clif Shots® and Power Shots® will provide complex carbohydrates in small and light pouches that can provide 100 calories per pouch. These are great during exercise, as they are simple for the body to digest and utilize for immediate energy. After competition, it will be important to eat foods with a mixture of fat, protein, and carbohydrate to allow the body to recover. This will replenish glycogen and fat stores burned during the day, and the protein will help the muscles to rebuild damaged fibers. Most of the freeze dried foods on the market give a nice balance of nutrients to accomplish this. They can also weigh as little as 4 ounces which makes them an ideal meal for the evenings. Eating at the end of the day also helps to ensure warmth at night as these calories are necessary to maintain the core temperature during sleep.

Hydration is an important topic as well. Water is provided for the competitors, but it is important to not drink only plain water. Large amounts of sodium, chloride, and potassium can be lost through the skin by sweating. If one drinks too much plain water to rehydrate, it can cause dilution of the blood leading to dangerously low sodium levels or hyponatremia. This can end your race early and can be life threatening. To avoid this, mixing powdered sports mixes with your water can help replenish the electrolytes to help avoid this problem. These sports drink mixes also add complex carbohydrates to help fuel the body during competition.

It is essential to remember that no one method works for every racer. It is important to experiment during training to find the products that work well for each person. Training which simulates competition will help each athlete understand what nutrition agrees with their body and can help anticipate how their body will respond to the nutrition which will be a major factor in their success on race day.


1. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dieticians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc 2000; 12:1543-56
2. Zalcman et al. Nutritional Status of Adventure Racers. Nutrition. 2007
3. Pyle, S (1999-2009). Endurance Nutrition. Retrieved March 10, 2009, from Tri-eCoach Web site: http://www.tri-ecoach.com/art36.htm