Fuelling the Engine: Top 10 Tips

Article by Nik Cook
Wednesday 24th October 2012

Fueling the Engine




No matter how fit you are, unless you fuel and hydrate your body properly, you’ll soon come to a grinding halt. Years of adventure, long and ultra-distance racing in a variety of extreme climates have taught me a lot of things, most learnt the hard way, about this vital key to endurance success. Here are my top ten tips.


  1. Tried and tested: Training is the time to nail your fueling and hydration strategies. Come race day, nothing should be new and you should be 100% confident in your choices and routine. This can be tricky if you’re racing abroad, so do your best to find out what’s going to be available to you and, if you’re unsure, take enough of your own tested supplies to see you through. If you’ve got a couple of days before your race starts, it’s not a good time for gastronomic exploration. Keep it simple, take the normal sensible travel precautions and, extreme as it sounds, even consider taking some tins, pasta or dehydrated rations with you. When I took part in the Marathon des Sables a friend went on a Moroccan street food frenzy before the race, was struck down by a horrendous stomach bug and didn’t even see the start line. 
  2. Make it easy: Accessing your food and drink has to be super easy. Although taking your pack off might seem like no hardship on a training jaunt, on a cold, wet and dark mountain side, when you’ve been battling for 12-hours and are sleep deprived, it just won’t happen. Again, these systems have to be sorted in training. Waist band and chest pockets on your pack work well and you should be able to get food out and eat it while running and not removing your gloves. On the bike, ideally you should be able to get to your food and eat without stopping. A triathlon style top-tube “Bento Box” can be ideal but check it’s secure enough for off-road use. Think also about refilling your hydration system. For long races requiring a refill, you don’t want to be using a bladder that requires you to unpack your pack. 
  3. Little and often: From the start of the race, keep eating and drinking small amounts on a regular basis. On long (4 hours plus) races or training sessions, I’ll have a good slurp of fluids every 5-10 minutes and a mouthful of food every 15-30 minutes. This will be right from the gun. Often, as a long race draws on, you’ll start to significantly lose your appetite and, if you haven’t taken on calories early, playing catch up can be impossible.  A good mantra is that you’re eating for ten miles time, not for the next ten miles.
  4. Eat as a team: Adventure Racing is a team sport and, equally important as navigating, pacing well and making those decisions as a team, the same team mindset should be applied to eating and drinking. Constantly check that your teammates are taking food and drink on and get into the habit of, when one of you eats, the rest of you eat. It sounds silly but having a “Fueling Captain” with a reminder set on their watch, isn’t a bad idea. Fueling as a team makes it easier to spot if someone is having a bit of a hard time and showing early signs of exhaustion. You’ll also save significant time if you all eat at the same time as, if it involves pack removal or stopping, you’ll all stop together rather than multiple pauses that quickly add up. 
  5. Be flexible: Although I’ve gone on about fixed routines and setting alarms. You’ve got to be ready to adapt your fueling plans to the terrain, race course and the intensity you’re moving at. There’s no point in trying to eat when you’re pushing hard up a hill or if you’re just about to hit an aid station in a mile. Never pass up an obvious opportunity to eat and drink, such as waiting to get on a rope section or on a flat road or trail on the bike. Having someone on the team who’s responsible for monitoring these changes and adapting your overall plan accordingly will definitely make you faster. 
  6. Think about conditions: Food that works brilliantly in one environment might be an unworkable nightmare in another. Chocolate is a great example. Brilliant in run of the mill UK conditions but a melted mess in the heat and a jaw breaker in extreme cold. Think carefully about how food is going to fare in your pack. A slab of cake might seem like a great idea but can easily be reduced to an inedible pile of crumbs. Similarly, those cheese and ham sandwiches might have looked lovely when you made them but, after several hours sweating in cling film, won’t have quite the same appeal and should probably have a biohazard warning. 
  7. Keep it varied: On long races, once you start losing your appetite, the food you’re carrying really has to make you want to eat it or, at the very least, not make your stomach turn with revulsion. Have a variety of flavours, both sweet and savoury, in your pack and don’t make the mistake of just packing one type of food. In the 2000 Marathon Des Sables I made the mistake of having lime flavoured sports drink and lime flavoured gels, I still can’t stomach lime! Also, after hammering them for a whole season a few years ago, the thought of a strawberry Nutri-grain makes me gag. Gels can be great for topping up energy or in shorter higher intensity events but, for the long haul, low intensity, typical of Adventure and Ultra Racing, “real food” is a far better option. Rotate your food throughout races and training and always have multiple options available.
  8. Drop box joy: If you’re doing a race where you can send drop boxes ahead, that’s where you can really spoil yourself. A well stocked drop box can massively raise team spirits and be the carrot that drives you on through a tough stage. Cake, cold pizza or a can of Coke, think about what you always really fancy after a tough training session and make sure it’s in that drop box.
  9. Worth the extra weight: It’s too easy to get obsessed with shaving weight off your pack but, unless you’re right up at the elite end of the field, I’d always opt to carry a bit more food than race hungry. This especially applies to multi-day events. I was racing the OMM a couple of years ago and, paired with a far better navigator, my role for the weekend was mindless “pack pony”. Arguing that I was a far stronger runner and that he had to stay sharp mentally, all the food was loaded into my bag including the largest and densest ginger cake you’ve ever seen. I whined and moaned all day but, at a cold and wet overnight camp, that ginger cake with piping hot custard put me to sleep with a bursting belly and definitely made me stronger the following day.
  10. Train to burn fat: Don’t ignore the fact that even the leanest racing snake has more than enough fat on them to fuel multiple days of activity. It’s just a question of training the body to utilise it. Having good fat burning ability gives you a bit more margin for error fueling wise and is especially useful for lower intensity long duration racing. A great time efficient way to develop fat burning economy are pre-breakfast fasted workout. Head straight out for a bike or run in the morning with nothing but a cup of coffee (no sugar or milk!!) inside you. Work at a low intensity for 30-90 minutes and have breakfast as soon as you get home. It’s vital to keep the intensity low to make the physiological changes. Perform three of these sessions per week and you’ll soon become a fat burning machine. 
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