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How to fuel for an ultra-endurance race

Ultra-endurance events, like the 202km Coronation Double Century around Swellendam in the Western Cape, represents some unique challenges, not least of which is eating and drinking properly (and enough) to help you “go the distance”.

The old adage goes that ‘if a car runs out of fuel, it will stop going. Your body is the same.’ Here are a few fuelling tips to ensure you have the sustained energy you need to complete the race distance, whether you’re lining up for the Coronation Double Century on 24 November, or have some other ultra-endurance event on the horizon.

Go with what you know

This is the oldest rule when it comes to race day nutrition, regardless of the distance of the race. And yet, so many riders still ignore it. Find what works for you – in terms of nutrition and hydration products – during training and then stick to that. Never try something new on race day. Ever. This goes for high load products such as gels too.

Start with a full tank

It’s important to start with a full tank. The best options for a pre-ride meal or snack are foods that are low in fat and fibre. Carbohydrates that are high in fibre and gas-forming (bran products, legumes, and certain vegetables, such as onion, cabbage and cauliflower) are not recommended as they can cause intestinal discomfort.

It’s also important to remember that food you eat is available to your muscles only once it has been digested – a general guide is to allow about three to four hours for a big meal or one to two hours for a small meal or snack before the start. That means an early alarm clock on race day. Eating can feel like work at that time of the morning (or is it still night), so again it is something that is worth ‘practicing’ during training in the build-up. Perhaps on a weekend training camp before a long ride.

Hydrate

This is arguably the most important nutrition element during an ultra-endurance event. The idea is to drink enough fluid to replace what you’ve lost. This is different for each cyclist and environmental conditions play a huge role. Drink to thirst, in small volumes (150ml-200ml) periodically. Know that it is (very) possible to over-hydrate too.

Understand ‘slow’ vs ‘fast’ release

When it comes to carbohydrates, these are two broad categories: slow release – foods such as rice, pasta and sweet potato – and fast release – white bread, energy bars, and biscuits.

Fast release carbs do exactly what you’d expect – give a quick jolt of sugar in the body. This cannot be sustained and the ‘drop’ after is imminent.

The most efficient way of eating is to combine a mixture of carbohydrates, and also protein.  A peanut butter sandwich (on wholegrain bread – which is slow release) would have a good combination of slow release carbs and protein. One sandwich-sized spreading of peanut butter also provides around 208mg of potassium. Adding a bit of fat also helps slow down the release of carbs – a handful of nuts or chocolate milk.

Many pros swear by sweet potato. This slow-release carb is also loaded with abundance of vitamin A, which can help ease strained muscles. Sweet potatoes are also a good source of magnesium, which are important for healthy muscle function.

It is crucial to keep fuelling while on the bike, to avoid complete glycogen depletion, or ‘bonking.’ The best way to avoid this is to eat small portions, but often. A good rule of thumb is to ingest about 100-250 calories and some form of high carbs every 30 minutes, even in the first hour.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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