How to fuel for an ultra race

R&D Division rider Gail Brown is more than qualified to provide advice on racing an ultra, having spent the past several years ticking off some of the biggest and hardest events on the planet. In this article, Gail aims to help riders understand the importance of a nutrition strategy when planning for their next event. Often something not thought about in any specific detail other than ‘eat as much as you can’.

It makes me laugh that the main narrative around ultra racing seems to be about sleep deprivation, hunger and suffering. In my mind, that’s just one strategy. Arguably a really terrible one if you want to enjoy the ride. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t race that way; if everyone raced like me, it would make for pretty boring watching. Plus, the people at the front have proved that if you’re fast enough, you can make it work. However, if you’re curious about another strategy, the ‘nutrition focussed’ approach seems to be working for me, so I thought I’d write about it. 

How to fuel for an ultra

I seem to be gaining a reputation as the ‘queen of snacks’, but all I’m doing is trying to fuel myself adequately, not just in calorie intake but also nutrient content. In doing this, I normally have enough energy to enjoy the experience and stay healthy and injury free. So far, I’ve always reached the finish line. It surprises me that so many stronger riders are going backwards due to under fuelling. It’s a very modifiable problem. You couldn’t drive a car a long distance without petrol, and you can’t ride an ultra without eating enough, but people often seem to be in too much of a rush to properly fill the tank. 

Thinking about it as fuel is actually too simple; let’s get a bit nerdy for a minute. We can’t just think about what we feed ourselves over multi-day events as ‘calories’. Our diet is made up of macronutrients, things like protein, carbohydrates, fat and fibre. Also, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals things like sodium, calcium and vitamin C. We need a good mixture of all of these to maintain the health of our baseline body function, our tissues and our immune system, especially when cycling 18+ hours per day and sleep deprived. Simple carbohydrates, like gels, sweets and sugary biscuits, over multiple days won’t cut it.

 We know from the little research that’s been done into polar exploration that it’s possible to run a calorie deficit over a very long period of time if the level of protein in the diet is adequate. My partner, Ollie, planned the nutrition for a self-supported traverse of Antarctica, the SPEAR17 expedition, back in 2016. They studied the change in body composition before and after the expedition. Far from being emaciated at the end, they actually managed to maintain and, in some cases, gain lean muscle mass. After 67 days of skiing, they were in a good enough state to run a marathon which happened to be on back at base camp. They believed this was largely down to their diet, which had balanced macronutrients and a focus on adequate protein intake for their weight. I’ve learnt so much from his approach and really believe it’s applicable to finishing ultra-races healthy, which to me, is more important than any other result.  

In most of the races I’ve done, I’ve had a clear picture of what kind of food would be available on the route, but I wasn’t so sure about Morocco. If you followed the coverage of Atlas Mountain Race over the last few editions, you probably would have heard a load of chat about omelettes. I’ve visited before and knew that the food can be varied, nutritious and absolutely delicious. We’re talking fresh orange juice, tagine, amazing salads, couscous, soups, filled flatbreads, and homegrown dates! Surely there would be more available out there than omelettes? I was curious but also cautious because we were travelling into rural areas, and there were long stretches without resupply. 

With this in mind, my strategy for AMR involved taking 5x 500kcal dehydrated porridge portions, which had a good balance of macronutrients and 6x chocolate protein shakes. So I knew that no matter what resupply I’d found that I’d begin the day with good energy and finish each day with recovery fuel. I also bought snacks in Marrakesh as treats to spread through the race, things I wouldn’t be able to find out on the road, like my favourite chocolate, flapjacks, some dried fruit bars, and marzipan-filled dates. However, I didn’t want to complete the ride self-sufficiently; a large draw of the race for me was experiencing Moroccan culture and getting to stop in villages and interact with people. I also wanted to spend money in small communities that were letting us peacefully pass through. 

So the other part of my strategy revolved around having enough space to store unconventional race food. I’d been told not to expect more than basic snacks in the small shops we passed. I wanted to be able to take more nutrients out onto the trail than that, so I brought another container; this meant that when I stopped at somewhere that did hot food, I could eat one portion and take another with me. In reality, the container held all sorts of things: pastry, bread, chips, tagine, omelette, tacos, bean and lentil soup. It was great to be able to stop on the trail and have a proper feed rather than solely rely on sugary biscuits and crisps. In reality, the small shops actually had more than expected, and you could buy yoghurts, bread, cans of tuna and sweetcorn and one time, I even bought a tub of chocolate spread. I don’t think this approach would have been possible without the Mini Pannier capable Tailfin system that provided the perfect easy access, and upright space for the containers.   

Due to the opening times of shops, it was unusual to find anything open before sunrise, which was about 8.30 am and often, I wouldn’t pass through somewhere until far later than that. If I got up at 3 am, I would have my first breakfast in my sleeping bag and then my second breakfast around about 6 am. The hours between 6-8 am always felt so long because it was still dark, and so being full of energy really helped me keep my morale high. It wasn’t unusual to be passed by another rider around this time, and they might have thought I was a right weirdo, making tuna sandwiches or eating Tagine out of my container. Throughout the day, I would be grazing all the time and then stopping to eat something more filling every 3-4 hours. It seemed to work well for me, and the only time I felt marginally hungry was when I got caught out with my resupply and spent a few hours trudging through an unexpected sandy section near Agadir. 

Was there more than just an omelette on offer? Absolutely! Although in rural areas, it was the quickest, tastiest and most nutritious option. In some places, they could cook the eggs with cheese, tomatoes, herbs and spices, which was delicious. I don’t think I ate two omelettes the same the whole race. In one shop, they even had the most beautifully ripe avocado to accompany it, but I think my favourite omelette was just before the huge switchback climb near the end. It was in a little restaurant tucked in a lush green oasis; it was warm, almost humid there and noisy with croaking frogs. The omelette was made with super fresh eggs, cheese, loads of salt and cumin; I could have eaten 10 of them. In larger towns and the checkpoints, it was possible to find more variety: really nice bean soups, tagine, pizza, tacos, chips and the best discovery of the whole race, introduced to me by a rider called Guilhem. In Tazenakht, he was eating what looked like a delicious rolled-up pancake filled with cream cheese. I asked him what it was, and it’s called Msemen. I spent the rest of the race searching for it and finally found some in the surf town of Imsouane; I had mine filled with cheese and honey. It was the best energy for the last 95km; I’m sure that’s why I felt so good. 

It’s clear that taking time to enjoy refuelling isn’t always the most efficient or lightweight strategy. I did question myself setting off sometimes with my bags laden with food. I guess it depends on what your goals are and where your priorities lie. What is becoming clear to me is that the primary outcome of these races for me is not the result of the race but rather the experience. That’s not to say that fuelling well can’t be a winning strategy; it’s like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. I read somewhere that Robin Gemperle, the winner of AMR this year, ate just one omelette and one tagine during the whole race. I’d had that by the end of the first day! I can’t help thinking that I’d rather have ridden my version of the race; all the interactions with people and the sensory and cultural experiences I had was such a joy. And that’s ok; there’s room for both approaches as long as deprivation isn’t promoted as the only one.  

I also think it’s important to consider the aftermath. If you look after yourself during the race, then recovery takes less time. Your body isn’t depleted, and you’re far less likely to get ill or injured. I think we should celebrate that more. With a nutrition focussed strategy, ultra doesn’t have to be about suffering; it can be about having fun, really appreciating where you are, preserving your health and exploring what you’re capable of.