During many years of running, cycling and adventure racing, I have trained and raced with many different athletes of varying abilities and I can honestly say that nearly all of them have introduced me to something that I hadn’t previously tried, whether it was a new method of training, a new piece of kit or some nutritional advice. Some of these I now incorporate into my own training/racing and wonder how I ever managed before.
This just goes to show that there are many different (but equally successful!) ways of doing sport at our level. This could not be truer than when it comes to nutrition (although I am sure that professional athletes’ nutritionists would argue differently). One thing that you can be sure of though is that without taking on food and water during a 10 Peaks event, you will really struggle to make it to the finish!
This article will hopefully give those of you that have never really paid too much attention to your re-fuelling strategy some helpful advice that will make your next 10 Peaks race a better experience.
What Fuel for a 10 Peaks event?
You will see triathletes competing in an ironman event (a race of similar time length to the 10 Peaks events) taking nothing but energy gels and water (or water with energy powder/electrolytes in) for the duration of the event. Energy gels and powder are specifically designed to provide almost instant energy in small and easily digestible quantities. The energy is absorbed quickly into your system without the need for masses of blood to be diverted away from your working muscles to your digestive system. To make this work efficiently you need to have an empty stomach, which is all good news as a large quantity of food in your tummy is counter-productive to travelling quickly. A gel every 30 minutes along with regular sips of water (perhaps with carbs and electrolytes added) are usually all you need.
This is not for everyone however – the consistency of the gels, the stickiness, the sweet taste, the desire for savoury….are all common reasons for steering away from this strategy.
You will also see ultra long-distance trekkers eating almost regular meals over a 24 hour period, but snacking in between. This strategy however can often lead to spikes in performance, a series of peaks and troughs throughout the event due to the fact that you are not “smoothing out” your energy intake. It also means that you will often be running on a full tummy, which can be unpleasant.
In general, the quicker you plan to move across the ground during your 10 Peaks event, and the harder you plan to work, the more you need to try to replicate the ironman – taking easily digestible carbs, and sips of fluid, in small quantities but regularly and often.
If you are planning on walking the 10 Peaks route slowly then large savoury snacks will be manageable. But you do have to be disciplined – if you only have fats and complex carbs as fuel for the race (i.e. Cornish pasties) you will need to eat BEFORE you are hungry. This is because these foods take a relatively long time to be digested, so you need to factor in the time lag from you eating the food to you feeling the benefit, hence the potential for peaks and troughs in performance. If you are hitting the proverbial wall (or just feeling hungry), it is too late to start thinking about refuelling, that should have been done over an hour ago.
My personal preference (for what it is worth) is the “little and often” approach. I do not like running with food in my stomach and I find eating whilst running very awkward. I prefer to have an empty stomach at the beginning of the race, and after the first hour has passed I start to take 1 gel every 30 minutes or so. I may take one or two Clif Shot Bloks in-between each gel (or sacrifice a gel for a few Bloks) and I regularly drink a mouthful or two of water that has had energy powder mixed in. I ensure that some of my gels/shot bloks have caffeine added and find that I require nothing else. Sure, it can get monotonous taking nothing but gels and shot bloks but it is just a means to an end –
and I find that it makes me enjoy my sirloin steak at the pub afterwards that little bit more! I will occasionally swap 2 gels for a small energy bar, which I will slowly eat over the course of an hour. This just helps to remind my mouth and stomach that I am still alive. All that said, most people I know tend to use more solid food and less gels, so each to their own.
So what will work best for you? The important thing is to find out this answer well before race day, by practicing different methods during training. Find out what you like and what you can eat on the move. Some people are ill on energy food alone and you will need to know if you fall into this category. Flap jacks, dried fruit, bars, sweets, bananas…… all work well as energy food, as do many other food stuffs.
How much fuel?
During a 10 Peaks race your body will be fuelled by a mixture of pre-loaded reserves (these will be exhausted after a few hours), body fat, muscle and whatever you put into your system during the race. You should not think that because you will be burning say 700 calories every hour you therefore need to eat 700 calories worth of food every hour. Close to half of this should be adequate – i.e. 2 gels (200 calories) plus 3 shot bloks (100 calories) plus some additional calories in your energy drink. Alternatively an energy bar every hour will give you this equivalent. Some people may manage on even less than this.
The race will probably take you anywhere between 12 and 24 hours to complete, so to ensure that firstly, you do not run out of energy, and secondly you do not carry an extra 5kg of unnecessary food, you must have a good appreciation of how long it will take you to complete. Once you have estimated the time you will be running you can then plan your food and hydration requirements accordingly. If you underestimate your fuel requirement, don’t worry as there are always the feed stations to fall back on. If you plan to use the feed stations then factor this food into the equation (but be mindful of how long it will take to get from one feed station to the next).
Water is a key issue when racing, especially in heat. A body can last about 10 times longer without food than it can without water so do not fall into the trap of concentrating on eating and forgetting drinking. Breathing, sweating and eating all use up fluid from the body and this will need replacing, along with the minerals and salts that you will also lose. You will suffer dramatically from dehydration and lack of salts, so try to take fluids on board constantly by sipping regularly. How much fluid is hard to say as there are too many unknown factors to consider – the weather being a big one! You will need to know how much is right for you on the day as it could be anything from 300mils to over 1 litre per hour, depending on the heat. The more you are drinking the more you need to consider electrolyte replacement. Some energy powders have electrolytes already in mixed in, otherwise High5 Zeros or Nuun tablets do the job.
As a basic principle, start carb loading (but still eating a reasonably balanced healthy diet) 3 or so days before the event, taking your last meal about 2 hours before the event starts. Do not feel that your last meal has to be the biggest you can manage – your body’s energy reserves from earlier carb loading will still be there, and whatever you eat prior to the race will need to come out at some stage! I would suggest some muesli and fruit, or something similar. You will also need to ensure that you are adequately hydrated an hour or two before you start the race, as an indicator your urine should be clear (not yellow).
You are now set to race, and with what you have already got inside your body you could last 3 to 4 hours of racing without the need for additional food (you would undoubtedly require fluids though!). However, this would render you in energy deficit – you would have completely emptied your energy reserves and restocking them would take time and drastically reduce your performance. It is therefore advisable to start the slow drip feeding of fuel from either the start of the race or once past the first hour mark. Do not wait until you are thirsty before you drink! Make sure you are regularly taking a mouthful of fluids in order to avoid the reduction in performance that dehydration will bring.
Here is a summary of my precise fuel strategy during the Lake District 10 Peaks race in 2012 –
Carb loaded from Wednesday onwards (my last training session was a bike session on Wednesday eve)
Set alarm for 1.45am on Saturday and ate breakfast – Alpen, banana, part of an energy bar, cup of tea and bottle of water with energy powder.
Sipping plain water and water with energy powder over the next 2 hours.
Just before the race start I took 2 gels (1 with high caffeine content) and some water.
Water policy during the race – I carried 2 x 750 ml water bottles in carriers on the front of my rucksack, which were ¾ full at the start of the race with High5 energy source – so just over 1 litre, which I drank a mouthful of every so often. I did not wish to carry a bladder/camelback as they take so much time and effort to refill, and I would needlessly be carrying 3 litres of water (nearly 7lbs in weight) up Helvellyn, leaving 2.5 litres to carry up Bowfell, 2 litres to carry up Scafell Pike, etc etc, when I knew I would pass so many water refill opportunities along the way. It takes me 20 seconds to fill a water bottle – unscrew top as I’m running; as I cross the stream I bend down and fill it up and screw on the lid (15 seconds) and carry on running; as I’m running I take out a puritab and undo the bottle top slightly; I then stop to drop the tab in the water and screw the top on (5 seconds); at the next steep section when I am walking I will add either powder or a zero tablet to the purified water.
I carried purification tablets, a few High 5 zero tablets (electrolytes) and 2 sachets of High5 energy source powder (enough for 2 bottles). I would wait until one bottle was completely empty and the other was below half full before stopping to refill at a stream en route (if it happened to be near a feed station I would use their water but a stream is often quicker).
I had estimated that it would take me about 9 hours to get to Honister where my gear bag would be, so from the start I carried 12 gels (mix of normal and caffeine), 4 packs of Clif Shot Bloks (mix of normal and caffeine) and 2 Clif Bars (in total, less than 1kg in weight including the energy powder) – if I would need more I would dip into the feed stations but as it turned out I had carried more than enough.
All of my water, gels, bars, powder sachets, puritabs and zero tablets were easily accessible whilst running. I didn’t once have to stop to access food, water or clothing.
In my spare bag at Honister I had placed spare sachets of energy powder, gels and bars (as well as a spare pair of running shoes and socks and some warmer clothing). I just grabbed a load more gels, a bar, some more Bloks and sachet of powder – enough for a further 6 hours with what I still had left. I also filled up both of my water bottles with water and powder and downed a lukewarm cup of tea. Again, I got to the finish with plenty of food to spare. The only other thing I took from a feed station was a can of coke and banana at the last one before Skiddaw.
- Have a tried and tested plan before race day.
- Try to carry the correct amount of food during the race, based on an estimate of how long it will take you to complete.
- Remember you can fall back on the feed stations.
- Make use of the drop bag offer – why start the race carrying the food that you need for the second half of the race, when you can pick it up halfway round?
- Avoid carrying masses of water needlessly, fill up regularly en route (this is weather dependant advice).
- Remember the key to fuel intake – Little and often.
- Accessibility of food and drink whilst on the move.