It's probably one of the most-asked questions an endurance athlete gets. Whether it pertains to daily diet, how to stay lean, or how to fuel for training and events, people are quite consumed (so to speak) with what skiers and runners put in the tummy. And in truth they're worthwhile questions; lost is the athlete who doesn't eat well. For training, it can derail decent workouts into bonked disasters and poor recovery; for races, well...if you have never experienced the giant's hand come crashing down upon your skull, reducing you to a whimpering wet blanket who lusts only that enormous, pan-fried-in-butter Angus burger with blue cheese and caramelized onions... Ahem. Excuse me, I appear to be hitting the wall. Allow me to snarffle a gel, post-haste.
Last week I competed in the American Birkebeiner 50km ski marathon in Hayward, Wisconsin. I'm a sprinter by ability, so my foray into the ski marathon realm was a bit of an experiment. While I've spent plenty of long hours in overdistance workouts in the training months, it's rare that I spend more than 30 or 45 minutes in a ski race. So going into this race, I wanted to make sure I was prepared, food-wise. As a bigger athlete, I know I'm burning a lot of calories and while you can never replace calories lost in a 1:1 fashion during hard training or races, you must maintain some level of replenishment so your body doesn't enter a state of catabolism (scavenging muscle tissue) or just simply shutting down (i.e. cramping, bonking, general unpleasantness).
|Check out the "Jingle-Gels" attached to the drink belt.|
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in fueling for anything, be it training or a race, is to be consuming calories BEFORE you start feeling the craving. Tim Noakes has a compelling new book which argues that we need far less liquids than we typically consume during race efforts. And yet, hydration aside, sports drinks offer a ready source of calories in an easy-to consume medium. I've read that your muscles can store up to 2500 calories in glycogen, which is ample for a two hour competition. However, completely draining your muscle glycogen stores to the bottom of the tank can't introduce good vibes. I'd rather end a race with a bit left in the tank, and save myself the bonk/cramp/crankiness.
Bottom line: for ski efforts lasting two to four hours, plan on 200-250 calories/hour of fueling. One Hammer Gel contains 90 calories, and a two-scoop bottle of HEED has around 200 calories, so consider taking a gel every half hour, and a few big swigs of HEED every fifteen minutes. I find that if I schedule it in this manner I remember to actually feed. Another way to do it is by kilometer; many ski marathon courses have kilometer signs, which allow you to break the course into sections. For the Birkie, I ate a gel every 10km, and took a few big slugs of HEED every 5km. Play around with these strategies and experiment with different foods and drinks. You'll find a sweet spot of fueling that helps you maintain a steady level of energy without introducing a heavy stomach or discomfort.