Endurance events are all the rage these days. Just think about the ads that saturate your daily feeds, challenging even the toughest of the tough. These obstacle races are not only physically challenging, but mentally challenging as well. That's why knowing the best foods to include in your diet is crucial to peak performance. As a registered dietitian, my job is to show you the powerful role nutrition plays in feeding your inner beast!
Not only am I a Spartan competitor, but my husband is a three-time Spartan athlete (soon to cross his fourth, the Hawaii Ultra Beast, off the list). I can attest to the toll these events take on your body. I enlisted my husband as the guinea pig for my "eating for endurance" experiment. Rest assured, I checked with three fabulous sports dietitians to ensure I was on the right path. Below are their responses, and a look into a Spartan Beast's diet.
Is there a difference in nutrient needs for athletes who compete in obstacle racing versus endurance events?
"Fueling for an obstacle race is very similar to other endurance events. Upper-body strength is more important during obstacle races, so you'll need to consume enough carbohydrates pre- and mid-race to fuel these large muscle groups", says Torey Armul, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., echoes Armul's statement. "Both are very similar. Spartan races have obstacles, so the training may include more upper-body strength training than traditional races. Therefore, I would suggest a little extra protein for strength training days, such as an extra piece of chicken or chocolate milk after a training session."
Is there a nutritional difference in what you would recommend for male versus female athletes?
According to Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nutrition needs of athletes vary depending on their body fat percentage and training goals. "Due to differences in testosterone and estrogen levels, women typically have 6 to 11 percent higher body fat compared to men and will generally need less overall calories versus a male athlete. Women also have higher iron needs, since they lose this mineral every month during menstruation."
Armul suggests that female athletes focus on consuming iron-rich foods throughout their training, such as beans, lean meats, fish, fortified grains, and leafy greens, as part of a balanced diet.
What typical foods would you recommend pre-race, during the race, and post-race for someone who competes in an elite obstacle race event?
Let's start with the big guy, a 20+ mile race with over 50 obstacles.
Both Armul and Rizzo agree that simple, easily digested carbohydrates with a blend of protein is a great source of fuel. During the event, they suggest replenishing every hour with an electrolyte-carbohydrate beverage and/or gels, gummies, or other simple sugars. Post-race, it's essential to get the right balance of protein and carbohydrates into your body.
Armul recommends getting protein within 30 to 60 minutes of the race, whether it's a "convenient protein bar, smoothie with protein powder, or complete meal with 20 grams or more of protein."
Given this is the race my Spartan Beast is training for, I have explored these recommendations and found the top foods that fuel his peak performance.
Pre-Race Meal (60 to 90 minutes prior to race/workout)
1 Slice Whole-Grain Bread + 2 Tablespoons Peanut Butter + 1 Banana + 1 Cup Milk
Whether to eat white or whole-grain bread is your choice. When it comes to fueling for sports, some people prefer breads with less fiber. However, if whole-grain bread works with your gut and doesn't cause gastrointestinal distress, continue to eat the whole-grain bread pre-race.
During the Event
We've tried it all! Gels, candy, pouches; bottom line, all caused GI discomfort. We found the best source of nutrition that really helps give him a quick glucose burst is the new Pressed by KIND, filled with a blend of 100 percent fruits and vegetables. Each bar delivers 17 grams of natural sugar and is easily digested on the go. By chopping these up into pieces, he averages about one bar per hour in addition to the Gatorade electrolyte replenishment he consumes every 20 minutes.
Post-Race Meal (30 to 60 minutes after completing race/workout)
Protein Shake + Roasted & Salted Shelled Pistachios
This is typically the hardest time for athletes to eat something nutritious. My husband is usually so fixated on cooling off his body and checking his stats that it's a battle to eat something healthy during the right time for his recovery needs. A simple portable protein shake usually comes to the rescue, especially when we're far from home and don't have the tools to prep. Whey protein—the protein used in many shakes—also is extremely bioavailable in the body, helping to repair your muscles and supply necessary nutrients quickly during recovery.
Delivering over 30 grams of quality protein, a protein shake pairs wonderfully with a handful of roasted and salted pistachios. A 1-ounce serving of roasted and salted pistachios provides 310mg of potassium and 160mg of sodium, essential electrolytes that help support fluid balance. Bonus: Pistachios naturally contain antioxidants that give them their green and purple color.
Whether you're training for an Ultra Beast or merely looking to get more endurance activity into your fitness regimen, the point here is simple: Optimal nutrition can make or break your performance. Focus on fueling and hydrating your body with nutrient-dense foods to feed that inner beast!
Disclosure: I work with Wonderful Pistachios and KIND Snacks to help consumers make healthy choices.