The Ultimate Adventure Race Nutrition Guide

Rope ladder obstacle
Rope ladder obstacleLorado / Getty Images

This is your year: You finally committed to that adventure race, plunked down your registration fee, and have even started training—a little. But if you want to get the most out of your hard work at the gym, you’re going to have to change your eating habits, too.

“Obstacle courses like Tough Mudder are an exercise in endurance and strength,” says Jim White, R.D., an ACSM-certified trainer. “Your training will be different than for a typical run—and because it utilizes more energy, you need more fuel.” Three months out, he says, is a good time to start training for your event and adjusting your diet accordingly.

If the d-word sends you running for the hills, relax—we don’t mean “diet” as in giving up pizza in favor of three juice drinks a day. You won’t need to make radical changes or stick to a rigid routine in order to see performance results, but you do need to put more thought into what you’re putting in your mouth. Here’s a step-by-step training guide for what and how to eat so you feel your best on the weeks leading up to race day—and beyond.

Getting started: 3 months before the event

Think real, not processed 
Training diets don’t have to consist solely of powdery shakes and pre-packaged bars—in fact, they shouldn’t. “I was once a big protein drink guy,” says Andy “Mustache Man” Thom, a certified personal trainer and Tough Mudder spokesperson with 14 Mudders under his belt. “I’d always eat the bars and stuff like that, then I started to lean away from that stuff—and I think eating more real food helped my performance.”

Going cold turkey on processed food is difficult for most of us, if not downright impossible, so start by making small changes each week. “Think of it as adding healthy food to your diet, not subtracting bad food,” says Thom. “Start by eating more vegetables each day. You can still have pizza, but throw in a salad with it. Eventually, you’ll start losing your taste for crappy food and adding even more healthy food.”

Balance your diet
“As you work out, your levels of glycogen—stored energy—decrease,” White says. “You need foods that will serve as a constant energy source, particularly for days when you’re doing double training sessions.” He recommends getting 50 to 60 percent of your total daily food intake from carbohydrates, focusing mostly on complex carbs such as quinoa, whole-grain couscous, oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain breads and crackers. “Include these at each meal for long-lasting energy throughout the day,” White says.

Protein is also important for rebuilding muscle after tough workouts and helping you feel satiated. Aim to make it 20 to 30 percent of your daily food intake, ideally from lean sources such as chicken and fish.

Finally, make healthy fats about 20 percent of your daily diet. “Good fat sources are any type of nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, peanut or almond butter; oils such as olive, canola and coconut; avocados; and fatty fish like salmon. These are some of the cleanest fats athletes can take in,” White says.

Refuel after workouts 
The right kind of snack can help speed your recovery and prep your body for the next training session. Within 45 minutes of your run or strength workout, have a small meal that includes both carbs and protein. “Try for a 3-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein, or about 75g to 25g,” White says. To sneak in a serving of greens, try Thom’s favorite post-workout shake: in a blender, toss a couple of handfuls of dark, leafy greens such as kale, collards or spinach, a spoonful or two of protein- and nutrient-rich seeds such as hemp or chia, one banana or other in-season fruit, and a dab of honey.

1 month before the event

Increase your carbs
Your workouts will peak in intensity now, so you’ll need to reassess your ratios. “During this time, I would bump up your carb intake to around 60 percent,” says White. Your percentage of fat intake should stay at around 20 percent and your protein intake should be adjusted to 20 percent to compensate for the extra carbs.

Get your vitamins 
Tough training sessions can do a number on your immune system if you’re not careful. Sleep and hydration are key to avoid feeling worn down, and you should also pay attention to your vitamin intake. Vitamin C, B complexes, and omega-3s are all important for immunity, so make sure you’re hitting your recommended daily amount of each. “If I feel particularly worn down, I might supplement with a multivitamin,” says Thom, “but I’d rather get nutrients from food than a tablet.”

Do a race-day rehearsal 
Now is the time to test out a race-day eating routine and see how your body responds, says White. Choose a weekend workout about three weeks before your event to experiment with the kind of light breakfast you’d have on race day—a protein shake, a banana with oatmeal, or a bowl of cereal with milk are solid choices. If you’re a coffee drinker, pay attention to how your usual amount makes you feel during your toughest workouts—if it drives up your anxiety or sends you running to the restroom, consider cutting back. And while you’re out training, don’t forget to eat and drink at regular intervals with the same snacks you’re planning to carry, whether it’s bananas, energy bars, or gels.

The week before the event

Go for the glycogen  
As your workouts taper off one to two weeks before the event, think about maxing out your carb intake to fuel up for the big day, says White. Again, we’re talking healthy carbs here, not cake and Wonder Bread. He recommends upping your carb intake to about 70 percent to help you feel rested and recovered, while bumping down your protein to 15-20 percent of total intake. (Healthy fat intake can hold steady at 20 percent.)

Water, water, water
Pre-hydrating before the event is equally important. “Drink a lot of water during the week before the race, at least 64-96 oz a day,” White suggests. Also lay off dehydrating drinks such as excess caffeine and alcohol—there’ll be plenty of time for celebratory beers after the event.

Be smart about indulging  
Carb-loading the night before an event is a time-honored tradition for many, but breaking from your eating plan to pig out could do a number on your stomach the next day. “A lot of people just gorge themselves before an event, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” says White. “You could indulge a little during the week to get in sodium and extra carbs, but the day before, you’ll want no surprises.”

The day of the event

Stick with your plan
Your nerves might be working overtime the morning of your event, but eating the way you’ve rehearsed can help settle your stomach and calm the butterflies. And if you’ve practiced beforehand, you’ll have a good idea of what your body needs. “It’s all about personal responses,” says White. “Some people can’t eat for an hour and a half before the event. Others can drink a cup of coffee and go for 10 miles.” The important thing, he says, is not to throw in any last-minute changes that can mess with your performance.

Have breakfast
Think light with a good dose of carbs and sugars: a whole grain bagel with almond butter, a banana, and honey; whole grain cereal with a piece of fruit; oatmeal with almond milk, blueberries, and crushed walnuts; or an energy bar. Bananas are a popular race day fuel, and for good reason—not only are they portable, but the potassium can also help stave off cramps. “Two bananas, maybe three, and a jug of water,” says Thom. “When I started doing that, I had no more cramping issues on race day.”

Refuel and rehydrate 
You’ll be hyper-focused on the course, but forgetting to fuel up at regular intervals can put your race—not to mention your health—in jeopardy. “After about 45 minutes, have a sports gel or Gatorade,” White says. Study the course map ahead of time to find out where the water or snack stations will be, and pack your own extras accordingly.

Be sure to drink and eat before your body sends out distress signals—that woozy feeling is known as “bonking,” and it means you’re fading fast. “If you start feeling thirsty during a run then it’s already too late,” says Thom. “You’re already dehydrated.”

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