Among the many questions I get are what to eat for a self-sufficient multi-stage race such as the Marathon des Sables and how to plan your food. The reality I that there is not one single answer to these questions but I wanted to provide some thoughts on the topic.
Disclaimer: I have done many multi-stage races, take great interest in nutrition, and feel I get my race nutrition right most of the time. However, I am not a qualified dietician. This article is aimed at helping you understand how you can structure your food, give you ideas for what to take and what factors to consider. For more personalised suggestions I offer 1-1 consultations. If you have specific dietary requirements, I recommend that you obtain the advice of a qualified dietician with experience from ultra-running in extreme environments.
There are two categories of self-sufficient multi-stage races when it comes to nutrition: the completely self-sufficient race where you carry all your food and the semi self-sufficient race where you bring your own food but the organisers transport it for you. In the first scenario weight is a very important factor. In the second scenario you may still have a weight or volume restriction on your gear which could impact your food choices but you have some more flexibility. I will focus on the completely self-sufficient race type in this article and specifically the Marathon des Sables. The considerations presented are however applicable to most multi-stage races.
- How to structure your food
- What food should you take?
- How much food should you take?
- How should you package your food?
- Stoves and Cooking
- How to avoid common pitfalls
How to structure your food
What kind of racer are you?
This is important to understand not only for food planning purposes but actually for planning most things around you race gear. What I mean by this is primarily how fast you intend to complete the race. I often use this illustration when I talk about the Marathon des Sables.
As you can see, the time you spend on the course vs in camp will dictate how you should plan your food. Of course things can change during the course of the race. You might get ill or injured and have to change your race plan but figure out where you think you might fit or what your goal is as a starting point.
You are running fast and will finish each stage by lunch time or early afternoon. Due to the higher intensity it is likely that you will rely more on carbohydrates than a slower competitor. I recommend you consider how digestible your racing fuel is. It is unlikely that you will have time to chew on bars, and nuts will not give you enough carbohydrates (as an example). On the other hand, gels, if they are something you normally take on, will be heavy to carry sue to the water content so you are best keeping them to a minimum. I suggest you structure your food for a typical race day as follows:
- Race Fuel for the stage
- Recovery Snack (shake for example)
- 2nd Recovery Snack
This category encompasses a large range of competitors so if you feel you are more towards the front or the back, look at those respective categories too. You will mix running and walking throughout the race, but you are working a reasonably high intensity due to the extreme conditions of the environment you are in. The walking breaks will allow you to take on more solid fuel during the stage so you might mix sources such as powder, gels, bars, nuts, sweets and other snacks. You will finish in the afternoon and have some time available before dinner.
I suggest you structure your food for a typical race day as follows:
- Race Fuel for the stage
- Recovery Snack (shake for example)
Walker / at the back
You take your time to complete each stage, walking most or all of it. You are finishing within the cut-offs but perhaps not with much margin so you have little time in camp before it’s bed time. You are working at a lower intensity and can rely more on fat and less on carbohydrates for fuel. You can also take on solid food sources such as bars, nuts, pepperami etc. during the stage as you are not running fast.
I suggest you structure your food for a typical race day as follows:
- Race fuel for the stage
Once you have figured out what type of competitor you are likely to be, also consider the structure of the race. The long stage and the rest day will require a different food plan to the other days.
The long stage & the rest day
For the walker, the long stage is typically completed over two days with a break at a mid-point check point between. A normal cut-off time would be around 35 hours. From that perspective the food plan for the long stage may be fairly similar to two normal days combined and can just be treated as such, perhaps with a few more walking snacks.
For the racer at the front the long stage may take anything between 8-12 hours in a race like the MDS. Therefore, the structure for this day would involve something like breakfast, roughly double the amount of race fuel compared to a more standard day and then dinner. The recovery shake and the recovery snack can be replaced with additional race fuel. Consider that for the rest day that follows you probably want lunch rather than running snacks!
The mid-packer may decide to push on through the long stage in one go or to take a break of a few hours to get some sleep or cook up a meal. Plan your food accordingly. My one recommendation is that no matter what time you finish this stage, even if it is 4am, that you eat something before you go to sleep to benefit your recovery. Don’t forget that if you push on in one go you’ll have a rest day the next day so you probably want a lunch and no running snacks for that day.
The last day
The final day in MDS is a non-competitive but compulsory charity stage. As the race is effectively over your performance doesn’t matter on this day. As you still nee to carry 2000 kcal for this day I suggest you minimise the weight by opting for high calorie foods but still something that you are happy eating.
What food should you take?
This is of course a very personal choice based on any specific dietary needs or requirements you may have due to general beliefs, religion, cultural factors, intolerances and so on. Hopefully with the structure outlined you should be able to select foods that you believe will work for you. Test them carefully in training to avoid surprises during the race itself. I give some examples of options below that are low in weight for the energy they provide to help you pick things you may want to try or to spark ideas. There is no right or wrong as we are all individuals.
Bear in mind that taste & appetite can change in an extreme environment so variety is good. I normally find that over the course of the long stage my appetite changes and in the second half I require more savoury and more solid fuel. Therefore, I normally make up a pack for the first half and one for the second which are slightly different with the second containing more fat, protein and savoury foods and the first more carbohydrate. This works well for me, but that said it may not work for you. The best thing is to learn how your body reacts in a long race or training run.
B = Breakfast, D = Dinner, L= Lunch, R = Race Fuel, RE = Recovery, C = Complement to dinner or breakfast or a general snack
How much food should you take?
The minimum requirement is normally 2000 kcal per day (14000 kcal in total), but what is right for you? Take a 50kg female and 90kg male. They will have very different requirements for energy intake and also different ability to carry the same weight in their backpack. No matter how much food you take you will likely be in energy deficit. It is simply not realistic to carry all the calories you will expend during the race so you will probably lose some weight.
Calculating energy requirements using BMR and energy cost for running
One way of getting some estimation of your energy expenditure can be to take your basal metabolic rate (BMR) plus the energy you are likely to expend during a stage in MDS. There are a number of calculators for BMR available online and I used this one.
Let’s use an example of a 40 year-old male, who is 175 cm tall and weighs 70kg. His BMR is 1634 kcal, so he will expend this much energy if doing nothing for the entire day. If he engaged in very light activity the energy expenditure would be 1961 kcal. I will assume this to be a reasonable energy expenditure for completing basic activities in race camp (personal admin, small amount of walking).
Energy expenditure for running has been estimated to be in the region of 1kcal/kg bodyweight / km in several studies (Ref 1). This applies for flat running without wind resistance. A typical stage of the MDS is 40km and so for the sample male runner as above, the very minimum energy expenditure required to complete such a stage would be 2800 kcal (speed is not relevant). Other factors such as carrying a backpack, wind resistance, variations in incline and heat would then also add to this energy requirement but I have not taken this into account for simplicity. For walkers, the energy expenditure is lower and it is more economical to walk as long as speed is kept at below 8km/hour. For a walker who does 4km/hour (the most economical walking speed) the corresponding energy expenditure is about half that of running (Ref 2).
From this follows that the very minimum energy expenditure for our 70kg 40 year-old male runner is 4761 kcal (1961 + 2800) per day for a typical stage.
Calculating energy requirements using sports nutrition guidelines
Recommendations are to take in 8-12g carbohydrate for strenuous exercise for 4-5 hours / day (Ref 3,4). One gram of carbohydrate yields 3.87 kcal so 12 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight for our sample man would correspond to 3250 kcal. (Higher value selected due to most people likely to be out for longer than 4-5 hours / day).
Protein is vital for repair and recovery of muscles. Requirements for athletes is 0.25g / kg per kg bodyweight 3-6 times per day (Ref 3). If we therefore assumed 1.5g of protein per kg bodyweight in total due to the extreme nature of the event, and 1g of protein yields 4 kcal this provides 420 kcal.
Recommendations for fat intake vary and high fat diets are subject to plenty of interest at the moment. However, at this point I am trying to illustrate energy requirements as a whole and not where that energy comes from so if as an example I take Renee McGregor’s general recommendation of 1 g of fat per kg bodyweight, probably on the low side given the extreme nature of the event (Ref 3), this would (with 1g fat corresponding to 9kcal) result in 630 kcal from fat.
Adding all of this up we get to 4300 kcal total for a 70kg, 175cm, 40 year-old man.
These two attempts at roughly estimating energy requirements for a typical MDS stage illustrates the point that the minimum calorie requirement of 2000 per day will result in a significant energy deficit for our sample person, but for this person to carry the total amount of energy required would result in a far too heavy backpack. Therefore, finding some middle ground seems reasonable and relying on your body’s fat reserves to cover the rest. My own guess is that the majority of people probably opt for something between 2200 and 3500 kcal per day as a very rough guide. This is completely based on my experience chatting to a lot of runners.
I would personally suggest that you try to consider what a reasonably energy expenditure might be for you. Take in the region of 1-1.5 gram protein per kg bodyweight and then distribute the remaining calories between fat and carbohydrates based on your own needs and requirements. For example, if you are well fat adapted or intend to complete the race at lower intensity as a walker you may want a higher percentage of calories from fat. If you are racing faster you probably need more carbohydrates to sustain your pace.
One portion of your protein should be as part of your recovery when you finish the stage. Recovery recommendations is to digest a mix of fast release carbohydrates (1-1.2g per kg bodyweight) and easily digestible protein (0.25g per kg bodyweight) within 15-20 minutes of finishing the activity (Ref 3).
Keeping it simple
If you found all of this incredibly complicated and you are not the type interested in building spreadsheets and making calculations, there is a simpler approach to building your race menu. Lay out the food you are thinking about taking, organising it into the different “meals”. Look at it to see if it seems reasonable based on what you normally eat. Test a day’s menu in training when you are doing long run or hike, or maybe over two days back-to-back. Then make adjustments. Pick foods that you know work for you. You will still need to know how many calories you are taking as you need to be able to prove that you have the minimum amount specified, so summarise the values on the labels and make a note of what you have per day.
If you want to know with more certainty how many calories you eat on days of endurance training you can keep food diary for a few days. There are several free resources available online or you can opt for a free trial with a paid service.
Sample Day Menu
Below is an example of what a menu for a day might look like.
How should you package your food?
Packaging can weigh a lot and you want to minimise it whilst ensuring the food is preserved. Freeze dried meals are packed protectively but some brands have quite heavy pouches. In a race like MDS it can be worth repackaging your food using a vacuum packer. This reduces weight of packaging and volume of the food so you have a better chance of fitting it into your pack. The consideration then is how you actually eat it. In MDS you are provided with 1.5l bottles for your water and they make excellent pots, just cut the top off. I don’t recommend using a cooking pot for eating for hygiene reasons (water for washing-up comes out of your allowance), only use a pot for heating water.
Whether you repackage your food or not it’s a good idea to organise it into zip-lock bags for each day. This is good admin. It makes sure you know exactly where your food is every day and what you have available to eat. In the event of kit checks it is also easier to show you have enough calories.
Stoves & Cooking
It is not compulsory to take a stove in MDS and some people opt to eat their food cold. If you are fast enough you can use the afternoon sun to warm your water and/or your food. A hot meal or cup of hot tea of coffee can be a great morale booster so don’t under estimate this. You can get a very light weight cooking solution. MDS issue hexamine blocks for purchase prior to the race and collection in camp before the race. These are Esbit 20 x 4g packs. Normally around 2 blocks will heat a cup or kettle of water. You can buy the blocks and test at home to see what you think you need. Bear in mind that it is normally more fuel efficient to boil a larger pot once than a smaller pot twice so if you think you will want a large hot meal and a cup of tea, then select the size of your pot accordingly.
Some popular cooking solutions:
Lifeventure Titanium Pot 450ml (add some foil for lid)
Esbit Cookset 585ml (good value at slightly heavier weight)
Esbit Titanium Pot with lid (750ml)
MSR Kettle 850ml
Lifeventure Titanium Spoon (very hygienic due to the long handle)
How to avoid common pitfalls
No variety of foods
As I already mentioned it would not be uncommon for your taste to change in the desert. Many people find they want spicier food and that they crave different things. Varity of foods can help keep it interesting and ensure you eat sufficiently.
Sole focus on kcal per 100g
The maximum amount of kcal per 100g you can get is 900 for pure fat. Therefore, foods that are very high in fat content give you more energy for the weight. However, you need to consider that you should be able to perform on the food you take. Don’t stare yourself blind on how many kcal you can squeeze out of 100g, but ensure that the food will be something you know you can digest during exercise in extreme heat.
Not testing food in training
Are you a last minute preparer? Try to plan your food in advance and test it during a training race or in training runs. How well do you run on intended breakfast? Will your total intended kcal per day be the right amount? Can you stomach luke warm gels? How dry might an energy bar taste in the desert? Will you be able to rehydrate noodles in cold water? Try before you go to the race.
- Figure out what type of racer you are and structure your accordingly for an individual day.
- Understand potential exceptions to the standard race pattern, e.g. long stage, rest day and the last day which in MDS in non-competitive but still has a compulsory calorie requirement.
- Understand your total energy requirement either by making calculations or by composing a realistic selection of food for one day that looks right.
- Select the food that you feel will work for you
- Consider whether it will suit you to repackage any food in order to save weight or volume
- Package your food in individual day bags to facilitate admin
- Label all your food with the calories if not labelled already
- Decide on your cooking solution
- Test your food in training
(1) Running Speed and the Energy Costs of Running, C. Harris et. al., Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, Volume 6 Number 3 August 2003
(2) Energy Cost of Running, R. Margaria et. al., Journal of Applied Physiology,
(3) Training Food: Get the Fuel You Need to Achieve Your Goals Before During And After Exercise, R. McGregor, Nourish, April 2015