It's 2 a.m. You jolt awake. The heavy smell of a greasy, spicy beef jerky stick assaults your nose, like fainting salts with nano power.
"Time to ride," a voice says, cutting through the brain fog. "Again."
If 12 hours of riding or running sounds fun, why not 24? Somehow that twisted logic works for a lot of us who find ourselves on a team for a 24-hour event. Peer pressure is an amazing thing. More than once, I have found myself wondering how I ever got talked into doing such an event.
The easiest part of a 24-hour race is signing the waiver. When training starts, reality sets in. It should be obvious that your nutrition plan will need to be tuned up for one intense party.
The day before a 24-hour event is typically when you get together with your adrenaline pumped buddies and do some last minute planning and eating. While the excitement level might be high, this is not the time to party with a few beers. Maybe one. But the focus before this grueling event must be on consuming carbohydrates.
The goal for the 12 hours pre-race menu is to get glycogen stores topped off. Aim for a diet of 15 to 20 percent protein, 60 to 65 percent carbohydrate and 15 to 20 percent fat.
Eat extra servings of high glycemic index carbohydrates throughout the day, such as a cranberry juice cocktail, regular soda, jelly beans or raisins. At meals an extra servings of mashed potatoes or rice are O.K., but go light on the gravy and take the skin off the chicken. Skip the fried foods and high fiber Mexican bean dish. Your racing buddies will especially appreciate that.
Four hours before the race starts is your final window for a "regular" breakfast. Best to eat your usual training fare, aiming for 1-4 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. For many athletes, the addition of a small amount of protein helps to maintain blood sugar. Easy add-ons are a couple tablespoons of peanut butter, a hard boiled egg or slice of cheese.
It's very important to start hydrating now. In fact, if you can eat no solid food while racing, vow to drink religiously. You may have fat reserves to draw from, but you will easily run out of fluid reserves in 24 hours.
An hour before the gun goes off, drink. Drink about 16 ounces of fluid now. One hour allows time for a last second pee break and still get you to the start in a hydrated state. If you haven't eaten since breakfast, then add a small snack of a sports bar or a couple of gels.
Between your turns
For a race format of 30 minutes to an hour of high intensity riding or running followed by a rest period of an hour, you can keep fueling to a minimum during the time you spend exercising. If riding for more than 90 minutes, take 30 to 60 grams of a gel and sip on a sports drink or water every 15 to 20 minutes. Feeds of over 80 grams do not improve performance, and usually cause GI problems.
Recovery nutrition is the key to surviving a 24-hour race. Absolutely essential is hitting the "metabolic window" to stop the damaging effects of cortisol on your muscles and immune system. Without a high glycemic index carbohydrate drink 15 minutes after exercise, devastation continues from stress hormones that rise during intense exercise.
Use a 4:1 ratio of grams of carbohydrate to grams of protein for optimal recovery. Twelve ounces of a recovery sports drink or chocolate milk are ideal choices. If tolerated, follow with solid food that contains sodium, such as Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, a peanut butter sandwich or peanut butter on a toasted English muffin. Then drink more water. Repeat between laps.
For more detailed information about avoiding digestive problems, improving food tolerance and maintaining hydration, see my "Beyond marathons" column in the June issue. Much of the advice I gave to budding ultrarunners would apply to 24-hour relay runners and cyclists.
Remember, in order to cross the finish line of a 24-hour race, you must do two things: stay hydrated and provide an energy source to power muscles and the brain. Research studies show that successful finishers typically consume more calories per hour than nonfinishers, averaging 45 to 55 grams of carbohydrate per hour. They also take in approximately 600 mg sodium an hour.
Keep in mind that heat acclimation, ambient temperature conditions and level of training all affect nutrient requirements. Just like your equipment, your nutrition plan needs to suit you.
Donna Marlor MA, RD, CSSD, is a registered dietician specializing in nutrition for endurance exercise and weight management. She offers motivational coaching and behavioral skills training to change eating patterns. Marlor is a consultant to the Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan, and works with many individual athletes from novice to elite. A former collegiate alpine and Nordic skier, Marlor still enjoys master's level competition as a skier and runner as well as spending time with her family and chocolate Lab in the Upper Peninsula. She can be reached via www.DonnaMarlor.com.
Favorite foods of ultra distance racers
Mini pretzels or sport bars with pretzels
Dill pickle chips
Low fat cheese
V-8 or tomato juice, 2 to 3 oz at a time
Small canned, boiled potatoes
Low fat cereal bar or sports bar, eaten 1/2 at a time
Gels or chews of carbohydrate blends