A couple of years ago I wrote a guide about how to plan and compose your food for a multi-stage race. With veganism and plant focused ways of eating increasing in popularity I have recently had many people asking me how you can compose a plant based food plan for a multi-stage race. I have now been predominantly plant based for a couple of years and this article aims to provide some ideas on the topic.
Disclaimer and disclosures
This article is based on my own experience from many years of running and coaching, and from a great interest in nutrition. I am not a qualified dietician or nutrition professional but I aim to not write anything that is not evidence based. This article does not take into account any individual circumstances such as intolerances, allergies, or medical conditions requiring special dietary considerations. It should not replace professional nutritional or medical advice.
Who might find this article useful?
Anyone who is embarking on a multi-stage race (2-7+ days of ultra endurance racing where you are self-sufficient with all your food, such as Marathon des Sables, Ultra-X etc). This article assumes that there is a weight and/or volume restriction on what you can take with you, either because you carry it all yourself, or because you have a weight limit on a “drop bag”. Therefore the food I suggest is suitable for this, eg it is compact, “dry” and have relatively high kcal per 100 gram.
How to use this article?
Read this in conjunction with my previous article which takes a science based approach to how much food you might need, how to distribute your macronutrients, and which also discusses how you might want to distribute your food over the day.
General considerations for your race fuelling strategy
There are many factors that may influence how you can optimise your food for your chosen race and individual circumstances. I cannot possibly cover all of them here but here are some general aspects to think about, plant-based or not:
- If you have to carry your food yourself, such as in Marathon des Sables, you will inevitably be in a calorie deficit because you cannot realistically carry all the food you would need to cover your energy expenditure. Accept this and optimise the food you can take.
- If you run a race like those by Ultra-X, you have a bag transported with your food. You’ll have a weight restriction but it might allow you to be just slightly more generous.
- Are you going to altitude? Your overall energy expenditure increases. Men use more carbohydrates at altitude than at sea level for exercise, whereas women burn even more fat at higher elevations*.
- Women who have their period have hormone fluctuations throughout the cycle. In the high-hormone phase after ovulation and before your period, levels of estrogen and progesterone rise. Things to be aware of here related to nutrition and hydration are: increased breakdown of muscle tissue, increased sodium loss, lower blood volume, reduced carb-burning ability.† You should consider upping intake of carbohydrates, high-quality protein and sodium.
- Post-menopausal women have a greater sensitivity to carbohydrates and use protein less effectively. The amount and type of carbohydrates you take, and the quality of protein becomes important. You also need to pay even more attention to hydration.‡
- It can be tempting to look solely at kcal per gram and get fat-obsessed when you plan your race food in order to minimise the weight of it. Avoid this trap and make sure you get carbohydrates and protein in from good quality sources.
- Are you a runner or walker? How fast you go can matters. Maybe it alters the macronutrient profile of your food for performance reasons, it also influences what is practical. E.g. a walker can chew on bars, a fast runner might be better off with a carbohydrate drink from powder.
Structure your food
In brief I suggest that your food should be structured as follows for a multi-stage race:
- Breakfast (balanced nutrients providing you a good dose of slow-release carbohydrates, quality protein, and some fat)
- Running snacks for the stage
- Focus is on easily absorbed carbohydrates for a shorter stage (3-6 hours approx)
- For a longer stage of 7 to even 30+ hours you need to consider getting protein in too and you may crave real food, more savoury snacks, or need a meal replacement shake.
- Post-stage recovery: a shake is convenient with carbohydrates and protein in for example a 3:1 ratio.
- Afternoon snack or lunch: for faster runners they might need this if the wait in camp is long before dinner. Slower runners or walkers just increase their stage running snacks instead and walkers may choose to forego the recovery shake.
- Dinner: a meal of balanced nutrients to prepare you for the next day.
Look at the race schedule in advance, the length and course profile of the individual stages, try to estimate how long each stage might take you (often previous results are available), and plan accordingly.
Consider preparing a spreadsheet where you list you choices and their respective content of kcal, protein, carbohydrates, fat and perhaps also sodium.
Plant based options
With that all said, let’s get to the actual topic of the article: how to compose a plant based menu for a multi-stage race? I will cover this meal by meal.
Breakfast should ideally be as similar to your normal breakfast when training as possible. In general it’s never a good idea to go to a race and try something radically different than what you are used to so it goes for all meals.
Here are some ideas and you can of course mix and match to suit your preferences and requirements. Make sure that you don’t get any GI issues from your intended breakfast by testing it at home on training days.
- Freeze dried breakfast like porridge or granola. Freeze drying is an excellent method for preserving food, and some brands, like LYOFOOD, have high quality well cooked meals with good ingredients, and which taste excellent. At the time of writing LYOFOOD offers no less than five different vegan breakfasts.
- Oat cakes with nut butter, complement with freeze dried smoothie. For example there are great organic rye oatcakes on the market and nut butter such as peanut or almond can be bought in portion size sachets of approximately 30 grams. I think this is yummy with a coffee and if you like having juice or smoothie with your breakfast there are convenient freeze dried options from LYOFOOD which taste great. You can also mix your own drink from a wide variety of powders, for example beetroot juice has been shown to have performance boosting properties.§
- Overnight oats. Rehydrate overnight (make sure it cannot spill out!!) and you can just wake up and eat without any additional faff. You could add cinnamon, coconut milk powder, vegan protein powder, salt, freeze dried berries, seeds, etc. Only your imagination sets the limit.
- Muesli or granola with coconut milk powder, possibly with addition of some vegan protein powder and as above you could add cinnamon, dried or freeze dried fruit or berries, etc.
- Tea or coffee according to preference
Running snacks for the stage
Here I list a variety of options for you to consider. They may all no suit your individual taste, preferences, race ambitions etc, so take it as inspiration. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some ideas. As with breakfast, make sure you have tested them and that they suit you. Have your own favourites not listed? Comment and let me know, I love new ideas!
- Carbohydrate sports drink (many options on the market)
- Freeze dried coconut water from LYOFOOD (this is truly amazing for those wanting something natural and who may like coconut water anyway). Coconut water is naturally high in potassium which is an electrolyte. I used it for racing in Morocco with great results.
- Vegan jelly sweets, available in well stocked supermarkets, WHOLEFOODS, health food stores etc.
- Various vegan sports nutrition products such as Clif Shot bloks or similar.
- Freeze dried fruit snacks, for example banana from LYOFOOD. Freeze dried food does not need rehydrating, you just eat it as a crunchy snack, it melts in your mouth and is delicious!
- Buderim ginger, one of my favourites. An uncrystallised ginger snack made from ginger and cane sugar. By all means there are many varieties on the market and you may prefer your ginger crystallised with sugar on.
- Kendal mint cake. If you like mint this may be for you.
- Dried fruit. Endless varieties. Just try what you like. The content of different sugars may vary in different fruits and some people might be sensitive to too much fructose so it is important to test.
- Vegan marzipan
- Coconut bars (typically made from desiccated coconut and glucose)
Savoury, varying macronutrient profile
- Crisps, fried or baked. These can be crushed and repackaged to save volume
- Roasted, salted giant corn, peas or fava beans
- Salted nuts
- Salted peanuts (technically not a nut)
- Thai chilli rice crackers
- Seaweed snacks
- Tortilla chips
- Rice cakes are ok but take up a lot of volume so therefore impractical to carry
- Date based bars
- Oat based bars and vegan flapjacks
- Vegan protein bars
- Vegan cookies
- Dark chocolate / vegan chocolate
- Vegan meal replacement shake
- Electrolyte supplement
- BCAA supplement
Here is a video where I talk about food I took for the Transatlas Marathon in Morocco (~230km stage race in Morocco). This was not a completely self-sufficient race but I supplied my own race snacks and recovery and some meals.
The importance of recovery cannot be underestimated. I recommend you have a shake as soon as you finish a stage and before you start with any admin such as looking after your feet, having a rest, chatting to people, sending e-mails or whatever it might be. Find a ready made vegan recovery shake or make your own from a carbohydrate powder and a vegan protein powder. You don’t have to buy it portion packed, you can repackage in zip lock bags or vacuum pack so a tub will do and it comes out cheaper anyway.
Vegan protein powders have different amino acid profiles and have slightly less Leucine (the muscle-building amino acid) than whey protein. You may want to consider supplementing with some BCAAs (branched chain amino acids).
Snacks in camp
Refer to the race snacks suggestions as many overlap and are great for snacks in camp, particularly bars, nuts, crisps, dried fruit etc. A vegan protein bar (one that is also high in carbohydrates) may be particularly useful.
Dinner (and lunch for the speedier folks)
For dinner a convenient option is to pick a freeze dried meal. For example, at the time of writing, LYOFOOD offers six different vegan main meals.
it is not necessary to restrict yourself to the kcal content of one portion. You can easily repackage the food and take exactly the amount you want to have. Read more on this here.
Depending on the nutrient profile of your meal and what you want to achieve, you could alter it in a number of ways by adding a flavourless protein powder, seeds or nuts, or a carbohydrate rich snack from the list above.
Other meal options include:
- Instant couscous (flavour with salt, spices and dried fruit and add some peanuts for protein and fat)
- Instant noodles, there are various options available in most supermarkets. Complement as required with snacks or additions.
- A side dish such as miso soup from powder, soup, or vegan stock can provide much needed sodium if you are racing in the heat.
- Combine with any snacks you like or maybe a dessert?
- Think about your hydration strategy and whether you need an electrolyte supplement or whether the race provides this.
- Bring some salt and extra spices, like a mini bottle of tabasco, some pepper or spice mix. Why? In extreme conditions your food can taste bland and in the heat you are likely to need extra salt.
- BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids), particularly leucine, help rebuild your muscles and may also decrease muscle breakdown during exercise.¶ Whilst you get your BCAAs from a plant based diet it is easier to get BCAAs if you eat animal produce and furthermore, in relation to athletes, some research indicate that “ingesting plant-based protein powders results in a lower muscle protein synthetic response when compared with several animal-based proteins” #. BCAAs also cross the blood-brain barrier and may decrease central nervous system fatigue.** This could help you go for longer and could also help women combat PMS symptoms plus offset the catabolic effects of progesterone during the high hormone phase of the monthly cycle. For these reasons, and since a diet during a multi-stage race is inevitably lower in energy than you expend, and likely not as varied in terms of the different plant sources you may be able to consume when at home, it could perhaps be an idea to supplement your race food with BCAAs.
- Vegan BCAAs are available as a supplement that could be mixed into your protein powder and/or sports drink. Furthermore, NUTRITape offer a supplement patch with BCAAs delivered through the skin, see more here.
- Package your food to minimise weight and volume, especially if you need to carry it during the race. Read more here.
- Test your food before race week.
- I suggested 100% plant based options in this blog but many people are on a spectrum between eating 100% plants, to being vegetarian, or eating eggs or fish but not dairy etc. Of course you adjust as you see fit and add whichever other foods you might eat.
If you are interested in a personalised food plan for your race, or a review of your intended race food, I offer consultations. I also offer online coaching for multi-stage races and I coach at training camps in Gran Canaria and Lanzarote.
- *SIMS, Stacy T., Roar, Rodale, 2016
- †SIMS, Stacy T., Roar, Rodale, 2016
- ‡SIMS, Stacy T., Roar, Rodale, 2016
- **SIMS, Stacy T., Roar, Rodale, 2016