Hungry yet? To quote the Jedi Master Yoda “You will be. You..will..be.”
Since you will be participating in an event that lasts as long as a week proper food/nutrition is important. You will be expending more calories than you can/want to carry and thus one needs to minimize the loss. Weight is important but this should be balanced against your fuel and nutritional needs.
1. Calorie count: Many races require a minimum calorie count of 2,000 kcals per day and for most people this is an absolute minimum. A 2,000 calorie per day diet is just that, a diet. Since it is almost impossible to race on that small amount of food over a week most individuals bring about 2,500-3,500 calories per day. This is especially true in colder climates or for larger individuals. Males typically require more calories than females. The amount you bring should be based on your needs and expectations. Most everyone is hungry during these races! However if you bring too much you are just carrying extra weight. A good rule of thumb is that non-dehydrated food contains approximately 100 kcals/oz (3.5 kcals/gm).
If you are not going to carry all the calories necessary than the only place to draw upon for the deficiency is body stores. This will come from fat and muscle with fat having the highest caloric density of around 3,500 kcal/lb (7,700 kcal/kg). Many will lose weight during these events and it is not uncommon to see a total loss of 6.5 lb (3 kg) and higher or about a pound (0.45 kg) a day! With that in mind you should also be aware that your metabolism will be out of whack for some time after the event. Be prepared to want to eat everything in sight!
2. Dehydrated Foods: Most racers use dehydrated meals for a majority of their calories. Typically breakfasts and dinner are dehydrated. You should try your selections prior to racing to see if you find them acceptable. Typically dehydrated foods make up about 1,600 or more kcals per day of your caloric intake. Until just recently there were only a couple of providers of high calorie (800-1,000 kcal/packet) meals. Now there are many options available from several manufactures.
3. On the move food: With no food at check points you need to assure you have sufficient food to consume while you are running. Most stages last over four hours and thus you must have something to keep you going during the day. This is especially true later in the event when you have suffered from a caloric intake deficiency for several days. Easy of ingestion is important since if it is too dry or unpalatable you will be struggling to choke it down. Some good items include a limited number of gels (1 per day), bars, jerky or other meat products, nuts, powdered drink mixes, etc.
4. Recovery: At the end of the day’s stage you may want to have a dose of your favorite recovery drink (in a powdered form of course) to aid in your revitalization and to hold you over until time to eat your evening meal. This is also a good time to consume any other food you did not eat during the day’s stage.
5. Variety: Do not even consider bring lots of the same thing. You will become sick of it after the third day and will be forcing yourself to eat the rest of the time in order to maintain your nutritional levels. You will also look on with envy as your fellow competitors feast upon their delicious selections making your plight all that much worse.
6. Have one or two emergency gels or other quick energy items (chews, recovery drink, etc.) for use when you are really, really down. The 100 or so calories can be enough to get you to the finish line. It can be like a can of spinach for Popeye!
7. Comfort Food: Bring along a couple of “comfort food” items you can look forward to during the race such as after a long stage or on the last day. This is a great morale booster!
8. Spices: A small amount of your favorite spices go a long way to dressing up bland food. You will also become a hero for sharing.
9. Be sure you can stomach your food selection for the entire duration of the race. Variety is important. Your tastes may change during the event.
10. Protein/Carbohydrate balance: While carbohydrates provide you with the basic fuel to perform you will find that more protein is better to get you through the race. Protein (and fats) have a higher caloric density than carbohydrates as well. Work this out while you are developing your race menus. Small amounts of oils (vegetable, coconut, etc.) can be added to meals to increase calories and fats.
11. Repackaging of food: Some competitors repackage food items into lighter weight plastic bags or even into plastic wrap. This can save a significant number of ounces. Be sure to re-label the packaged with contents and calories since they may be inspected during check in. If you do not decide to repackage at a minimum remove all oxygen absorbing sachets from your freeze dried meals. To minimize bulk remove any excess air from packaging. It may be a good idea to do your repackaging after you have arrived and just prior to the race due to airline hassles.
12. Electrolyte tablets: While you most likely will be getting your electrolytes from various pills or capsules the use of flavored electrolyte tablets may be of benefit also. Not only do they help with maintaining critical sodium and potassium levels they help by flavoring your water. One or two a day is usually sufficient to give you a break from plain water.
13. Coffee/tea: Consider bringing along some instant coffee and/or a couple of tea bags to enjoy during the cool morning or before bed. A very simple pleasure that weighs next to nothing. Some cannot function if not properly caffeinated in the AM – you know who you are!
14. Food Markings: Some races will require you to mark at least your food packaging with name and/or race number to discourage littering. It is wise to do this in advance just in case or be sure to bring an appropriate marking pen to do it on the spot.
15. Nuts: Most ultra and stage racers know the benefits of nuts in their race diet. High in calories, protein and fat these little wonders bring nutritional support in a small package. Salted they also help satisfy the need for electrolytes. High on the calorie per gram list are Macadamia nuts, Almonds and Pine nuts (Pignolias to some). With respect to the almonds, Marcona almonds are less dry and have a mild flavor making them more like peanuts. You can also spice up any nuts with sea salt or other spices. Many varieties of almonds already come per-flavored. A ounce and a half a day will bring you over 350 calories and some snacking enjoyment!
16. “Normal” Foods: While weight is important there may be times that you wish to have a little bit of “normal” food. Having something other than freeze dried meals or race gels can be a positive thing. Unfortunately it may be hard to carry through the whole race and should be consumed within the first couple of days. The first breakfast of your self-sufficiency is a good place for “normal” foods.
17. “Cooking”: Re-hydration of your your rations can be accomplished various ways. As mentioned elsewhere some racers just eat them cold. Using cold water increases the re-hydration time significantly. One can also place the package out in the sun on a hot rock if available. This usually makes your meal more palatable. Hot water is the best for re-hydration however you need to be sure that the container you are using can stand the heat. The original packaging is designed for this and is the best. Some plastic bags my not work well and there is heat loss. One can re-use one or two of the original packets over the course of the race so long as you wash them out well. Some times disposable water bottles are available for use as a makeshift bowl. This works OK but there are issues with mixing and ensuring all the contents are re-hydrated well.
Dehydrated meal preparation can be easy by some simple steps. 1) Open the bag up all the way 2) Close the bag zip lock seal trapping in air 3) Shake meal well to loosen it up 4) Open up the bag and add water 5) Close the bag and then shake again. These steps will result in a consistently hydrated meal that is ready quickly and with no stirring required.
18. Sharing: The goal of these events is typically self-sufficiency. With that in mind you should not depend on others to provide additional subsistence or scavenge leftovers from those who have dropped out. A like-for-like taste test exchange is one thing but hundreds of calories is another.