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If you’ve ever wondered why 43-year-old endurance star Rebecca Rusch is often called the “queen of pain,” just look at her record: Three-time winner and current record-holder of the Leadville 100, 2011 singlespeed national champion, three-time 24 Hour Solo world champion and competitor in legendary endurance events like the Eco Challenge and Primal Quest.
But as Rusch explains it, success in grueling events involves more than enduring pain and training hard—a lot depends on learning how to fuel your body like the performance machine that it is. “You don't have to be obsessive about it or have a Ph.D.,” she says, “but you do need to approach your fueling with intention.” Whether you’re racing Leadville, or heading out on an all-day ride, here’s her advice on how to eat and drink right.
Know the Basics. Rusch’s numbers are easy to remember: 20 to 24 ounces of fluid per hour, and approximately 200 calories per hour. These are estimates that will vary depending on how hot it is (read: how much you sweat) and how much you weight, but if you consume much more than that, you’re going to overload your system. Beyond that? “Race fueling starts 10 minutes before the gun goes off and continues at very regular intervals for the duration,” Rusch says. If you’re an hour in before you eat or drink, you’re going to be playing catch-up the entire event.
Adjust as Necessary. “It’s not just about straight calories and hydration,” Rusch says. “During training, you should start with the calories you’ll need, then read labels and try different things to find what works. By the time race day rolls around, you should have a system dialed.”
Don’t Forget Electrolytes. Sodium, potassium, calcium and other electrolytes help the body absorb fluids and assist with a number of other important functions, like muscle function. Include a source of electrolytes, either from a sports drink or supplement, in your race nutrition plan. “Someone once explained it to me like this,” Rusch says. “Your calories are like the gas in the car. The electrolytes are like the oil. You need both for the car to run efficiently.”
Do Your Homework. Rusch uses the off-season to hone her nutrition plan, and she takes the job seriously. One example: She recently started using Gu products for her primary race fuel. It wasn’t a change she made on a whim—she sought input from her coach, the director of athletic performance at Red Bull, sports scientist Allen Lim and others. Then, Rusch used the products for months during off-season training before making the switch. Bottom line: It pays to research your food choices well in advance.
Don’t Eat too Much. “Conventional wisdom says you should eat 3 hours before a race to allow for proper digestion. If that’s not an option, then eat a light meal. Eat a heavy breakfast too close to the event and “the extra food will just sit in your gut,” Rusch says. If you’ve eaten well in the weeks leading up to the event, your glycogen stores are already topped off—just follow your in-race fueling strategy and you’ll be good to go.
Save Protein for Later. Protein can be hard to digest during events and lead to a bloated feeling that can make you miserable. If your energy gel, bar, or drink has added protein, consider switching to something without, or something with added amino acids, which Rusch says actually can help improve performance. Save the protein-rich recovery drinks for right after the race or workout. “You have a short window immediately following those intense efforts where your body is really receptive to the added benefits of a recovery drink,” Rusch says.