Adventure Race Day Food
On race day, food can either be a great ally or a vengeful enemy. Many an adventure racer has endured a miserable race vomiting because of gastrointestinal distress or bonking due to inadequate food intake. Sometimes some gastrointestinal distress can't be avoided, but a good food plan can help minimize either extreme.
What to Eat?
What you actually eat during a race is totally a personal thing. Every stomach is different, and some people can get by with eating a cheeseburger while working hard while others can't really eat anything during a race without some discomfort. Trying everything out while training is key. For a short race, don't worry too much about the nutritional quality of your food. The most important thing is just to eat something. Most likely you will gravitate toward high-carbohydrate food which is ideal in a short race and also usually what sounds palatable when you are racing.
I personally have found that my preferred race meals for sprint races are granola bars, Clif bars, and Clif Shot Bloks. I've tried various energy gels and don't like them. I've tried candy but that tends to upset my stomach while working hard. My philosophy is it's good to have a variety of food that digests at various rates for a race. For example, Clif Shot Bloks provide me with a pretty quick boost of energy, but I'm hungry again in less than an hour. Granola bars are small and light, but take a little longer to digest than the Shot Blocks. And Clif bars tend to be denser and filling, so I'll eat those when my heart rate is a little lower in a race to build up some quality energy for longer.
How Much to Eat?
As far as how much food to bring, again it's personal and it depends on your size and energy needs, but I would recommend eating a full serving of something about once every hour and a half at a minimum. As you will be mentally stressed and activating your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), your hunger and thirst will be suppressed somewhat during a race. Unfortunately your body still needs plenty of food and water, so you must force yourself to eat and drink even though you won't feel like it. You and your teammates can help each other out with this during a race by reminding each other to eat and drink more when you think of it or if you notice they haven't been taking in enough food and water.
So if eating something every hour and a half is a good level for you, then for a 6 hour sprint race, you would take along at least 3 food items. This may get you through the race just enough so that you need to eat immediately afterward. However I usually find it worthwhile to take along at least one extra serving of food. Ideally you will finish all of your food about an hour before the race is over, which should give you just enough energy to finish without having to carry any extra weight. But the consequences of not having enough food can be severe, so it's good to err on the side of caution as one extra food item is fairly light. Also occasionally a teammate will not bring along enough food and it's good to be able to help them out.
I mentioned above that the consequences of not eating enough can be severe. Just how severe depends on how much of a caloric deficit you put yourself in, but on the extreme end of the scale, you can end up bonking during a race. If you've ever bonked, you know how much you want to avoid doing it again but if not then read this article on bonking. Bonking (also known as "hitting the wall") is basically what happens to your body when you push it beyond its limits and keep going without supplying enough fuel.
To Resupply or not?
Now how much food do you bring along with you at the start of the race? This can be a tricky question. First of all you need to calculate how long you will be out on the first leg of the race. Most sprint races are between 4 and 8 hours and will take you back to a transition area at least once. So you have to choose at the beginning of the race if you want to go ahead and carry all the food you think you will need for the race or if you want to carry only what you need for the first leg and refuel when you get back to the first TA.
If the race is expedition style then your decision is made for you - you must carry everything as there will be no TA. If not then it's up to you. My preference is usually to carry all food from the start except for one of the heavier items which I will scarf down at a transition. Often I'll have a piece of fruit for this purpose since it's something that you can't easily or practically take with you during the race but if it's waiting for you at your first transition then it'll be a great way to get some high quality calories and water at the same time.
What if you could have a high calorie hot meal in the middle of the race without stopping at a transition area and without having to carry any of it along with you? Too good to be true? One of the unique aspects of adventure racing nutrition is that sometimes this is possible, depending on where the race is held. Most race directors will not specifically ban you from buying food along the course at a restaurant or store (though it may be against the rules to get food from bystanders in order to prevent teams from having support crews help them out mid-race; check with your race director for specifics if you are unclear on the rule).
You may be out of luck on course food if your race is in a wilderness setting. It's always a good idea to have some extra food and water with you in remote races anyway in case you get lost.
Course food can be a factor in sprint races, though it is often more associated with longer races. The problem with stopping to buy food in a sprint race is that it simply takes a lot more time than unwrapping an energy bar and eating it while on the go. Even a McDonalds trip can turn into a 15+ minute stop which is pretty valuable time in a 6 hour race. Also in a race of 6 or fewer hours, you may not need or want a large meal mid-race. But there are certain situations where it can be warranted.
For example suppose the race is expedition style and on a really hot day. After reviewing the course, you realize that you will be biking by a gas station right in the middle of the race. Instead of carrying a gallon of water along with you the entire time, it would be a great idea to make a quick stop for a Slushee which will help you hydrate and get some calories. And since you're already stopping, you may as well get a hot dog and bottle of water for the rest of the race. This may reduce the amount of food and water you have to carry by several pounds!
Always carry some cash along with you in a race! You never know when you might need some emergency food or water and happen by a store or restaurant.
Remember, water strategy is just as important as food strategy.