Cheese and tomato vs turkey and mayo; a RAAM sandwich dilemma

Given the twists and turns of my nutrition strategy, one of the questions I’m frequently asked is “so what DID you actually end up eating on RAAM?” The very short answer is “pretty much anything and everything”, much to the amusement of my crew! The aim of this blog, like the others, is to share what worked and didn’t work for me on RAAM, but also to give you a bit of insight into the thinking behind some of my choices and how my mindset has changed as a result of what I’ve learnt; fundamentally it’s this learning that is the most useful part and can be applied in contexts beyond endurance sport.

A quick recap, particularly for those that are new to the blog….. I suffered with GI (gastrointestinal) issues on both of Race Around Ireland (2015) and Race Across the West (2016); on RAW last year, the guts nearly put paid to the race by both weakening me and causing me to spend a lot of time off the bike looking for the nearest loo or handy cactus bush. It was clear that something had to change.

Prior to last year, I’d tried pretty much every type of sport nutrition going for triathlons, marathons and ultra marathons as well as the cycling. I was sponsored by Torq whose products were tolerated in training but even they couldn’t get me through anything over 12 hours. I’d tried bars, gels, drinks, even their straight unflavoured maltodextrin powder but to no avail. Last year after RAW I took the seemingly radical step of going “keto”; a diet ultra-low in carbohydrate (about 10-15%) and very high in fat (about 75%). I’ll refer you to previous blogs for more info on how I implemented this change and the challenges and benefits I encountered.

In April I started to eat more carbs as although I was fine with the longer rides, I was struggling with my high intensity intervals and harder hill sessions. At this point I was still obsessing about the amount as I was really worried that I’d undo 6 months of hard work making the metabolic switch to fat burning. Stress is not helpful for fat-burning as cortisol makes you want to burn carbs, but this didn’t really help! I became a bit neurotic about the whole thing which in hindsight is stupid, but doesn’t help when you are right there in the thick of it. For me the biggest worry was that my diet had been my issue to resolve and the crew were relying on me to fix it and I was being asked about it on a regular basis. Phrases like “well at least you’ve nailed the GI thing now” were well-meaning but in private made me panic. What if I hadn’t solved it and the problem came back on RAAM? It would all be my fault.

The one thing I had stayed true to was the fact that I was done with sports nutrition; when I was eating on the bike, it was only ever things that my body would recognise as food… bananas, nuts, proper flapjacks (a really good recipe from the guys at Polka Dot cycling helped), fruit buns, date and fruit bars and sandwiches. My favourite treat on long rides were cheese twists from the Co-op! I’d wash it all down with My H2Pro electrolyte drink or water. Whatever it was, my stomach was ok with it. On our final training weekend I went through 36 hours on “normal” food and had none of the bloating, cramping or diarrhoea I’d had before. I began to believe that maybe, just maybe we’d be ok.

Once in Borrego the week before the race, I found myself gradually letting go of some of the stress that had surrounded my preparation. My stomach was a lot calmer than it had been before both RAI and RAW, possibly as I was mentally in a better place and strangely a bit more chilled despite it being the biggest of the 3 races!

There was very little in the way of a “nutrition strategy” for the race but I did have a few key principles that I was starting from:
1) Cut back on fibre in the last few days before the race and during it
2) Avoid caffeine before the race and use with care during it (I’m quite sensitive to caffeine)
3) Focus on easy-to-digest foods in the desert when the guts are already under stress
4) Don’t try to eat too many calories too early in the race; give the body a chance to adapt to the increase in intake (I was going to need 7000-8000kcal a day but building up to it is key)
5) Listen to my body and eat what I fancied, when I fancied it. Don’t give it something it really doesn’t want
6) Try to eat a good variety of foods with a good balance of carbs, fats and protein
7) Accept that the concept of a “healthy diet” is going to go out of the window!
8) Try and get a bit more sleep than RAI/ RAW so that the body has a chance to reset itself
9) Have the Imodium handy!

I had been experimenting with using Nutripouches as a way of having some portable and easy to digest food particularly in the desert. For these we used just boring white rice, cooked and blended with water. When cold, this was really refreshing and the bland taste was much appreciated after the other foods. In the first few days I was having one of these every few hours to keep me topped up without overloading a system that is already stressed by the heat. Rice is also eaten in the Asian cultures as a cooling food and rice balls are popular with ultra-runners.

Beyond the Nutripouches, there were 3 key staples to my diet:
• Sandwiches – either cheese and ham / cheese, tomato and ham. Later on, Kyle introduced hot dog rolls as they were softer on my mouth and easier to hold. These were filled with turkey slices, a little spinach (seeing green stuff was lovely!) and mayo
• Banana muffins (cut into quarters)
• Banana bread (Starbucks does really good banana bread in the US!)

Other things that went down well….
• Chocolate – Monument Valley was done with an frozen Snickers and the climb to Durango was done on a number of KitKat fingers which I’m actually too ashamed to repeat… mainly because that number is more than the number of fingers on both my hands!
• Egg McMuffin on the climb to Flagstaff
• Ice-cold Coke provided a welcome change to water and electrolytes and stopped me feeling nauseous a couple of times
• Ice-cold Nesquik chocolate milk up in the desert and up Wolf Creek pass; easy and tasty calories
• Nature Valley Oats ‘n’ Honey bars, although I did go off these towards the end!
• Dark chocolate-covered ginger

Things I didn’t eat:
• Sports nutrition
• Pringles

I was having roughly 200kcal about every 30min on the bike. If I felt hungry then I’d eat a bit more. Food was stored in Ziploc bags and kept in the ice coolers in the Follow Cars so it was always nice and cold, although as the ice melted it did mean that the guys joked a lot about fishing for food bags in the tepid water! Off the bike before or after a sleep break I’d usually have either porridge or scrambled eggs on toast. I also developed an odd craving for cereal with ice cold milk.

So there you go. Nothing clever or fancy, just food that my body recognised and was able to process. The guts had a slightly iffy moment on about Day 3 but one Imodium sorted that out and they didn’t utter a word after that. I ate according to feel and if I really didn’t fancy something I’d wait a bit and my appetite usually returned. I cleaned my teeth or used mouthwash frequently and regularly just rinsed my mouth out with water to try and keep it fresh.

For the first fortnight after the race I ate pretty much anything and everything in sight – and there was some definite comfort eating going on. I’m now back to eating sensibly and not eating like some sort of hungry puma….. (ish)

What did I learn? Different things work for different people and the best advice is try things in training and your “B” races and keep trying until you find something that works for you. For me, the key learning points around nutrition for the whole RAAM journey were:
• I don’t need nearly as many carbs when training as I used to believe. I now tend to have any carbs at breakfast but generally just have protein/ fats/ vegetables or salad at lunchtime and in the evening. With the odd bit of crumble….
• I do need carbs for longer and harder sessions to get the best from the sessions and to ensure I both train and recover
• I need to listen to my body and my mind; most of the time it tells me what I need. Cravings are driven by tiredness, boredom, stress or hormones and working out what’s going on and why are equally valuable. If I’m ill, I also know that the right food will usually sort it
• I need to rekindle a healthy relationship with food; there is so much dietary advice going around that it’s difficult to work out what’s what, particularly when you are feeling stressed/ vulnerable and people are telling you that you’re eating the wrong thing. Paying attention to what I am eating and why is good, worrying about grammes of carbs/ fat/ protein is not.
• Sport nutrition doesn’t work for me; my guts respond to food they recognise which ultimately is cheaper and easier anyway!
• Stress is bad, food is good. Do not stress about food. As my friend the health coach Lara Jezeph would say, “Eat the bloody cake”

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