My teammate Elizabeth Bud Reeder and I were downing french fries and milkshakes after a long ride in the Colorado Rockies when we decided to race Absa Cape Epic. So, it’s fitting that a large portion of my planning for this grueling mountain bike stage race in the desert of South Africa has been focused on food: what I eat in training, what I’ll carry on course during the 8 days of straight racing, and what I’ll need to recover from 405 miles and nearly 50,000 ft of climbing.

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From cooking for athletes on the Tour of California and Ride on Chicago, I’ve learned that riders hard at work need to eat often and drink always. Bodies and souls under athletic stress require foods that are both delicious and balanced for energy, endurance and general well-being. When I raced the Transrockies trail race, I employed my own nutrition strategy and learned quite a few things about pushing hard, digging deep and the importance of pizza. These experiences will translate to racing in Africa. But despite everything I have in my proverbial athlete/chef toolbox, there are still many unknowns: I’ve never been to Africa, and the travel and schedule will be arduous.

During the race, we’ll be staying in a tented camp where the menu and ingredients are foreign. We’ll race through brutal deserts at the end of South African summer, where temperatures could climb into the triple digits (fahrenheit). Sleeplessness, pain and discomfort are nearly inevitable. I imagine there will be a moment where I feel I can’t take a single pedal stroke further. Trusting that I’ve built a solid nutritional strategy will be vital in building an unflappable foundation. I am ready to take on this tremendous challenge.

Here’s how I prepared a nutritional strategy for this beastly stage race, and how you too can prepare for a monstrous, multi-day challenge:

1. Find Your Food Formula

From the moment I started training for Cape Epic, I was preparing my body to push hard and use food as fuel. During my training, I worked to create delicious meals with basic building-block ingredients that can be found anywhere and everywhere: whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, simple sugars, plenty of salt, and fresh vegetables and fruits. Just as I mixed up workouts (creating a balance of long hard efforts, interval workouts, and strength training) I deliberately tried to mix up those building-block ingredients as well to prepare my body to eat well. Sometimes I ate quinoa, rice or oats instead of pasta all the time. Kale, arugula, spring greens and spinach all took turns on my plate as did eggs, chickpeas, tofu and sometimes a big steak. On the bike, simple sugars, savory treats and clean carbohydrates kept me going instead of processed and packaged energy foods.

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Diversifying my diet with simple foods helped me learn what doesn’t work for my body, what works well, and when to eat those foods. This became what I call my food formula.

For me, a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast with a bit of fat, some salt and fresh fruits help me start the day strong. A fresh, light lunch with a snack later in the afternoon, and a soul-fueling balanced dinner suit my body well when I’m riding big miles. While in Africa, I’ll seek to build that same “food formula,” interchanging ingredients available to create meals that work for me.

Knowing my food formula will help keep me from feeling overwhelmed or unsure about unknown options. If they don’t have my favorite granola for breakfast in camp? No worries, I know that some other cereal or grain will do me just fine.

2. Take Along Your (Food) Friends

I will carry as many of the familiar ingredients and products to Africa as I can (paying attention to importation restrictions, weight restrictions and reasonable suitcase sizes, of course.) I’m taking packets of maple syrup and almond butter, ginger candies and packets of jerky. This way I won’t have to worry about unknown, processed energy foods in the form of unfamiliar gels, blocks or bars. I also carry measured amounts of raw ingredients to make my own real food along the course and an ample amount of my favorite electrolyte drink mix, along with any vitamins and supplements that help me perform my best.

3. Rally Real Food Recipes + Resources

At Cape Epic, real food is my first choice, but I won’t have a rolling kitchen to get the job done. So, I’ve compiled a few simple recipes that I can make prior to the race and in camp as it progresses. I’ll bake a couple of batches of Skratch Labs Cookie Mix the day before the race, and they’ll last without refrigeration for a few days. I’ll also take a small food processor and measured amounts of ingredients from home – oats, cacao nibs, chia seeds, packets of almond butter and maple syrup – so that I can mix up Cherry Pie Energy Bites and Almond + Cacao Nib Bites (two recipes that don’t require refrigeration).

Cherry Pie Bites

I won’t be able to fuel the entire race on these snacks alone, but the process of making my own food will add a bit of familiarity and emotional comfort in a foreign place, in addition to providing me with clean-burning delicious fuel.

4. Trust Your Gut When Building Your Meals

Never try something new at a race. This goes for equipment and for what you eat. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to rely solely on my own hand-made real food. Instead I’ll rely on my food formula and the nutritional building blocks that work well for me. I can use those guidelines to choose from what is provided by the race organization, at mealtimes and for on-course fueling. My body doesn’t perform well on breakfast sausage, so I won’t eat that. For the race course, I won’t be able to bake my own breads but I’ll find bread either at the grocery in advance or at aid stations. Having Ziplock bags on hand ensures I can make a nut butter sandwich with the packets of almond butter I’m bringing, and carry it safely on my bike. In a nutshell, be smart, resourceful and creative. Stick with what you know and be proactive to avoid the unknown.

5. Run Your Numbers for Race Nutrition

Now that you know what to eat, how do you know when to eat it?

With multi-day racing, it’s difficult to quantify how much you’ll need to eat. Particularly at breakfast, immediately after the race and at dinner, I’ll eat sizable, sensible meals with all the freshest simple ingredients I can find. I will make sure that I get fat, salt, protein and plenty of carbohydrates in each meal. But when it comes to having enough fuel to race with, the answers become more nebulous.

There is no perfect formula for figuring out race nutrition for every body.

Generally speaking, the amount of food I need to carry will replace half of the amount of calories I’m burning. The amount of calories I burn depends on my body weight, my fitness level, my efficiency as an athlete and the duration of my exercise. And the amount of calories I need to put into my body will depend on how many calories I have stored as glycogen (read: if I’ve done a good job of fueling myself at mealtimes, the amount of calories I need to replace on the bike will be slightly less). As a point of reference, the fittest athletes in the world are hard pressed to burn more than 1000 calories in an hour. So, I’m planning to have 300-400 calories per hour of exercise on the course for each day of Cape Epic. If the race takes me 9 hours each day, that’s a total of 3,600 calories in my pockets and bottles. To give you an idea of what that could look like:

Nutrition Layout Cape Epic

1 Banana + Almond Butter sandwich
3 Skratch Labs Cookies
9 bottles of Skratch Exercise Hydration
3 Cherry Pie Energy Bites
one small handful of jerky
and 5 packets of maple syrup

The bottom line? Your nutritional strategy is not just an important part of your physical preparation for a multi-day stage race; what you eat is the seed of your strength. Find your food formula and prepare to follow it, wherever it takes you!