When I first started obstacle course racing I began researching everything.
What shoes drained water the best?
What clothes should I wear?
What hydration vest worked the best?
What was the best way to train?
What was the best way to eat?
Most questions I found an answer too, however the nutrition question was elusive. I found lots of people putting together all kinds of fueling strategies from sports like endurance running and CrossFit. No one had a good handle on what to do. To further complicate things I was following an ancestral diet, so I wanted to avoid most popular sports fueling recommendations if at all possible.
In this article I try to provide an answer to how to best fuel for obstacle course racing domination by breaking down the demands of obstacle course racing and give some general recommendations for you to get started that would help you meet those demands.
Obstacle course racing is unique in that it combines many different modalities of fitness into one sport. It combines aspects of endurance, speed, power, and strength, we cannot just take fueling strategies from sports like triathlon or powerlifting and apply them to sports like obstacle course racing.
To better understand the demands of obstacle course racing lets take a look at what is required of you during a race.
- Uphill and downhill running
- Steady state running
- Lift your own body weight to complete various obstacles
- Heavy objects like tires, sandbags, and logs
- Climb – walls, rock climbing grips, ropes
- Carry – sandbags, rocks, logs, tires
- Swim – water crossings as well as swimming across bodies of water
- Jump – explosive jumps are required to accomplish various obstacles as well as traversing terrain you might be running through
- Grip – many obstacles require you hang from bars, ropes, balls, rings, etc
If we look at all of these requirements placed on the body during the course of a race, we can see there is a mix of aerobic and anaerobic activities.
If you are not familiar with the terms aerobic and anaerobic, it means with and without oxygen respectively. Aerobic activities, such as easy running, crawling, swimming, etc., are fueled mostly by fat and require oxygen in order for the body to convert oxygen to fuel it can use. Anaerobic activities such as intense running, lifting, and completing various obstacles, do not require oxygen and are fueled mostly by carbohydrates. In reality fueling exercise is much more complicated than the above explanation, but this simplistic explanation will do for now 😉.
Optimally an obstacle course racer can seamlessly switch between carbs and fats depending on what they are doing during the race. This ability to switch between fuel sources based on the demands placed on the body is called metabolic flexibility.
Below is a graphic of where I believe obstacle course racing lies on the aerobic and anaerobic energy continuum compared to other sports.
With a better handle on what is required of you during an obstacle course race we can now look at the best fueling strategy for training and racing.
For the average obstacle course racer I recommend a mixed diet, one that has a combination of both carbohydrates and fats and leverages the body’s metabolic flexibility to pick which one to use.
So how much of each, carbs and fats, should you consume?
Lots of things can play into figuring this out including the distance of the race you are training for, how much you are training, the intensity of the training you are doing, your personal tolerance to carbs and fats, and the phase of training you are in. Rather than get stuck down in the weeds of all the nuances, I will give you some general recommendations and give you some advice on how you might want to adjust them for you.
To make things simple I have created a Google Sheet that you can use to calculate your macro breakdown.
In the video below I show you exactly how you can use this Google Sheet to calculate your starting macros.
Once you input your own values you will get a generalized breakdown of your fats, protein, and carbs.
Protein is calculated at 2.1 g/kg or 0.9 g/lb of body weight. This should be a good starting point for most athletes. On the right hand side of the Google Sheet question 2a and 2b allow you to adjust this slightly, but it requires you know your body fat percentage. These questions are optional so don’t worry about it if you don’t know your body fat percentage.
Carbs are set at a starting point of 200 grams. Unfortunately there is no formula like there is for protein to tell you exactly how many carbs are optimal for you. We know that for sports like obstacle course racing, an extremely low carb diet is not going to be optimal for performance. We also know that consuming boat loads of carbohydrates can cause GI issues in athletes. Starting with a more moderate number and adjusting based on personal preference and training demands is best.
Lastly fats are used to fill in the rest of your caloric demands.
To really understand how these macro recommendations might affect you, it would be useful to know your current macro breakdown. To do this you can use any food tracking app to track your food for a week. This will give you a better idea of how you are currently eating and how these recommendations compare. My favorite food tracking app is called Cronometer, but others will work just fine.
Now that we have a general recommendation of how an obstacle course racer should eat let’s look at some situations where you might want to make adjustments.
The carbohydrate number of 200 grams in the Google Sheet can be changed. If you do change it your fat macros will adjust to reflect the new caloric contribution from carbohydrates (protein is always constant). Below are some situations where you might consider adjusting your carbohydrate intake to start.
If you are eating a lower carb diet from 50-150 grams of carbs currently, jumping to 200 grams of carbs quickly might not be the best idea. Your body will likely need some time to adjust to the new carbohydrate amount. I would suggest you add 30 grams every 2-4 weeks to whatever you are currently eating to give yourself enough time to adjust.
If you are heading into a training block where your volume and/or intensity will be higher, then you might want to consider upping the carbs. For the right obstacle course racer, training at a high enough volume, 400 grams of carbs would not be out of the question. Again it will be important to consider the current amount of carbs you are eating at your current activity level. If you are eating 200 grams of carbs right now jumping to 400 grams might be too big of a shock. Just like the low carbohydrate obstacle course racer, you should titrate your carbs up at around 30 grams at a time as your training volume increases.
At certain times of the year you might want to lower your carb intake. One good example would be an obstacle course racer looking to become a bit more metabolically flexible and become more efficient at utilizing fat. The ideal time to do this is during your offseason when performance is not a concern. During this time you can dial back the carbs and switch up your training to be more aerobic helping promote the use of your aerobic metabolic pathways. If you were consuming 200 grams of carbs in season, you might drop them back down to 50-100 grams and do some easier training.
Finding the right macronutrient breakdown for anyone takes some patience. Different bodies respond differently to different ratios. Nearly every obstacle course racer I have worked with benefits from a diet composed of both fats and carbs. When athletes go to one extreme or the other I start to see performance and/or health detriments. The most important thing you can do when it comes to finding the right breakdown for you is to keep an open mind. Realize that what you believe is the right macro breakdown might be completely wrong regardless of what the “experts” tell you. As my good friend Dr. Mike T Nelson says, “Research gives you direction, ‘mesearch’ gives you the answers you want.”
Need help deciphering either the research or mesearch?
I am here to help.
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- (2017, March 22). Training the Gut for Athletes – NCBI. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371619/ ↑