How To Prepare For An Obstacle Course Race: Gear & Nutrition

ocr-race-prep
Are you prepared?

Its that time of the year again- Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) championship season.

The time where the best OCR athletes from all corners of the globe assemble and compete against each other, all vying to be crowned the best athlete male or female Obstacle Racer.

This year’s Spartan Race World Championships will be going down this weekend once again at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, North Lake Tahoe, Olympic Valley, CA. At an altitude of 9000 Ft (2750 m), racers can expect thin air, cold winds and temperatures projected to be as low as -1 °C (30.2 °F) on Sunday morning. The course itself will not be forgiving and racers can look forward to steep hilly climbs with breathtaking views as well as getting obstacles that leave them wet, cold, muddy and fatigued but loving every minute of it!

Last year there were 4 Barb Wire Crawls, 2 Bucket Brigades, 2 Rope Climbs and a 400-yard cold water swim!

One of our celebrity athletes, Liv Lo will be taking part in this race so I thought I’d write a post on my take of the equipment and nutritional strategies that are essential (or not) for the best OCR race experience in your next race!

Equipment

  1. Clothing (Top & Bottom)
  2. Socks
  3. Shoes
  4. Fuel Belts
  5. Hydration Vests
  6. Optional: Gloves
  7. Optional: Elbow and Knee Guards

When it comes to gearing up for an obstacle course race, the general rule to follow is “less is more“. Especially when there is mud and water obstacles involved. The more pieces of clothing you have on, the more water they will soak up and weigh you down. Many elite Men choose to ditch the top altogether and elite females just run in a sports bra.

1. Clothing (Top & Bottom) 

One word – Compression. 

Loose clothing tend to get caught on barb-wires and when they get wet, can severely restrict your movement and give you abrasions. Thus a comfortable set of upper and lower body tights will serve you well.

  • Choose long sleeves and leggings to avoid getting your elbows and knees cut
  • Choose ordinary, moisture wicking material (applies for all clothing) for summer temperatures to keep you dry and cool
  • Choose thermal base-layers for colder races like Tahoe
  • Bonus: choose compression with gradient compression – varied levels of compression depending on specific muscle requirements

My favourite brand: Skins

Skins has a range of products that fit every requirement described above. From moisture wicking to keep you dry and cool to Dynamic Gradient Compression to provide various compression levels catered to the specific muscles. Additionally, their A400 range “keeps you warm when its cold and cool when its hot.”

Read more about skins technology here and compare Skins products here.

Skins amazon link here.

2. Socks

Calf length socks protect you against abrasions and rope burn on the Tyrolean Traverse. Photo from ameliabooneracing.com

Similarly, material wise try to go for moisture wicking ones that don’t retain water easily. I normally prefer full calf length socks or calf sleeves.

3. Shoes

Any shoe with a good grip on muddy slippery surfaces will suffice. These days many brands have a range of OCR specific shoes but most trail running shoes also work. OCR specific shoes normally have traction at the base on the middle for extra grip when climbing ropes or A-Frame obstacles and cargo nets.

Additionally, look for shoes with good drainage and/or are made of material that don’t soak up water easily. This is important if not you’ll feel like you’re running with ankle weights.

My favourite brands: 

I purchased my pair of Icebug Zeals at last year’s Obstacle Course Racing World Championships of which they were the official shoe sponsor. Photo: mudrunguide.com
  1. Icebug – I personally own a pair of Icebug Zeals. I like the extra ankle support from the “stable but soft heel grip”which aids in preventing ankle sprains which are all too common in obstacle races. The outsole cleats are also well positioned so that mud doesn’t get stuck easily. Lastly, the top is made of “Quick Dry Mesh”and non-absorbing, meaning they gain very little weight when they get wet.
  2. Inov8 – I’ve heard a lot of good reviews about this brand and feel that their Trail, Multi-Terrain or Extreme lines of shoes are great for obstacle races.

4. Fuel Belts

Generally for short races like the Spartan Sprint (3+ Miles, ~5km) and Super (8+Miles, 13km) I would not carry a hydration bag as these distances are short enough that a small water bottle would suffice and there is not need for a vest. Hence a running belt would be perfect in this case as it is small and light enough to store all your gels or bars, electrolyte tablets as well as one or two small bottles. Some elites choose to just stuff their gels into their tights and rely on the water at aid stations.

Don’t forget you’ll be log-rolling on the ground with these. Test them out before the race to see if it hurts! Photo: ultrarunnerpodcast.com

My favourite brand: Ultimate Diretion

5. Hydration Vests

Hydration vests are recommended for the Spartan Beast (12+ Miles, 19+km) and Ultra-Beast (26+ Miles, 42+ km) as these races take a minimum of 2-3 hours to complete. A vest with water reservoir provides enough hydration to last the duration of the event and extra space to store more fuel like gels, bars, electrolyte tablets and even some gear such as a headlamp, extra batteries and glow sticks – mandatory equipment for the Ultra-Beast.

My favourite brand: Camelbak 

The Camelbak Circuit’s small, snug fit. Photo: choosemybackpack.com

I personally own and use a Camelbak Circuit. I like how this vest is built small and compact. It fits really snugly on my back and hardly moves when I run or roll with it. It also allows me to carry 1.5L of water and has sufficient compartments in the front to put 2 additional bottles of water or up to 6 extra bars and gels. There is also a sweat-proof compartment for essentials like keys or phones.

6. Optional: Gloves

Mechanix Gloves. Photo: amazon.com

After buying and tested a pair of gloves, I realized they aren’t really necessary. Its true that they provide additional grip and hand protection. However when they get wet, they stay wet and this poses a huge problem when the weather is cold. When you lose feeling in your fingers as they get numb from the cold, you will also lose your ability to grip hard and be unable to successfully complete obstacles like the multi-rigs and rope climb.

One good trick is to stick both hands into your bottom tights, either in front over your thighs or behind against your butt cheeks. Your body heat will warm them up in a couple of minutes.

7. Optional: Elbow and Knee Guards

Displaying FullSizeRender.jpg
My viper elbow and knee guards.

As with the gloves, I bought my pairs of elbow and knee guards thinking I needed the extra protection for those pointy joints. A few kilometres into last year’s Spartan World Championships, these guards got so uncomfortable that I decided to pull them down and they sat at my ankles and wrists for the rest of the race.

The elbow guards were squeezing my biceps and restricting my movement and blood flow. Similarly, the knee guards were hurting my knees and restricting my knee flexion and blood flow. The cushioning was remarkable but maybe I just wasn’t used to them. Anyhow, long sleeved tights should be sufficient to protect against cuts and scraps and there doesn’t seem to be much added advantage that outweighed the degree of discomfort so I’d rather race without them.

As I mentioned earlier, “less is more”!

Nutrition

1. Hydration – Electrolytes

Short races like the Sprints and Supers do not require much electrolytes. You can get by with a simple gel that contains some electrolytes.

However it is recommended to add some electrolytes into your hydration systems for longer races like the Beasts and Ultra-Beasts which stretch for a couple of hours. 

My favourite brand: Nuun

Photo from Fleetfeetencino.com

I like the Nuun electrolyte pills because they provide a full range of electrolytes while containing

2. How much water do you need?

As SGX Coaches, this was what we learnt.

Before exercise: 

  • 5-7 ml/kg 3 hours before exercise
  • How can you check hydration levels?
    • Dark urine, the consume another 3-5 ml/kg 1 hrs before
  • In hot weather it may be wise to consume another 250-500 ml before exercise

During exercise: replenish according to your Sweat Rate

How to calculate your sweat rate. Photo: slideshare.net

You can also calculate your sweat rate here.

If you sweat at a rate of 1 litres an hour, it would be advisable to drink a litre of water every hour. However do take note that your sweat rate changes according to a number of variables:

  • Training status: conditioned or not
  • Type of activity
  • Exercise intensity and duration
  • Environmental condition
  • Acclimatisation

Thus, do drink more when the weather is particularly hot, and even when its cold. In cold weather our risk of dehydration is increased because our thirst response is diminished by up to 40%! Read more about it here.

Although the common general rule is to drink whenever you feel thirsty, as mentioned above, you can’t always rely on your thirst mechanism. I like to look at my watch and remind myself to take a few sips every 15 minutes. 

3. Race Nutrition

Here’s a slide from my SGX course summarising how much to consume before, during and after.

nutritional-summary
CHO = Carbohydrates, Na = Sodium. 1kg = 2.2 lbs, 1 cup = 220 g, 1 oz = 28.3 g

So to put this in simpler layman terms, I will try to illustrate the above in terms of actual foods. Assuming the athlete is a 54 kg (~120 lbs) person like me, this is what I would probably eat.

3 hours BEFORE competition: 

  • 3 x 5” Sweet potatoes (baked or boiled with 1 tbsp of grassfed butter)
    (CHO = 26g x 3 = 78 g, Fat = 12g, 6g protein)
  • 2 sunny side up organic cage-free eggs with 15g of cheese
    (CHO = 0g, Fat = 12g, Protein = 12g)
  • 150ml Coconut Milk
    (CHO = 9g, Fat = 36g, Protein = 2.3g)
  • 100g of overnight soaked oatmeal
    (CHO = 66g, Fats= 7g, Protein = 17g)
  • Total CHO: 153g
  • Fats: 67g
  • Protein: ~37g
  • Fluid: Cup of coffee (237ml) + Sip on Race drink when thirsty

1 hour BEFORE competition: if I’m still hungry

  • 1 x Medium 7-8” Banana (27g of CHO, 1.3g protein)
  • 1 x avocado (9g of CHO, 15g fat, 2g protein)

DURING the race

  • CHO: ~ 60 g/hr
  • Fluid: ~ 1.572 L/hr (with electrolytes)

AFTER the race: 3:1 (CHO:Protein)

  • CHO: 1 to 1.5g/kg x 54kg = 54 – 81g
  • Protein: 18 – 27 g (3:1 ratio of CHO:Protein)
  • In short, a big meal, preferably a buffet! 😀

4. Bars / Gels / Solid Food?

gels
Photo from: bengreenfieldfitness.com

In general liquid food digests more easily than solid food. However, short of adding a few scoops of powder into your hydration pack, the only other option would be to carry a few extra packets of gels.

I don’t prefer to use either of these strategies because:

A) Adding extra powder into your hydration powder means you will constantly be sipping on that which could backfire and make you even thirstier if its too sweet. You could end up craving for something cleaner like plain water. Thus I’d prefer to stick to just the Nuun tablets in my water reservoir. However I have tried a few brands that were kinda sweet but did not give me much gastric distress or thirst. They are:

  1. Iskiate Endurance
    This worked really well and did not give me any gastric distress whatsoever. It washed off pretty easy and did not stink up the hydration bladder too.
  2. Tailwind Nutrition

B) Most gels are too sweet and give me gastric distress if I take too many. However they still work for a Beast but I wouldn’t take them in an Ultra-Beast which could last >7 hours.

So my take on gels, bars or any kind of solid food is to consume according to your energy needs.

This would mean race fuels higher in sugars and carbs would work perfectly fine if your race is short in duration (3 hours or less). But do try to go for those featuring more complex long-chain carbohydrates like the gels and bars of Hammer Nutrition.

However when it comes to longer races (3 hours or more), your race fuel should be higher in good fats as well as provide some sugars and carbs to replenish your glycogen stores. Check out this comprehensive article by Ben Greenfield for more information: 12 Fat-Based Alternatives To Sickeningly Sweet Sugar-Based Sports Gels.

In summary, I try to go for gels/bars/food higher in fats, with moderate protein or amino acids and some sugars. Its a bonus if I can find gluten- and grain-free ones absent of soy or dairy too (meaning less allergenic, due to my autoimmune disorder).

My favourite race fuels:

Justin’s all natural Nut Butters. Photo source

1. Justin’s Nut Butter Squeeze Packs

These are my go-to ‘energy gels’. I’ve consumed these in numerous races and absolutely love them. They can get pretty dry in your mouth but that only encourages me hydrate more which is a good thing! Furthermore they can be easily purchased at most grocery stores in the US. My favourite flavours are the Maple Almond and Chocolate Hazelnut ones!

They fit my ideal race fuel requirements perfectly because each 1.15oz squeeze pack contains:

  • 14-16 g of Fat
  • 3-7 g of Sugars (Carbs)
  • 4-6 g of Protein
epi-uebb-b-2
Photo from: onestoppaleoshop.com

2. Epic Bars 

These are very unique bars made from a combination of meat, fruit and nuts. They taste amazingly savoury and the meat are sourced from the highest quality free-range animals from Beef to Turkey, Pigs, Wild Boars, Deer, Salmon, Chicken, Sheep and Bison. I remember cramping a couple of times during last year’s Vermont Beast and did not have any packets of mustard with me. Feeling hungry I gobbled up a Beef Habanero Bar and from that point on, did not suffer anymore cramps for the rest of the race!

Each bar contains:

  • 7-8 g of Fats
  • 10-11 g of Carbs
  • 8-9 g of Protein

3. Square Bars*

squarebars
Photo source

A recent addition to my list of approved bars, each Square Bar offers up to 230 calories per bar. What I really like about this brand is their clean and natural ingredients. The main ingredient here is Coconut Nectar  (same glycemic index as an apple). Plus they’re vegan and taste great. You’ll see below that these bars are one of the highest in terms of macro-nutritional content.

Each bar contains:

  • 11 g of Fats
  • 21 g of Carbs
  • 11 g of Protein
Exo Bars – made from cricket flour. Photo source

4. Exo Bars

Another unique bar, Exo bars are made from Crickets. Yes, you read that right. Crickets! Why Crickets? Mostly because they are more sustainable than all the animals mentioned above that Epic uses. They are also a complete source of protein containing all essential amino acids. Furthermore, the unique blend of ingredients and taste were formulated by Kyle Connaughton, former Head Chef of R&D at The Fat Duck (3 Michelin Stars) in England and Culinary Director at Chipotle.

Depending on which flavour, each 60 g bar contains:

  • 260-300 Calories
  • 14-20 g of Fat
  • 23-30 g of Carbs
  • 10 g of Protein

Summary

Gear up minimally, hydrate adequately and fuel sufficiently according to your energy needs.

Best of luck,

Jahn Tang

*Updated: 15th June 2016

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