How to Fuel for Multi-Stage Races

Updated: Nov 11

By Holley Samuel MEd, RD, LD, CPT

Image via New York Times (Courtney Dauwalter, Mike Wilkinson)

Fueling strategies for multi-stage and multi-day races can be complicated due to various factors. Knowing in advance how your body will accommodate and balance the effort exerted during the event with nutritional demands can be tricky. If you haven't begun practicing your fueling strategies for fall and winter events, your gut may prevent you from reaching your time goal or the finish line entirely.

While fueling for a half or full marathons may be relatively straightforward, nutritional requirements for stage races such as relay events and extra long multi-day events with perhaps breaks in between efforts present a host of challenges. As training kicks off, we must consider how our gut will tolerate an adequate amount of fuel during the race to maximize performance.

With multi-day events like the Dopey Challenge, Rocky Challenge, and Ragnar Relay Races becoming increasingly popular, nailing the nutrition for these multi-stage efforts can ultimately make or break the whole experience.

*For the purposes of this article, a “multi-stage race” is defined as any race that has at least 1-24 hours of rest between efforts.

The 4 Main Considerations for Fueling Multi-Stage Races:

  1. Logistics

  2. Pre-race fuel

  3. During race fuel

  4. Post-race fuel

*Properly fueling not only improves performance outcomes but also helps with recovery. Recovery is one of the biggest concerns in multi-stage events since runners often must finish one race and start another with minimal recovery.

Logistics of fueling multi-stage races

Mimicking the logistics of a multi-stage event will prepare you for race day.

It's important to consider:

  • The weather and climate

  • How many hours you will have between efforts to recover

  • Where you will go after you finish an effort along with hygiene and sleeping accommodations

  • How will you carry/ transport the necessary fuel and gear

This will help you understand how much fuel you need, along with how you should realistically pack and carry it for the race. While some races will provide aid stations and gear check opportunities, others may not, so planning ahead is key.

Pre-race fuel for multi-stage events

Pre-race fuel can be broken down into two categories: Carb-loading & Pre-run fuel

If the various legs of your multi-stage event will take more than two hours to run in total, carb-loading is recommended to top off glycogen stores. For races like Ragnar Relays, the best practice is to carb-load for the 1-3 days prior to the event to maximize performance. For the Disney Dopey Challenge, carb-loading for 2-3 days prior to the first race, and continuing to carb load through the initial portion of the race will help ensure you have plenty of glycogen stores and energy for the marathon on the last day.

Simulating this nutritional strategy during training will help prepare you for race day. Typically a larger meal (Pre-run fuel) containing simple carbohydrates, a small amount of protein, and minimal fat and fiber should be eaten 2-3 hours before the race kicks off. For some multi-stage events, this may be the first meal of the day, or it might be the last meal of the day for runners tackling the last leg on a relay team. Careful planning of the logistics will ensure you're ready.

* If there's less than 2-3 hours prior to your leg of the multi-stage event, consuming simple carbohydrates is still a priority, though the amount may be reduced to what your body can tolerate.

Runners also should optimize their hydration in the days leading up to the event and include hydration as a part of their pre-race fueling strategy.

Fuel during a multi-stage event

Even during event stages that are shorter than what a typical "long run" is classified as (60 minutes or more), it may be beneficial to incorporate intra-run fuel to help expedite the recovery process. Recovering between stages of a multi-stage race is the key to being able to finish each portion strong. With the multitude of variables that may arise during a race like this, consistent nutrition can help reduce the risk of acute underfueling-related complications.

Aiming to consume between 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour during multi-stage events (especially if the total time spent running will be over two hours) will help a runner perform at their best and also help kick-start the recovery process by keeping glycogen stores topped off.

Time is a finite factor in these types of events, so maximizing time by fueling during the race can help a runner multi-task even if the race leg is less than 60 minutes long. Take a gel just before you start running your leg of the relay, and then consume a gel every 30 minutes during the run to maintain performance levels.

Dehydration during a multi-stage event can be detrimental to performance. Maintaining both fluid and electrolyte levels helps reduce the risk of complications, and using sports drinks containing electrolytes when conditions are hot will help reduce the risk of heat-related illness during the race. Carrying fluids such as Gatorade Endurance or Skratch Labs can help meet carbohydrate fueling needs in addition to hydration needs. Aim for at least 12oz of water per hour and at least 300mg of sodium per hour

Carrying fluids in a handheld bottle or hydration vest and incorporating carbohydrate-containing sports drinks like Gatorade Endurance or Skratch Labs can help meet both carbohydrate and hydration needs. Runners should aim for at least 12oz of water per hour and 300mg (or more) of sodium per hour to maintain adequate hydration. *Many athletes may need double or triple these amounts depending on the conditions and individual needs.

Fueling between stages and post-race nutrition

Post-race fuel, or fueling between stages, is perhaps one of the most important parts of fueling for a multi-stage event, as it will kick-start the recovery process.

The sooner you begin the recovery process between stages, the sooner you will feel ready to run again.

How To Optimize Recovery:

  • <2 hours between stages

If you have less than 2 hours before the next run, post-race fuel will overlap with pre-run fuel. This meal should contain primarily carbohydrates and fluids, such as having a pack of chews and some salt tabs with water or a gel with some sports drink.

  • 2-3 hours between stages

If you have at least 2-3 hours until the next run, this meal can be more substantial since digestion time is adequate. Consuming 20-40g protein and 60-90g carbohydrates as soon as possible post-run helps start to repair muscles and replenish glycogen stores.

Keeping fat and fiber to a minimum during this meal is recommended since these can take longer to digest and may cause GI issues during the next run. The more recovery time you have between races, the more flexible you can be with this recommendation. Perhaps this meal looks like a protein shake, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and some fruit.

  • 3< hours between stages

Consuming meals or snacks every 2-3 hours after the initial post-run meal described above is recommended to continue the recovery process and start fueling for the next run. These meals and snacks should contain mostly simple carbohydrates, which digest easily, top off glycogen stores most effectively, and provide energy for performance.

Don’t forget about hydration, as this is also an integral part of refueling. While runners probably don’t always have access to a scale during these competitions, nor do they need to obsess over weight, drinking 16-24oz of water for every pound lost on the run helps rehydrate in addition to consuming electrolyte-rich supplements or salting food.

For multi-stage races, make a plan for your nutrition or plan to fail.

Start by analyzing race logistics and the environment in which the race is held. Then plan out how much recovery time you’ll have between races so you can start to plan what nutrition you’ll need before, during, and after each leg or race. Make these options realistic and accessible, and make sure you practice them during your training.