Food for Marathon des Sables

Marathon des Sables 2009When you’ll be carrying your food for an entire week with no resupply option like I’ll be doing at the Marathon des Sables, food choices become very important. My original plan had been to maximize the caloric density of my food to minimize the weight that I’d be carrying. That would mean choosing high fat foods that contained a moderate amount of protein. A few weeks ago I scrapped that plan – I’ve got plenty of fat on me already. (That’s not self deprecating, there’s just a ridiculous number of calories in a single pound of fat.) Instead, I’ve opted to stress carbohydrates, while still taking in a decent amount of protein. In total, I’ll be taking 5.6 kilograms of food with 19,390 calories, although I only have 15,550 “official” calories as the race does not recognize calories from drink mix. (The race requires that a competitor start with 14,000 calories and have at least 2,ooo calories for each subsequent when they cross the line each day.) What follows is my plan for in-race nutrition and meals, as well as breakfast and snacks.

My daily and total remaining food weight and calorie content

In-Race Nutrition
Over the years, I’ve developed an ultra-distance nutrition plan with which I’ve very comfortable. In general, I drink only sports drink (with some soda late in a race) and eat a sports gel (or its equivalent in Shot Bloks) every half hour throughout a race. At MdS, I will follow a modified plan – I’ll drink only plain water while still eating a gel (or 3 Shot Bloks) every 30 minutes. I’ve fretted over the decision not to carry powder for sports drink, but in the end I just didn’t want to mess with it. Besides, I suspect that my capacity and desire to take in 300+ calories an hour from carbohydrates will be limited by the extreme heat. If I can reliably take in 200 calories an hour throughout the Marathon des Sables, I will be a happy man. Knowing that it’s never wise to test something new in a focus race, I followed this nutrition plan for all 9 hours of the Old Pueblo 50 mile two weeks ago and it worked out well. I had only a few minor low spells, which is to be expected when racing for so many hours. By the numbers, I’m taking:

  • 21 Gu Energy Gels. Gu is my tried and true choice in energy gel. Why? Two reasons. First and most important, I prefer the taste of many Gu flavors over Gu’s competitors. A majority of my Gus at MdS will be Espresso Love, Just Plain, and a few Vanilla. I’ll also bring some Lemon Sublime and Orange Burst for something a little less sweet. This is a pretty standard race selection for me.
  • 9 Roctane. I like Roctane (iRF review) and I enjoy both flavors – Blueberry Pomegranate and Orange Vanilla. I’m glad to have found it and am looking forward to including it in the mix at MdS.
  • 8 Clif Shot Blok Fastpaks. With the new Fastpak (iRF review), I had no hesitation bringing some of these along. I’ve got a variety of flavors ranging from Mountain Berry to Cola.
  • 8 Clif Shots – all Double Espresso. I’m not bringing coffee or tea, so I plan to start each day with a Double Espresso Clif Shot. I love Double Espresso’s earthy favor and may start saving these for later in the day if I find I need a break from the sweeter tasting gels.

Everyone’s got to eat and folks at MdS are no exception. While I’ll be wolfing down plenty of sports gels, I’ll also be eating a real meal every day. For weigh-carriage reasons, dehydrated camping meals are the best option for MdS. As some of you know, I’m a vegetarian so that cuts down on the dehydrated meal options a bit. Fortunately, I tried a wide selection of Backpacker’s Pantry’s veggie meals at last summer’s Outdoor Retailer show and really liked what I tasted. I’ve since tasted more BP meals and tested cooking some without boiling water. (I’m not carrying a stove at MdS.) With the exception of focusing on my favorite flavor, Pad Thai, after the long stage (day 4), I focused on choosing meals that I thought were tasty and which had a high density of calories from carbohydrates along with a moderate amount of protein. My meals for the first six days are:

  1. Macaroni & Cheese
  2. Louisiana Red Beans & Rice
  3. Black Bean Tamale Pie
  4. Pad Thai
  5. Chana Masala
  6. Black Bean Tamale Pie

Breakfast, Snacks, and Other Foods
Breakfast is simple for I am a simple man. (Ha!) I’ll have a Clif Bar every morning. Being overly analytical, I’ve chosen the highest carbohydrate flavors from amongst my favorites. Also, that means I’ll only be taking my new favorite bar, White Chocolate Macadamia (iRF preview), for only one indulgent morning.

Later in the day I’ll be focused on refilling my glycogen stores after a hard effort. What better way to do that than with Ultragen and Pop Tarts? For those of you who see me shortly after a race, chance are I’ll have Ultragen in my hand… unless that hand is already occupied with a beer. At MdS, I’ll be downing one serving of Cappuccino Ultragen right after I finish and sipping on second serving latter in the day. I simply love the Cappuccino flavor. I also believe that Ultragen helps my body recover and not in some hocus pocus way. I primarily rely on it as a tasty carbohydrate source and figure that the protein and nutrients may aid recovery and cannot hurt. As for the Pop Tarts, what can I say? I was looking for a high caloric density/high carbohydrate food that I’d find appealing day-after-day in the desert. When you consider that I’ve never met a Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tart I didn’t like, it seemed like a no brainer.

My only other snacks are two packets of Justin’s Nut Butter. Under my original, highest-possible-caloric-density plan, Justin’s Nut Butter (yes, it’s ok to chuckle) was going to be a staple of my MdS 2009 diet. With the sea change away from fatty foods (even nutritious ones), the JNB content of my MdS diet got cut back heavily. I’m taking one packet of Classic Almond Butter and one of Maple Almond Butter, which is simply divine. If you’ve not tried JNB before, you really should.

A sample daily food list for my MdS 2009
(click to enlarge)

That’s it for me. If you are inclined to read boring, misguided nutrition plans or to ponder the psyche of a “special” individual, you can download my full nutrition plan here.

If you want to follow my journey through the desert at the Marathon des Sables, subscribe to iRunFar via RSS or via email and you will receive updates automatically.

There are 15 comments

  1. Meredith

    I cannot imagine carrying all my food for a week! And, yes, being a vegetarian does limit some of those camping type meals. Seems a bit low on calories, overall, but I am sure with the heat, you won't notice ;-) I am so excited to follow your race.

  2. Bryon Powell

    Meredith,I will certainly run a huge caloric deficit by race's end. No doubt about it. The amount of total calories is in line with what most competitors take. There's a fine line between taking in enough calories and carrying too much weight. My nutrition plan is be able to consistently add carbohydrate fuel to my fire… so long as I don't overexert myself, I should be able to obtain the rest of the necessary calories from fat at any given moment.

  3. Ultrarunning-Edge

    Good plan, Bryon! I think you're wise to skip the sports drink powder. Many ultrarunners get in trouble trying to combine carbo calories from gels and sports drink; it's just too easy to overdo it. Also most men can burn 250 calories/hour from fat (a little under 2 pounds of body fat for your distance). So unless you plan to average more than 4.5 mph, you should be fine with 200+ calories/hour from gel and 250 calories/hour from fat burning. I really like Clif products—especially Shot Bloks—but they digest twice as slowly as other gels, etc. So there tends to be a lag. When I want to use them, I try to take them only 20 minutes after the previous gel, to give them a little more time to kick in.Good luck out there, and have fun!!!

  4. Bryon Powell

    UR-Edge,I hope I'm rolling along faster than 4.5 mph for most stages. Fortunately, I've 1800 cal from glycogen stores for my efforts. Even if most stages take 4.5 hours, that's another 400 cal/hr to speed me on my way. Even at submaximal glycogen storage, I'll have a few hundred cals/hr available from glycogen stores for all but the longest stages. I hope! :-)

  5. Anonymous

    Bryon, Bryon- From the days of running into screens to running these grueling races- I have always loved you and have been so happy that you have stayed close to our family. Please know that you will be in my prayers each day. Follow your dreams, Bryon, life is not a dress rehearsal.Laurie

  6. lonerunman

    Hiya Bryon – congrats on a great run in Morocco. Too bad about the rain, but you get the bragging rights to go along with that weird weather for the region!I'm really interested in a follow-up on how your food plan went, if it worked for you, how the balance was, and if you tolerated it over the length of the race. I'll be heading to S. Africa for a stage run in October, and wondered how your food worked out in case I can take any tips away from your experience. (also a nudge that your gear list and experiences would also be welcome!)Congrats again on an excellent overall result, it must have been quite a trip. Bruce

  7. Bryon Powell

    Thanks, Bruce.My food plan worked perfectly. Exactly the right number of gels and shot bloks. One part was fine for breakfast and one dehydrated meal was sufficient to satiate me. The Pop Tarts were a nice snack… even if they were crumbs by the final day. I enjoyed having a serving of Ultragen immediately after the stage and had no issues with a second dose later in the day. Despite the gel heavy, fiber light diet and many miles of hard racing, my GI track held up remarkably well. The only thing I would have done differently would have been to have a few spare calories for during the race. In retrospect, I should have been popping gels every 15-20 minutes once my heart rate crashed with 20k to go on the 90k stage. I kept eating every 2-30 minutes and had a sudden rebirth with 3-5k to go. In future events, I'll try forcing calories when I'm down to running off only fat.Let me know if you have any specific questions! Best of luck in South Africa.-BryonPs. A gear list is coming. I'd hoped to post one before had re the decision making process and then one after re the final gear, but that obviously didn't happen.

  8. Anonymous

    Bryon, At the MdS I took about 15,600 cals and given the flooding and my inability to eat much I think I binned at least half of that. I ended up losing 2kg in wieght … what would you say that you used regarding cal count and what was your weight loss?Good performance, but it was good to see a Brit do a touch better ;)Cheers,Jason

  9. Bryon Powell

    Jason,I probably took in between 16,300 and 16,600 calories. No idea re weight loss. I didn't think I lost much weight, though folks say I looked leaner. Not more than a couple (2-3?) pounds.

  10. leigh

    I am not vegetarian, but I really like the Vegetable Tikka meal from Expedition Foods. It's surprisingly tasty! It's freeze dried too, which I find are more tasty than "dry mix" meals. It also has over 800 calories which is great for multi-day races.

  11. Steve


    I tried to download you entire meal plan but the link says I don't have access. Can you email it to me? irunfar/data/MdSFood.xls

    Did you not eat nuts or dried fruit?

    Love the pop tarts. I had the same idea.


  12. marc

    Access to this resource on the server is denied!

    Hey Byron – you are keeping things from us ! Secrets! We who are running MdS next year! The outrage!

    When I click on the link you can do load my full nutrition plan here. – it gives error at the top.

    Can you please fix or let us know how to get this info????


  13. Lionel

    Hi Bryon,

    It might be somewhere on your site, but what was you weight at the time of the race ?

    Great site and discussion, inspiring, going through it right now.

    Thanks !


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