Nutrition Strategies for the Literal Long Haul: Endurance Events and Spec Ops Selections

(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Desire M. Mora)

If you have ever done or prepared for a multiday endurance event, a long day/week of tactical training or even a marathon, you will need to experiment with nutrition strategies to help you stay hydrated and fueled.

Where many go wrong is, they neglect to practice eating and drinking during workouts to test out foods and drinks to see whether they agree with them. Trying something new on race day could have horrible digestive consequences and ruin your chances of finishing your challenging task.

As you start to think about the long hours and taxing physical activity, you may wonder: What should I eat and drink to stay energized and avoid dehydration, becoming a heat casualty or bonking altogether?

The time to practice and test out strategies is during your preparation -- not on game day.

What you eat and drink during long endurance or tactical training day events is essential to your performance and overall health. Here are some tips to help you refuel and rehydrate, not just during your training day, but for when it counts the most: competition or military and special operations selection.

First off, the fastest way to end your long physical event is not to drink water. Body cramps are just the first deteriorating sign of not drinking enough water, then things start to snowball. The inability to move at all and true dehydration lead straight into becoming a heat casualty.

To avoid this, stay hydrated all week prior to the event by drinking 2-3 liters of water a day, every day.

The need to add electrolytes will depend on how much you sweat. In humid environments, it is easy to read that you need water, as you will typically drip sweat. However, if you are in an area where the air is dry, the sweat may not linger on you for long as it quickly evaporates in these climates.

If you see salt stains, have dry or chapped lips or a dry, scratchy throat, drink more water and add electrolytes, too.

In an article focusing on the ABD's of Nutrition (After, Before, During) Workouts, you can see many ideas to help you test what works best for you. From this list (and other foods), find what is the right mix of energy/fuel, along with salts that primarily agree with your stomach while moving and working hard. You may find foods and drinks that cause heartburn or go right through you. Both will inevitably make your long endurance event tougher to complete.

Sometimes you are not offered a choice of foods. One morning in Navy SEAL Hell Week training, I was handed an MRE for breakfast at 6 a.m., and it was spaghetti with meatballs. It was fine for calories and salts, but I had heartburn for the next 12 hours.

Luckily, the corpsman had antacids to distribute as many of us were having digestive distress. Lesson learned: Always have a bag of antacids in your medical kit or during long racing events. This has saved me a few times over the years.

It's also important to eat snacks high in carbohydrates, such as granola bars, trail mix and whole-grain crackers, during training day. These snacks will help to keep your energy levels up and sustain your performance.

If you are doing a longer endurance training day, it's a good idea to have a meal higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat, such as pasta or a sandwich.

Scheduling and Timing

The next step is to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. You will need a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats to help fuel your body and keep your energy levels up. Aim to eat a meal or snack every 2-3 hours to keep your energy levels steady. Choose easily digestible foods,such as oatmeal, fruit, nut butter and toast, or a protein bar.

It is most important to ensure that you are drinking regularly throughout the event. Try to take regular sips of water or your sugar/electrolyte drink every 10-15 minutes. This will help to keep your energy levels up and prevent dehydration and fatigue.

Some of my favorite snacks and drinks are bananas, peanut butter, DripDrop oral rehydration in a bottle of water, watermelon and various nuts. Sometimes, you just need some sugar. Honey or Gatorade is effective in adding quick fuel to your body in these situations when you are starting to feel light-headed, dizzy or nauseated from low blood sugar.

This should keep you fueled to keep going and salted to help prevent muscle cramps and debilitating heat exhaustion -- or worse.

When it comes to hydration, make sure you have a water bottle that is easy to carry and refill throughout the day. Remember, you have minutes to go without water and only a few hours to go without food or fuel sources when staying fit to complete these types of long endurance events. If you run out of water, you are done shortly thereafter.

Make sure that your last meal before the event is a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This will provide your body with the fuel it needs to endure the long event. If you are taking part in a tactical training day, consider having an energy bar or a sandwich before you start to ensure your body has a steady source of energy.

Finally, you should also be aware of your body's temperature and environment. In hot or humid environments, you will need to drink more water to stay hydrated. If you're in cold temperatures, you will need to make sure you have enough calories to keep your body warm. If you're feeling cold, eat some high-calorie snacks such as peanut butter, nuts, trail mix or protein bars.

By following these tips, you will stay energized and hydrated during long endurance and tactical training events. Plan ahead, bring the right food and drinks with you and don't forget to listen to your body and its needs.

Eating a calorie surplus, staying hydrated and having snacks on hand can help you make it through your event. Just find the ones that agree with you and your energy demands and tastes.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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