Sometimes the least expected food makes for perfect fuel.
Sometimes the least expected food makes for perfect fuel.

The Secret Foods Elite Athletes Eat

Frosting! Cookies! Peanut butter! It's all fair game during long days of racing.

Sometimes the least expected food makes for perfect fuel.

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Clare Gallagher, who won the 2016 Leadville Trail 100, began her ultrarunning career while undergoing a teaching fellowship in a rural corner of Thailand. There wasn’t a single sport-specific gel packet or PowerBar within a hundred-mile radius of her town. Gallagher, now 25, improvised, sucking down Coca-Cola, Thai milk coffee, pure sugarcane, and lots and lots of packets of sweet sticky rice.

Not only did Gallagher feel fine eating this unorthodox combo, but she also started kicking ass, winning her very first ultra. Now, when Gallagher looks at the prices of sports nutrition products, she rolls her eyes: “Westerners are so self-righteous with our extravagant nutrition strategies that cost more than a month of student loan payments—for one race,” she says.

Plus, gels, bars, and powdered sports drinks are not exactly fine dining—especially in large quantities, when it feels like your taste buds are being assaulted by pure sugar. This is why more endurance athletes these days are eating real food while training and racing. “It gives me something to look forward to,” says ultrarunner Dylan Bowman of his favorite salted fudge brownies.

We caught up with six athletes to hear about their favorite unorthodox fuels, and then asked Cara Anselmo, a New York–based registered dietitian to weigh in on what, if any, benefits these foods might convey. (A necessary disclaimer: Not every workout requires this kind of fueling. If you’re going out for under two hours, we suggest you stick with water and maybe a gel.)

Clare Gallagher, Ultrarunner

Favorite Race Food: Frosting and Sour Patch Kids

The Backstory: “When packing my fuel for Leadville, I was completely disenchanted at the thought of buying 20-plus gels, and I am a sucker for frosting anyway. It occurred to me that I’d actually like the frosting better than gels,” Gallagher says. “Same with Sour Patch Kids. I could buy endurance-specific gummies, or I could buy 1.9 pounds of Sour Patch Kids and have plenty to share with my crew for the rest of the weekend. I hate to think my genius frosting idea was born out of me being cheap, but it really was just that.”

The Result: Gallagher’s Leadville win, which was the second-fastest female time ever, speaks for itself. Still, though, observers gawk. “People say my diet is appalling and unhealthy. To them, I say, ‘I think I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.’ I can’t eat gluten. I eat very little meat. I avoid dairy because I also have Hashimoto’s disease. If someone has evidence that eating frosting and Sour Patch Kids instead of some $300 baby-food vomit formula repurposed into Premium Fuel for Endurance Athletes is going to kill me, then I’m all ears.” Plus, Gallagher is now officially sponsored by Frost’d, a coconut oil–based frosting company founded by fellow ultrarunner Jessica Hamel.

Anselmo’s Take: Frosting has simple carbs for quick energy and no fiber to wreak havoc on the GI tract, and it’s easy to eat. No chewing required.

Dylan Bowman, Ultrarunner

Favorite Race Food: Salted fudge brownies

The Backstory: “In 2013, my girlfriend, Harmony, and I had to do about six months of long-distance dating. One weekend, we met in Malibu, where I was running a 50-mile race. We hadn’t seen each other in more than a month, so she surprised me at the airport with a fresh batch of my favorite brownies. Up to that point, the brownies were a special indulgence, but in the context of the race that weekend, it dawned on me that they’d be a good addition to my nutrition arsenal. I didn’t bring enough gels to get me through the whole race, so I had Harmony give me a Red Bull and brownie bag at an aid station about halfway through the race.”

The Result: “There were probably seven brownies in the bag, and I ate them all over the course of about 20 miles. I ended up winning the race, which seemed to validate this new and unfamiliar nutrition strategy. I’ve had her make them before important races ever since.”

Anselmo’s Take: “These have quick simple carbs, plus chocolate gives a bit of caffeine, which, in moderation, can enhance energy and athletic performance. They are also likely have some sodium and potassium for electrolyte repletion.”

“If someone has evidence that eating frosting and Sour Patch Kids instead of some $300 baby-food vomit formula repurposed into Premium Fuel for Endurance Athletes is going to kill me, then I’m all ears.”

Amelia Boone, Obstacle Course Racer

Favorite Prerace Snack: Cinnamon Roll Pop-Tarts

The Backstory: “I ate one before the Spartan Race World Championships in 2013 and won the race. So now it may be semi-superstition-related, but I actually find they sit really well in my stomach.”

Also on the Menu: “My diet sounds like the standard American diet for kids. During races, I’ll eat gummy bears, baby-food squeeze pouches, and peanut M&M’s. After races, I house pints of ice cream; it’s the only thing I can eat for about 12 hours. My stomach tends to be in knots an unable to take solid foods after really long races—I mean, go figure, given what I eat during.”

Anselmo’s Take: “Pop-Tarts are my prerace fuel, too. They’re perfect for quick simple carbs, and there’s no fiber to cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea. Also, they’re a total childhood comfort food, which might help calm nerves prerace. I’ve brought them with me when traveling for races because they travel well and never go bad, which is kind of gross but kind of great.”

Phil Gaimon, Retired Pro Cyclist

Favorite Midrace Fuel: Chocolate croissants

The Backstory: During long stage races in Europe, Gaimon and his teammates would often grab extra pastries from the hotel’s breakfast buffet and save them for later in the day. “There wasn’t a moment in the race when I wasn’t counting down to unwrapping those things,” he says. “I remember a moment where I went nuts for ten minutes to pull back the breakaway on a climb at the Tour of Provence. So I started to eat the pain au chocolat, but I was out of breath, and then the descent was insane, but I wasn’t going to spit it out and waste it, so I did a 20-minute technical downhill just holding it in my mouth.”

Also in His Pockets: Gaimon is a certified cookie monster, and his fans know it. Sometimes, before races, people would hand him wrapped cookies.

Anselmo’s Take: “A chocolate croissant has carbs as well as some fat, which you’d need during multiday events. Also, the sheer deliciousness factor makes it appealing. It’s not cloyingly sweet like some other treats, so it’s good for someone who likes less-sugary things.”

Sean Burch, Mountaineer

Favorite Expedition Food: Peanut butter

The Backstory: “I’ve always loved peanut butter, ever since I was a kid. I started letting myself eat a little more of it, and I thought I’d gain weight, but I didn’t. Pretty soon I was eating more and more. Now I eat a pound a day. On expeditions, I make sure we bring peanut butter because I don’t trust that I’ll be able to get it there. And I crave it. I look forward to eating it every single day.”

The Result: It has become an obsession for Burch. “If there’s a sale on all-natural peanut butter, I buy the store out of it—the cashiers at my local store know me,” he says. “I wish I had a sponsor for peanut butter. I spend a fortune on it. But I’m willing to spend the money because it’s an investment in myself and my health.”

Anselmo’s Take: “It’s a great, no-chew food that’s full of protein.” Plus, Burch says he only buys the all-natural variety, so it has no added sugars or hydrogenated oils.

Aaron Gwin, Red Bull Mountain Bike Racer

Favorite Between-Ride Snack: Pancakes

The Backstory: “I make a batch of pancakes at home in the morning, and then bag up two to six of them, depending on how much riding I’m doing that day. I make them pretty healthy, adding protein powder to the batter so I get all the nutrition I need. I keep experimenting and adding new things. They’ve gotten a little out of control the more that I keep adding ingredients—things like sweet potatoes, bananas, peanut butter powder, and oats—but I dig them. Pancakes give me a good base of carbs and protein for training days to keep me going without having to stop for long periods of time to eat, plus they’re easy to pack and digest, and I like the taste of them plain.”

Anselmo’s Take: “Pancakes have carbs galore, plus the little extra protein is probably good for muscle recovery after an intense and long workout.”