I get so excited whenever I hear an aid station coming up, but then everything happens so fast and I can’t think straight when I arrive. Often I don’t know what’s best to grab at aid stations. Can you help me break down the nutritional content so that I can make the right choices?
Sometimes I have this recurring nightmare before a race, where I’ll spend hours calculating and sorting out running nutrition into my pack and drop bags. I’m all ready, have checked all the boxes, but when it comes time to the race, something happens and I’m unable to eat or drink anything I’ve packed.
Often it’s because of a stomach issue. Sometimes it’s that I just don’t want anything I’ve packed, and sometimes – and this is unusual, I know – it’s because I’ve lost all my teeth, the most terrifying of them all! In this nightmare, the worst-case scenario is feeling unprepared without my nutrition and having to rely solely on things I haven’t planned for, or practiced with: I have to rely entirely on aid station food.
Maybe you’ve had this dream, too. Or maybe this has actually happened to you in real life. But I’m also willing to bet that this is a pretty unique dream, conjured up by a nerdy dietitian with pre-race anxiety issues. Regardless, if you’ve ever found yourself in this position during a race, don’t fear. All is not lost. Aid station food can save the day!
Setting the Stage
Before we dive into the nutrition of aid station foods, let’s first talk about basic nutrition guidelines, of what we should be aiming to consume each hour during a race.
Ideally, we want to consume the following every hour:
- 250-400 calories
- 45-65 grams of carbohydrates
- 300-600 mg of sodium per hour. (Note: This amount may vary from athlete to athlete, depending on personal sweat rate, hydration status, and ambient temperature.)
Many of the sports nutrition products available on the market – gels, chews, and drinks – are formulated specifically to these guidelines, ensuring we get the nutrition we need in a convenient (and sometimes expensive) tiny package. But for some athletes, there might come a point during the race where those sports nutrition products just don’t cut it anymore, due to nausea, palate fatigue, or upset stomach.
You’ll find that most aid stations offer very similar food and drinks, so I would first recommend spending time during training to practice with a few of your favorite fuels, to minimize potential gut issues come race day. For me, I know that no matter how nauseous I feel or how upset my stomach might be, Coke and potato chips always sound good, so during longer training runs I make sure to bring those items along, in addition to the gels and drinks I plan on using during the race. Make sure you practice with foods you plan on using on race day – even if they’re just backups!
OK. Now that we know what our general targets are, and have become attuned to what our stomachs like and dislike during training, inevitably we’ll arrive at an aid station with caloric needs and curiosity. After all, if you’re taking in the minimum of 200 calories per hour from gels and/or powders, an aid station might offer a nice little bump in calories to maintain energy over the length of a race.
Your Aid Station Cheat Sheet:
So what do you grab? How to know what your body needs at any given time? Here are 12 of the most common things you’ll see at aid stations (in North America), plus estimates for what nutrition you’ll be receiving with on-the-go serving sizes.
- Serving Size: One handful
- Stats: ~130 kcal, 15g carbs, 260 mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Chips are a great option with some carbs, and usually a nice change of pace to the palate after hours of eating sweet gels. The sodium in one handful of chips is comparable to about one SaltStick cap!
- Serving Size: One handful
- Stats: 130 kcal, 31g carbs, 0 mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Candy, like gummy bears, is a quick and easy sugar source. And very portable. They don’t melt, but will become much harder to chew in colder temperatures, so be wary of this if you are racing somewhere cold. Twice as many carbs as a handful of chips.
- Serving Size: 3 rolls/pieces.
- Stats: ~100 kcal, 13g carbs, 190 mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Ah, you’ve struck gold. This is everyone’s favorite aid station treasure! These are easy to eat and usually hit the spot. The sodium content here makes this a good option if you’re feeling depleted.
- Serving Size: 1 cupful
- Stats: 60 kcal, 16g carbs, 0 mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Nothing hits the spot quite like watermelon during a hot race. It is a great source of potassium, which is an important electrolyte for hydration and muscle function. It also acts as an alternative and easy way to hydrate since watermelon has a high water content. Some aid stations will offer salted watermelon, too.
- Serving Size: 1 spear
- Stats: 5 kcal, 0g carbs, 280mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Very few calories, but more sodium than a salt pill. Turn to pickles when you need an extra dose of sodium and might not have access to salt pills.
- Serving Size: 1 small handful
- Stats: 140 kcal, 17g carbs, 15mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: This can be a good option if you’re craving something sweet. They contain calories and carbs but not much sodium, so pair these with a higher sodium food or drink option.
- Serving Size: 1 flask
- Stats: 80 kcal, 21g carbs, ~350mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: An all-around great option, especially if you are at a point in the race where eating food doesn’t feel possible. Remember: drinkable calories are still calories! If possible, find out which brand the race is serving beforehand so you can practice during training.
- Serving Stats: 1 flask
- Stats: ~200 kcal, 52g carbs, 0mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Coke (or what I personally like to refer to as my secret jetfuel) contains an ideal amount of highly digestible calories and carbs. Most soft drinks, like ginger ale or sprite, have similar stats. But Coke also contains caffeine (34 mg per 12oz. can), which could be beneficial for performance. While most races serve flat soft drinks, be aware if it’s carbonated – this may cause stomach issues in some individuals.
- Serving Size: 2-3 small potatoes
- Stats: ~100kcal, 25g carbs, 500-1000mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: I’m always very happy when an aid station serves salted potatoes. They’re easy to chew, easy to digest, and can be a good palate cleanser from sweet foods. The sodium content here varies based on how much salt the aid station chef uses. Dip in more salt (usually available at aid stations) for some bonus sodium!
- Serving Size: 1 banana
- Stats: ~100 kcal, 27g carbs, 0mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Like watermelon, bananas are a good source of potassium, which can help reduce muscle cramping. However, bananas do contain fiber (3g per banana), so be aware if your stomach has issues with fibrous foods during a race.
- Serving Size: 3 cookies
- Stats: 160 kcal, 25g carbs, 135mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: Calories, carbs and sodium, all packaged up nicely into one delicious, portable cookie that doesn’t melt – what more could you want? Just be careful on hot days, or are struggling with dry mouth, as these might be hard to chew and swallow.
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Stats: ~40 kcal, 0g carbs, ~750mg sodium
- Tasting Notes: There is nothing like the full-body comforting feeling of warm broth during an overnight race. A cup of broth is equal to about three salt pills, which makes it a super source of sodium! However, because it is a low-calorie option, be sure to eat something more substantial in addition to this.
The aim here is to make clear-headed choices during a race that will help you thrive. So the next time you find yourself waking up from that pre-race nightmare – or, more realistically, you find yourself at an aid station – you won’t have to sweat it any longer. Instead, you’ll be able to smile to yourself, grab a handful of chips, some gummy bears, or a pickle spear, and keep moving with confidence, knowing that you’ve set yourself up for success for miles to come.