Nathan Fa’avae on GODZone nutrition
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With the 9th chapter of GODZone only a matter of weeks away Sportzhub caught up with adventure racer Nathan Fa’avae on his nutrition plan for the epic race and to ask about Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dry Meals, a business he owns and operates.
Adventure racers burn a mountain of energy that needs replaced, either on the run or in a transition area somewhere in the wilds. In a typical expedition adventure race there are about 10-stages, give or take. That normally means there will be a similar amount of transition areas, but that’s not always the case as there are often remote transition areas where teams may change discipline but with limited supplies and resources. This means that teams get to resupply at transition areas and then they need to be self sufficient on the stages, which can range from a few hours to a few days. Sometimes if teams are lucky they pass through towns during opening hours and they can shop for fresh food, but most of the time they only eat what they can carry.
What to carry can be a confusing and brain draining exercise for many adventure racers, especially people new to the sport, so we have asked Nathan the team captain of Avaya, multiple World Champions and GODZone winners, what his thoughts are on nutrition. The winning time for GODZone is predicted to be 5-days (120-hours) with the course open for 8-days.
Nathan was part of the group that started Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dry Meal company and last year he bought the business, he is a strong believer that freeze dried food is a major advantage for adventure racers because it’ll make teams go faster for longer. We asked him a few questions to learn more about that.
Sportzhub: how do you approach the food and nutrition requirements for the GODZone race?
Nathan: there’s basically two parts to race fuelling, there is transition areas and on course. This year we have support crews so having some food prepared by the support crew is helpful, but it doesn’t change much for our team. Normally our races are unsupported so we generally load our bins and boxes up with tear top tins of ready to eat food. For each transition area, we budget for each person to have 2-cans of food, like a can of baked beans and a can of peaches, plus a can of drink also. During the transition if you can eat two cans food and have a can of drink, that’s a decent meal. If there are 10-transitions that starts to add up to quite a lot of cans and sometimes we have weight limits, so we’ll use freeze dried meals if we have to reduce the weight. I don’t really see much point in doing things differently this year even with a support crew, but having some hot coffee from our support crew will be amazing. If it’s super cold having some hot food can be rejuvenating.
Sportzhub: so you don’t expect five course meals in your transition areas?
Nathan: I think the job of support crew is hard enough as it is without having to be a Michelin star chef, having personal meal requests and expectations makes the crewing job really hard as they never really know when to have food ready. My belief is if you want hot food, go faster and finish the race earlier, then go to a restaurant. In some races we do we can pick fruit along the course, that’s always fun, in Costa Rica there was guava everywhere. I remember a race in Namibia where there were road side stalls selling fresh dates, we ate a lot of them.
Sportzhub: what about on course, how do you plan what to take and how much?
Nathan: experience has taught me that snacking hourly is important, and then having fairly substantial meals at your normal meals times. Pre race we make up 12-hour food bags, about 10-each. In each bag we put 12-items, at least 2 major items and the rest is snacks.
Sportzhub: what does that look like, what sort of things are you taking?
Nathan: I think it’s important to note that if you’re racing for 20-hours a day, most people will need about 10,000 calories, probably more, it can vary from person to person but you need plenty of fuel which is a lot of carry, in fact, it’s almost impossible to carry that much and that’s why most people finish an expedition race in a calorific deficit. I think if you tried to carry that much food, you’d burn more fuel so you’d need to carry even more, it’s not practical, this is why the more our team races, the more we use freeze dried food. At GODZone I’ll eat at least 25-freeze dried meals, probably more like 30. It’s not difficult to eat a meal every 4-5 hours. In between the meals we’ll snack on gels, bars, dried fruit, cookies, salted nuts, corn chips, lollies, stuff like that, about 100-grams of each. We keep the food shop pretty basic these days. Pre race it’s common for people to say ‘I won’t eat that, don’t get any for me’, then a few days later on course they want that very thing. I did a race in Spain years ago and I got some sardines for one of the stages. At the store one of the team members was disgusted by the thought. Then on day 4 in the race, they were really hungry but didn’t have anything they felt like eating, so I offered them the sardines, as a joke. They ate them, loved them, and said they’d always race with them in the future. Variety is the key.
Sportzhub: The 12-hour food bags, Not all stages are 12-hours, how does that work? and do you use them for all stages, hiking, biking or kayaking?
Nathan: Once we know the course it’s easy to modify a 12-hour bag to suit, take a few things out or add a few things. I tend to eat the same food bags regardless of the discipline we’re doing. If I’m concerned that I may not have enough food for a stage, I’ll throw in some freeze dried banana smoothies. They are only 40-grams and have the equivalent of one banana, a glass of milk and a tablespoon of honey, that’s a lot of energy for 40-grams of weight, perfect for back up food.
Sportzhub: What’s changed the most since you started racing, there are so many products available these days how does that compare to 20-years ago?
Nathan: We used to have heavier packs, the type of food we ate was heavier. I suspect we burnt more fat and finished the races more fatigued and depleted. We’d mainly use the same stuff, gels, bars etc, but we’d carry lots of sandwiches and baking, fruit cake and slices, sometimes even cans of food, like tinned stew. Now there is much more selection, but for our team we use more and more freeze dried goods. Nearly every race debrief we’ve had in the last 8-years or so it was determined we’d use more freeze dried food in the future. Provided we have access to water it’s a massive advantage. The Absolute Wilderness meals we’ve developed have been centred around athlete performance but ensuring they taste great, that’s extremely important because good food lifts spirit and you feel positive. The meals only weigh 100-grams, as a wet meal before they are freeze dried they weigh 350-500 grams, so to carry that equivalent in a ready to eat state you’d need to carry at least three times the weight. The race that made us realise how much freeze dried meals can have an impact was the 2012 World Champs in France. We went there with a big supply of meals, teams weren’t racing with meals then, they may have had some in transitions but not on course. Absolute Wilderness meals could be carried on course because they didn’t require hot water, we noticed that after a few days, we simply had more energy and were more healthy than the teams around us, and they dropped off the pace. I honestly believe that nutrition was a major contributing factor to us winning.
Sportzhub: How does a freeze dry meal compare to more typical food carried in terms of energy?
Nathan: Most ‘candy’ bars are around 100-grams and have about 250-calories. Absolute Wilderness meals have the highest calorific to gram ratio, we aim for each meal to have between 600-800 calories, nothing can compete with that. We’ve even made some meals with 900 calories. Because of the new technology and processing methods at Absolute Wilderness, the meals cold water rehydrate 100% which is a big bonus for adventure racing. But it’s not just about counting calories. You could do a race eating mars bars, but you’ll end up with a mouth full of ulcers and will likely have fluctuating energy. The freeze dried meals we make are complete meals, with minerals, vitamins, protein and fibre etc. Because they are extremely nutritious, we finish races in much better shape, we don’t suffer from sleep deprivation as much and overall our bodies are in better health.
Sportzhub: You own Absolute Wilderness now, how has the journey of the company been going?
Nathan: We started in 2012 and have had some really big achievements in that time, but 2020 was a difficult year and we had to close for a while. My business partners were keen to exit and move onto other projects so I looked at how I could keep it going. We started cooking meals again in January and we’re back supplying again which is really satisfying. We mainly supply trampers and hunters, some ultra runners and a board spectrum of adventurers. For that reason the meals not only need to be energy dense, they need to taste fantastic, and be a joy to eat. We pride ourselves on the clean label, our recipes are hand cooked with basic stuff, I really like it when people say the meals taste like home cooking.
Sportzhub: What other benefits do you perceive freeze dried meals to offer?
Nathan: Freeze dried meals means lighter packs and more energy for the weight you’re carrying, so there is a simple mathematic equation there. We also vacuum pack the meals, no other company does that, it not only keeps the meals fresher, but they take up significantly less space in backpacks than non-vacuum packed alternatives. In GODZone we’ll be carrying pack rafts and I know from experience that as soon as you load a pack raft into your back pack space is a premium, so the vacuum packed meals are awesome in that regard. Another big advantage of freeze dry is the variety of food you can carry, our team will be carrying smoothies, salads, fruit and yoghurt, puddings and main meals. This ensures you have something you wish to eat, which is really important in an adventure race because anything you can do to provide some comfort is worth so much out there on course.
Sportzhub: So you have a pack full of freeze dried meals, what else is high priority?
Nathan: We have a few staples that have served us really well, Ems Power Cookies,
Pure Gels, Pics Peanut Butter Slugs and Salt Stick fast chews.
Sportzhub: A final hot tip for GODZone nutrition?
Nathan: As a guide, our food shop for an adventure race is normally $2000, we always have food left over but healthy food adds up. I know many teams spend way less and they’re fine with that, but then I see the same teams spend excessive money on other stuff, bikes, paddles, boats, but really the most important spend in an adventure race is the stuff you’re putting into your mouth to provide the sustenance to reach the finish line.