Food for Self-Supported Stage Race

Food for Self-Supported Stage Race

Food, glorious food!

A conversation with TPU veterans Cheryl Tulkoff and Thomas Mullins

The heaviest, bulkiest and most important item in your pack in a self-supported stage race like TPU is your food.  You’ll be fully loaded on Day One, and you’ll whittle it down as the week goes on, but planning is essential.  You don’t want to be overloaded when you start, and you also don’t want to be foraging on the native plant life by Day Five.


Several factors to consider:


  • Calories, or how much energy is in each food item
  • Its weight
  • Its protein content
  • Its ability to put a smile on your face (not to be underestimated)


Some TPU veterans describe their nutrition plan as a “controlled starve” because the calories needed to be extremely active for many hours per day over seven days is more than you really want to carry on your back.


The Math: Roughly, the average number of calories per ounce of popular trail foods is about 100.  Let’s say you burn 80 calories a mile, on average, at a walk/run pace (more if you’re male and more if you run more than you walk).  TPU courses are about 26 miles per day, which means you need about 2100 calories in addition to your basal metabolism burn for the day… so 3600-5000 calories per day.  That works out to carrying 2-3 pounds of food, per day, or 14-21 pounds of food for the week. With water, sleeping bag, pack and food, you’d be looking at carrying 22-27 pounds starting out the week, which is a lot of weight riding on your back.


So let’s just say you may lose a few pounds over the course of TPU. Now what’s your best strategy?


TPU race regulations require you to begin the week with a minimum of 14,000 calories (2000 per day). 2015 TPU female winner Cheryl Tulkoff began her week with 8 pounds of food (14,275 calories), approximately the same weight as all her other gear put together. Cheryl is a 110-pound female so she was carrying the low end of the calorie scale.


2015 TPU overall winner Thomas Mullins estimates that 80% of his starting pack weight was nutrition and the pack was well over 20 pounds. He opted for the high side of calories based on his own running experiences.  While his pack was heavier than most, he took comfort in knowing that it would become lighter with each passing day as he consumed the nutrition. And he won the race, so that’s a vote for going with your instincts and personal experience.


At the least, plan to get the most bang for your buck, the most calories for the weight. Check the nutrition labels on the food you propose to pack and compute its calories-per-ounce. You’ll no doubt include some foods that are lower calories-per-ounce just because they work for you, but you’ll want to maximize calories to the extent possible.


Here are some examples:


Calories per ounce of popular trail foods

CLIF Pizza Margherita Organic Trail Food

Vita Classic Nova Smoked Salmon 50
Dried Apricots 69
GU Roctane Vanilla Orange Energy Gel 91
Vega Protein & Greens Vanilla Shake (20 g protein) 104
Quaker Instant Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal 105
ProBar Meal Replacement Koka-Moka 123
Mountain House freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff 129
Jack Link’s Small Batch Bacon Jerky 130
CLIF Nut-Butter Filled Chocolate Peanut Butter bar 131
Cashews, raw 155
ProBar Sriracha Peanut Butter pouch 157



There is something to be said for having a “luxury” food in your back-pantry.  After a long day on the trail, it can be a sweet reward that perks you up nicely. Thomas says his “luxury” food of smoked salmon was worth every ounce of extra weight. He consumed it at strategic points during the week, and it had many nutritional benefits as well as being a special treat.



One of Cheryl’s staple foods was the ProBar.  Meal replacement ProBars score high on the calorie-per-ounce scale and are vegan, gluten-free and multi-flavored.  A Koka-Moka or Superfruit Slam might very well satisfy the craving for a “luxury” food while delivering clean calories, fiber and protein.



ProBar and Justin’s both make nut butters in small-serving packs (1.15 oz) that are perfect for trail use, about the size of a GU pack.  With a variety of flavors, these make good luxury foods, too: coconut almond caffeine or sriracha peanut butter, for example. Tulkoff recommends packing something with a little kick if you are accustomed to spicy food.  Freeze-dried or processed foods can begin to seem excessively bland over the course of a week.


Tulkoff also highly advises a recovery shake option for your immediate post-run recovery period each afternoon.  As a vegan, she used VegaProtein&Greens, but strongly recommends you use whatever your stomach is used to.


Protein becomes critical on a long expedition like TPU, when you are on a minimal calorie diet with heavy exertion.  Protein is essential for healing the micro muscle tears of running, and for minimizing the breakdown of muscle mass that can cause kidney trouble in extreme athletes.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends ½-1 gram of daily protein for every pound of body weight.  Thus a 110-pound woman needs between 55 and 110 grams of protein per day, and should err on the high side on days of hard exercise.   The more prolonged or intense the exercise, the more protein the body cannibalizes the working muscles for protein, and the more is needed for recovery.


Cheryl put VegaProtein powder and almonds in her morning oatmeal.  Combined with ProBars on the trail and a post-run protein recovery shake, she banked 75 grams of protein even before her evening meal.  Her success on the trail speaks highly for this regimen.


Both Cheryl and Thomas stress that runners should practice their nutrition before they start packing for TPU.  Everything you bring should have been thoroughly pre-tested on your runs.  Thomas encourages his runners to “do the math”… take the time to calculate your calorie burn for run and recovery, and use that as a baseline for the amount of food you pack. He encourages runners to use foods they are familiar with and have tested extensively.


Everything’s a trade-off when you are self-supporting on a long effort like TPU with your world on your back.  Plan your nutrition well, and you’ll have some cushion for a little luxury item. Cheryl’s luxury was five pairs of socks, one fresh pair for each day.  For Thomas, it was a full-length air mattress.


For further questions about nutrition, packs or registration, contact TPU Race Director Chris Herrera at 432-294-5284

Useful Links:

Vegan Options –

Customized Freeze-Dried Meals –

Other Freeze Dried Meals –

Trail Food and Equipment of All Kinds –


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