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Fueling Victory: Nutritional Strategies for Long-Distance Ruck Marching

The Mission: Long-Distance Ruck March Nutrition

Long-distance ruck marching – an exercise routine that feels more like a special operation. A battle against physical exhaustion and mental fatigue, this 10-30 mile trek demands preparation, endurance, and the right fuel. But what does it mean to fuel correctly? For the servicemen and women, firefighters, police officers, and paramedics who make up the ruck marching ranks, let’s break it down to the molecular level using a language we all understand – military jargon.

Your Body: The Ultimate Field of Operation

Consider your body as a highly advanced piece of military hardware. To perform optimally, it needs the right type of fuel – in this case, macronutrients and micronutrients.

Macronutrients – the protein, carbohydrates, and fat in your diet – are your body’s primary energy sources. Like different types of ammunition, each plays a specific role:

  1. Protein: Consider this as the corpsmen/medics/paramedics. It helps repair and build tissues, including muscle that’s often damaged during these rigorous marches.
  2. Carbohydrates: These are your body’s main energy source. Simple carbs (like Jolly Rogers and energy gels) provide fast energy release, like a 240 firing at the cyclic rate, while complex carbs (such as whole grains) release energy slowly, like a sniper’s patient, deliberate shot.
  3. Fat: Fat is a dense energy source, the body’s reserve fuel tank. It’s like artillery support, coming in when the main forces are depleted.

Micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – are the SOF bubbas that work in the background. They play crucial roles in energy production, muscle contraction, and inflammation mitigation. Notable players include Vitamin D for bone health, Magnesium for muscle function, and Omega-3 fatty acids for inflammation control.

Operation Plan: Fueling Strategy

Success in a long-distance ruck march depends on your nutrition strategy. It involves three key phases – pre-mission fuel-up, in-mission sustenance, and post-mission recovery, or movement to contact, actions on the objective, consolidation.

Pre-Mission Fuel-Up

Prior to the march, your objective is to fill up your energy stores. A 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is often recommended about 2-3 hours before the march. This could be a meal like chicken pasta or a protein bar with a side of fruit.

In-Mission Sustenance

During the march, maintaining energy levels is crucial. Think of this as resupplying your troops. Every hour, aim for about 30-60g of carbohydrates – this could be an energy gel, a handful of gummy bears, or an orange.

Post-Mission Recovery

Post-march, the focus shifts to recovery and repair. Here, protein takes the spotlight. A 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein within 30 minutes to 2 hours after the march can kickstart muscle repair and replenish energy stores. A protein shake or a meal with lean meat, vegetables, and rice can do the trick.

The Tactical Importance of Hydration

Hydration is like maintaining communication lines in the field – without it, everything else fails. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, reduced endurance, and impaired cognitive function. For every hour of marching, aim to drink 500ml to 1L of water. Consider adding electrolytes to your water to replace what’s lost through sweat.

The Molecular Mechanics

At a molecular level, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, your body’s main energy currency. During intense exercise like ruck marching, glucose is converted into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) through a process called glycolysis. ATP is like your body’s ammunition – it fuels muscular contractions and allows you to keep going.

Fats, stored in the body as triglycerides, are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol through lipolysis. They’re then converted into ATP through beta-oxidation, providing a slower, but longer-lasting energy supply.

Protein, broken down into amino acids, primarily aids in muscle repair and growth. But in cases of extreme energy demand or dietary deficiency, amino acids can also be converted into glucose for energy – a process called gluconeogenesis.

Micronutrients like Vitamin B act as co-enzymes, helping in the conversion of these macronutrients to ATP. Minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium are crucial for maintaining electrical gradients over cell membranes, facilitating nerve impulse transmissions, and muscle contractions.

The Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in reducing inflammation. They are converted into molecules called resolvins and protectins that help bring down inflammation and promote muscle healing.

In the midst of a high-intensity ruck march, whether to refuel on the move or during breaks can be a tough call. It’s essential to understand that the body’s physiological response during intense physical activity, such as rucking, is to prioritize the working muscles. This is done by shunting blood away from non-essential systems, including the digestive system, to the skeletal muscles.

This redirection of blood can impair digestion and nutrient absorption, especially if you attempt to consume a large meal on the move. Not only could this lead to GI (gastrointestinal) discomfort, but it could also mean that those much-needed nutrients may not be fully absorbed and utilized, leaving you with an empty ammo box in the heat of battle.

This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t eat on the move, but your strategy needs to be tactical. Small, easy-to-digest snacks high in carbohydrates are your best bet. Think simple sugars like gummy bears or energy gels. These provide quick fuel and are less likely to lead to digestive woes.

Protein bars can also be consumed on the move, but keep in mind, protein requires more blood for digestion. It might be a better option to save these for when you’re taking a break and the body isn’t in ‘divert to primary ops’ mode.

Marching Distance: Adjusting Your Fueling Strategy

Different missions call for different strategies, and the same holds true for ruck marching. The length of the march – whether it’s a medium-distance 6-miler or a long haul over 10 miles – will dictate your fueling needs.

For a medium-distance march, you can likely rely on your body’s stored glycogen for the duration of the march. However, maintaining hydration is still paramount. If the conditions are hot and humid, or you’re carrying a heavy pack, even a 6-mile march can result in significant sweat losses. Replenishing with water is key.

For a long-distance ruck march, things get a bit more complex. Your body’s glycogen stores may be insufficient to cover the energy needs, and you’ll need to refuel along the way. This is where the previously discussed on-the-move nutrition strategies come into play. Also, due to the longer duration, electrolyte losses from sweat can become significant. Hence, it becomes crucial not just to replace water but also the electrolytes lost in sweat.

Hydrate to Dominate: Water and Electrolyte Strategies

Before heading out on a ruck march, it’s recommended to hydrate with about 16-20 fl oz (roughly 500ml) of water 1-2 hours prior. This will ensure you’re well-hydrated at the start line, but also gives your body ample time to excrete any excess water.

As you march, you’ll be sweating and losing water and electrolytes, with losses accelerating in hot or humid conditions or if you’re carrying a heavy load. You should aim to drink around 6-12 fl oz (500ml) of water every 15-20 minutes, adjusting based on your sweat rate, the temperature, and the intensity of the march.

But water isn’t the only thing you’re losing in sweat. Electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium, are also lost and need to be replaced to maintain fluid balance and muscle function. Neglecting electrolyte replacement during a long-distance march while continually drinking water can potentially lead to hyponatremia – a condition where your body’s sodium concentration is dangerously low, leading to nausea, headache, confusion, seizures, and in extreme cases, coma or death.  To prevent this, consider using an electrolyte replacement drink or tabs during your march. These typically contain a balance of sodium, potassium, and other essential minerals lost in sweat. Not only will this help maintain electrolyte balance, but the added carbohydrates can also provide an additional energy source to fuel your march.

Post-Mission Nutrition: The Recovery Phase

Congratulations! You’ve completed your ruck march. But the mission isn’t quite over yet. The recovery phase is just as important as the march itself to ensure your body is primed and ready for the next mission.

Firstly, rehydrate. Replenish any lost fluids by drinking water or an electrolyte beverage. In this phase, the focus shifts to replenishing glycogen stores and repairing muscle damage. You’ll want to intake a mix of high-quality protein for muscle repair and carbohydrates to refill your glycogen stores. In terms of timing, it’s generally recommended to consume this post-mission meal within 60 minutes of finishing your march, as this is when your body is primed for nutrient uptake – what we refer to as the “anabolic window”.  *(Research has shown that what we know to be the “metabolic window” isn’t really accurate and that muscle protein synthesis – MPS can go on for 24 hours or so.  However, the metabolic pathways involved in MPS are most active during the hour after intense exercise, hence the idea of the metabolic window.  If you don’t get your protein shake in 60 minutes after training, don’t stress, MPS is still going to happen).

This is also where anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients can play a big role. Consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts, or taking an omega-3 supplement can help reduce inflammation and support faster recovery. Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can also aid in combatting inflammation and oxidative stress resulting from the ruck march.

Consider a recovery meal like grilled salmon (rich in protein and omega-3s), a side of quinoa (for carbohydrates), and a mix of colorful vegetables (providing antioxidants and micronutrients). To help replenish electrolytes, you could also add an electrolyte-rich beverage or snack on a potassium-rich banana.

Micro-briefing: Key Takeaways

  1. Ruck March Fueling – Your body requires high-quality fuel in the form of macronutrients to sustain a ruck march. Carbohydrates for quick energy, protein for muscle support, and fats for long-lasting fuel.
  2. Nutrient Timing – Understanding when to eat what can enhance your performance and recovery. Consuming simple carbs and easily digestible foods during the march, saving protein and fats for breaks or post-march recovery.
  3. Hydration – Hydrate before, during, and after the march. For long marches, it’s crucial to also replace lost electrolytes to maintain fluid balance and prevent hyponatremia.
  4. Recovery Nutrition – Post-mission, the focus should be on rehydrating, replenishing glycogen stores, repairing muscle damage, and combating inflammation. Consume a balanced meal of protein, carbohydrates, and anti-inflammatory foods within the 60-minute anabolic window.

Remember, every soldier is different, and what works for one may not work for all. Consider these guidelines as your basecamp – the starting point from where you adjust and adapt to find what works best for you in the field. At the end of the day, the mission is to keep you fueled, fit, and mission-ready.

By understanding the critical role of nutrition in performance and recovery, you’re not only adding another tool to your military skillset, but you’re also investing in your health, longevity, and continued service readiness.

References

Burke, L. M., Millet, G., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & International Association of Athletics Federations (2007). Nutrition for distance events. Journal of sports sciences25 Suppl 1, S29–S38. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410701607239

Burke, L. M., Jeukendrup, A. E., Jones, A. M., & Mooses, M. (2019). Contemporary Nutrition Strategies to Optimize Performance in Distance Runners and Race Walkers, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism29(2), 117-129. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2019-0004

Jeukendrup A. E. (2011). Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling. Journal of sports sciences29 Suppl 1, S91–S99. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2011.610348

McGlory, C., van Vliet, S., Stokes, T., Mittendorfer, B., & Phillips, S. M. (2019). The impact of exercise and nutrition on the regulation of skeletal muscle mass. The Journal of physiology597(5), 1251–1258. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP275443

Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise48(3), 543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852

Williamson E. (2016). Nutritional implications for ultra-endurance walking and running events. Extreme physiology & medicine5, 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13728-016-0054-0

DISCLAIMER: Content on this website is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Please see a physician or mental health specialist before making any medical or lifestyle decisions. Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Products recommended on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

James Conner , USMC (Ret.)
I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I earned a BSc. in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick (Ireland), and am currently living in the Netherlands where I am pursuing a MSc in Biomedicine specializing in Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Metabolism. I am a Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach, and Cancer Exercise Specialist.
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