Race Day Nutrition
There’s a variety of responses I get from coaches focused on race weekends when I ask them about their riders’ nutritional approach directly before and during races. As we discuss recommendations on race day nutrition, coaches inevitably say: “I didn’t know they need to eat that much!” The volume, timing, and composition of food athletes should be eating during the day of a race is often far higher than the coach or athlete anticipates, and often explains why riders have a poor outcome or underperform during their ride. Nutritional adjustments can be the difference between a great experience on the bike or barely making it to the finish line. Here are some basic recommendations for successful race-day nutrition…
Carbs Are Not the Enemy
Athletes have often heard of carb-loading, but did you know carbohydrates aren’t just for a pre-ride snack? They are the single most important macronutrient to ingest for athletic performance. The data shows remarkable support for the importance of carbohydrate availability in performance in general and especially in endurance sports. There are many reasons for this including:
Efficiency - Carbs are more efficient than fat to turn into ATP (the fuel for cells) per unit of oxygen used.
Broad Availability - Your body can use carbs to create ATP both anaerobically and aerobically. **You can learn more about how carbs are turned into ATP in our Cellular Energy Production course.
Limited Stores - Fully topped up, the body only holds about 300-400g of carbs which we can deplete in about an hour or less of high-intensity work.
Brain Fuel - Carbs are the preferred fuel for your brain which means when our bodies don’t have enough we tend to have trouble with decision-making, reaction time, and other important functions.
Due to the importance of carbohydrates for athletic performance, we focus most of our dietary advice on the number of carbohydrates consumed at a certain point prior to or during a race.
Before the Race
When it comes to athletic nutrition the goal of any pre-race meal is to “top off” the carbs we have available in our body prior to an activity. The type and amount of carbs you should consume depends on a few factors, such as:
How much time you have before starting your warm-up.
The length and intensity of your race.
Shorter, high-intensity races require we have all our food digested well before the start of the race to avoid digestive upset and ensure we have carbs ready to fuel our activity. Longer, less intense activities allow you to vary the amount and type of foods you use to fuel your body since there is less restriction on your body’s digestion and less immediate demand on your carbohydrate stores.
There are a lot of variables to consider when planning pre-race nutrition, but here are some simple guidelines you can start with:
3-4 hours from the start of warm-up:
Eat 3-4 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight over this time period
If you are 3-4 hours from the start of your activity, aim for complex carbs with a little bit of fat and protein
As you get closer to 1-2 hours from the start of the activity, foods should be easy to digest with a shift to more simple carbs
Example - A 154lbs (~70kg) athlete starting fours hours pre-race for a 1.5 hour XC race might consume the following:
Goal = 210-280g carbs
4 hours out - Oatmeal (1 cup dry) cooked with raisins, banana, peanut butter, and honey = ~135g carbs
2 hours out - 2 slices whole wheat toast = 38g carbs
1 hour out - 1 banana + 12oz orange juice = ~50g carbs
Total = ~223g carbs
1-2 hours from the start of warm-up:
Eat 1-2 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight over this time period
A shorter digestion window means you should rely on more simple carbs which are more readily available sooner after they are consumed.
Fiber, fat, and protein all have the ability to slow down digestion which can create GI distress during the event.
Example - A 154lbs (~70kg) athlete starting two hours pre-race for a 1.5 hour XC race might consume the following:
Goal = 70-140g carbs
2 hours out - 2 slices whole wheat toast + 1 banana = ~65g carbs
30 minutes out - 16 oz sports drink + 3 energy blocks = ~40g carbs
Total = ~105g carbs
This can be a massive change for athletes who do not normally consume this much food prior to riding. We all know the saying ‘Nothing new on race day’, so it’s important to ensure we test out nutritional adjustments during practice prior to race day. This allows the athlete to test which foods work for their body and which do not so there are no surprises during a race.
What about morning races? This is a common question from NICA coaches. Is it worth it to wake up athletes early in the morning for a 3-4 hour meal or let them sleep and just aim for the 1-2 hour guidelines? Our recommendation is to let young athletes sleep AND emphasize the importance of intra-race nutrition.
During the race
Fueling effectively during a race is just as important as pre-race nutrition. We’ll view the “start” of the activity as when the athlete begins warming up. Just like earlier, there is a range of necessary carb intake that varies depending on the race length and intensity, starting with the following guidelines:
<1 hour of riding time:
Riders who are properly fueled prior to starting their activity usually don’t require additional carbs during their ride. With that being said, it’s a safe practice, especially during morning races for riders to keep a bottle of sports drink with them. Current data indicates the consumption of carbs can help reduce perceived exertion levels. While not nutritionally necessary, athletes who sip a sports drink throughout their race may feel better mentally which can improve performance and overall race experience, especially for youth athletes.
1-2.5 hours of riding time:
Aim to consume about 30-60 grams of carbs per hour depending on what can be digested easily.
For context, one entire packet of energy blocks is about 50g of carbs, a typical energy gel is 20-25g of carbs, and a 21 oz bottle of sports drink is around 30g of carbs.
Shorter races are usually more intense, so aim for fast-digesting carb sources.
Aim to consume 30-90 grams of carbs from a mixture of sources.
As race length gets longer the average intensity also goes down.
Lower intensity activity allows the body to digest more complex carbs sources including those with small amounts of fat and protein.
Key takeaways for intra-race nutrition:
Shorter and higher intensity activities = simpler and easier to digest carb sources
Practice race-day nutrition BEFORE the day of the race, never try new foods or fueling at a race
Find foods that work for the individual and meet the guidelines above
Eat early and often! For higher-intensity activities you cannot wait to begin fueling until later in the race. Be proactive in avoiding the BONK, start just before warm-up by consuming small amounts of food every 10-15 minutes (or as possible) while warming up and throughout the activity
Hydration is vital to a good ride. Athletes should attempt to start a race euhydrated (not over or under-hydrated) and sip fluids consistently throughout their ride. Here are some basic guidelines to start with:
Aim to start your ride with a pale yellow urine color
About two hours prior to your ride, drink one bottle (~20 oz) of fluid
About 10-20 minutes prior to your ride, drink ⅓ to ½ of a bottle of fluid
While riding aim to drink 1-1.5 bottles (~20-30 oz) of fluid per hour
Every athlete is unique! It’s important to find the types and amounts of food and fluids in the provided ranges that the athlete can consume without triggering GI distress. This often takes trial and error, but once you’ve discovered what works for your body, you’ll be able to confidently fuel for even the most challenging races.
But wait there’s more!
The guidelines above give you a great foundation for harnessing protein, fat, and electrolytes to meet the challenges of race day. To learn more about how to effectively manage race day nutrition and the benefits of fueling well, check out our recommended courses below.
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