One of the most frequent questions teams and coaches ask after an in-person or online presentation (such as during the NICA Online Leaders Summit Safety and Risk Management Day) is “What are some examples of foods to eat before, during, and after a ride or race?” There’s certainly plenty of info (and snack ideas) to chew on, but before we dive in I’ll offer a quick disclaimer:
My background is as an exercise physiologist and I’m not a registered dietitian. This means our focus will be on basic information for the various dietary components with general examples for each. Any information provided by Coeus and its staff is purely for educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice or dietary prescription. If you’re interested in receiving a personalized dietary plan we recommend reaching out to a registered dietitian in your area who specializes in working with athletes.
Let’s get started! For our purposes, we’re keeping it simple and focusing on carbohydrate intake and fluid volume consumption. Personalizing dietary intake to optimize performance requires considering a variety of factors unique to the individual and is best done by a registered dietician, however, carb and fluid intake is often a useful place for athletes to focus in general. Remember, carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient for athletic performance. This is due to their role in both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism as well as fueling our brains. The following guidelines assume an athlete is completing either a shorter but high-intensity ride or a longer ride (>1-1.5 hrs). If you want to see how these recommended values apply to you, now is a great time to convert your weight to kilograms so you can find your personalized values.
Before A Ride/Race
Key points: Keep in mind what you eat before a ride or race depends on the time you have to digest the food prior to starting.
3-4 hours before ride/race - Aim for 3-4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. Try to eat more complex carbohydrates (ex. whole grains) and it is fine to have a moderate amount of fat and protein as well. This could be viewed as more of a “meal” vs. a “snack”. Also, be aware you don’t have to eat all of this food in one sitting. Assuming we have a 165 lbs athlete (~75kg) we are aiming for between 225-300 grams of carbohydrates. This may look like:
Having two burritos plus chips and fruit puts us within the recommended range. Perhaps you’re thinking: “That's a lot of food!”? Remember, this recommendation is appropriate to consume as a “meal” before riding, and is dependent on your pre-ride time window. Some other examples of foods you could consume within this time window could include:
Don’t be afraid to look at packaged foods as well! Remember we’re looking for items with low to moderate fat and protein that include complex carbohydrates (avoid lots of added sugars and aim for whole fruits, whole grains, and the like). There are many times when packaged foods, like a frozen burrito, can be a quick addition to a meal to boost the carbohydrate load.
When it comes to hydration during this timeframe aim for consistent fluid consumption with the goal of maintaining a pale yellow urine color. Once you’re within 2 hours of your start time aim to consume 16-24 oz of fluids to maintain adequate hydration levels.
This plan is great if there’s a wide window of time before starting your activity, but let’s take a look at what you might do instead if your ride or race is coming up fast!
1-2 hours before ride/race - When there are only 1-2 hours remaining prior to a ride or race it’s best to focus on foods that digest quickly and are less likely to cause GI distress during physical activity. In general, look for foods that have more easily digestible simple carbohydrates with low amounts of fat, protein, and fiber (which tend to slow digestion). Aim for 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. Some of the food examples provided earlier could still work well in this time window, with some minor modifications. Here are some examples of foods that could work:
An athlete could mix and match any of the choices above to meet the recommended 75-150 grams (based on body weight) they would need in this window. Remember, this recommendation means either consuming the meal (3-4 hours) OR the snack (1-2 hours), depending on the timeframe remaining before your ride, but not both! The most important part of eating closer to a ride/race is to find foods that are easily digestible. Don’t be afraid to experiment with food choices to find what works best for you, just don’t experiment right before a big ride or race!
Hydration for 1-2 hours before a ride/race is 16-24 oz of fluids within 2 hours of starting time.
Nutritional demands don’t stop once you start your activity. Nobody likes hitting the wall or bonking! Now that the pre-ride nutrition is out of the way, let’s keep the good carbs rolling and discuss fueling on the bike…
During a ride/race - During a ride/race recommended fueling amounts are to consume 30-90 grams of carbohydrates + 16-24 oz of fluids per hour, with higher amounts needed for longer and/or higher-intensity rides. Food choice becomes even more critical here as we want to get the carbs into the body and to the muscles ASAP. Simple carbohydrate sources are our friends, however, it’s fine to include some complex carbs based on your own personal tolerance. Here are some examples of foods that would work well during a race/ride, including some NICA favorites:
The most important thing is to find foods that you enjoy eating, that work for your body (no GI distress), and are realistic for you to eat during the ride/race. Let’s be honest, the best nutrition plan isn’t effective if the food doesn’t make it into your body! Make sure to find what works best for your own body’s needs. There are foods that will work great for long low-intensity rides, but not for an all-out race (unless you have a stomach of steel…) It all depends on your personal tolerance and needs, so make sure to test your choices well ahead of any important rides or races. Just remember: nothing new on race day!
To learn more about the concepts covered in this article while earning NICA CEUs, check out our recommended courses below!
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