Updated: Dec 3, 2021
"Good nutrition is a tool that can catapult you from good to great. Imagine putting in all of those hours training and then not being able to execute because you didn't fuel the work."
When cycling intensity is high, timing and composition of nutrition intake leading into an event become especially important. In the case of a stand alone cyclocross race, crit and time trial, sub one hour efforts, you want to make sure you’ve digested your last full meal well before you throw the power down hard.
Due to the shorter duration of these events, you wouldn’t require a large carbohydrate load the day before, as you would before a 3-5 hour long hilly road race. Instead, you want to do some trial and error with differing amounts of carbohydrate (in the range noted below) and total calorie intake, during mock training situations, to gain a good understanding of what you need to finish your race with maximal power. We know that having glycogen stores plays an important part in executing high intensity repeated efforts, so let’s narrow in on some practical tactics to stay on top of energy and carbohydrate needs.
Pre-Race Nutrition: Practice in training
Day before: Based on trial and error with your pre-race nutrition you will dial in where you fall within the range of carbohydrate intakes noted below. You’ll want to set up some “mock” 1-hour race pace sessions. Testing in training is how to determine if you need to tweak carbohydrate intake upwards.
Carbohydrate intake: Range 5-8g/kg body weight
Protein: 1.2-2g/kg bodyweight
Fat: 20-30% of calorie intake (may be higher depending on age and overall training load)
Example of pre-race day nutrition for a 68kg (150lb) athlete:
To determine your weight in kilos, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
I will choose specific values for the purposes of this example. Let’s assume this athlete has determined these are their needs based on experimentation during training.
Carbohydrates: 68kg x 6g/kg = 408grams
Protein: 68kg x 1.5g/kg = 102grams
Fat: 20-30% of daily caloric intake
Here’s how this could look translated into food:
½ cup oats dry (cooked in soy milk or regular milk)
1 cup soy milk
½ cup of yogurt
1.5 tbsp. maple syrup
½ cup frozen blueberries
1 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 cup fresh pineapple juice
2 pieces whole wheat toast
1 tbsp. honey
1 banana sliced
Lunch: Burrito Bowl
1 cup steamed rice
3oz grilled chicken
¼ cup black beans canned
½ cup steamed kale
3 tbsp. salsa Verde
1 cup edamame with sea salt
½ cup dried mango
Dinner: Pasta with Tofu
1.5 cups of pasta cooked
3 slices of tofu (flavored or cooked with spices etc.)
½ cup tomato sauce
11 baby tomatoes
15 rice crackers
3tbsp apple butter
Now that you’ve dialed in your pre race day nutrition, it’s time to race. How do you eat on race day?
Race Day Morning:
Pre Race Meal Timing: Your pre race meal will usually be 3-4 hours before start time. I suggest counting backwards from race start to organize when you will be eating, allowing time for digestion. Get organized! Your meal should contain between 1-4g/kg of carbohydrates and be lower in fat and fiber to allow for easier digestion. As an example, for the athlete above, 68kg x 2g/kg of carbohydrate would equal 136grams. The breakfast listed above has 130g of carbohydrates which makes it fairly close to 2g/kg.
You will want to play around with what works for you during training sessions by timing breakfast as if you’re preparing to race, determining how much and which foods sit well in your stomach.
Within the last hour before your race including your warm up, you can snack on easy to digest carbohydrates including sports drinks, bananas, fig newtons, energy bars or whatever works for you and you’ve used successfully during training. If you have reactive hypoglycemia, I would recommend you test eating your last snack 5-15 minutes before your “mock race” in training and experiment with your last meal ending at least 90 minutes pre race. You can bring a gel, some energy chews or a bar with water to the line and consume your carbohydrate with water while waiting for the start. Low glycemic carbohydrates have been shown to result in less reactive hypoglycemia. Use the methods that works best for you and you can only determine this through trial and error.
Caffeine intake between 3-9mg/kg of body has been shown to improve cycling performance. Caffeine peaks in the blood between 1-2 hours. You’ll want to test out what feels best for you timing wise in training. For our 68kg athlete mentioned above, 4mg/kg would be 272mg of caffeine. A typical 16oz Starbucks coffee has 188mg, however research has shown that this can be inconsistent at specialty coffee shops. If you don’t like coffee you can also get caffeine through gels, bars or caffeine pills.
Don’t forget that caffeine can impact your sleep, so if you’re racing at night this is something to take into consideration.
Stay on top of your hydration regularly. Hydration can be impacted by temperature, altitude and variability in individual sweat and sodium losses. Look for a pale color urine and going to the bathroom every 2-2.5 hours. Don’t wait until race day to optimize hydration, it should be a part of daily life and training.
Stay cool! Ice in a stocking pre race works nicely.
Tips to stay and feel cooler pre race in the summer heat:
Arrive hydrated to race
Stay in the shade pre race if possible.
Drink cold liquids pre race when possible
Drink a slushy on a really hot day if it’s available pre race
Use a nylon with ice cubes in it on your chest or neck area
Acclimatize to heat prior to racing. More on this here.
I should add a caveat here as context is everything in sports nutrition. If your criterium or time trial is in the middle of stage race this would change the recommendations above as you would also be recovering from the current stage the day before the criterium which would likely increase your energy and carbohydrate intake.
Avoid trying anything new on race day. A good example of this would be caffeine intake. It’s important to understand how your body responds to caffeine. Although we know for many athletes, caffeine is performance enhancing, for others it may have detrimental effects on either performance or gastrointestinal upset. Knowing this before race day is important as you’ve invested so much time into training, you don’t want to find out during the race.
Lastly, the pre race day meal example I gave would vary greatly between athletes. Some athletes for example need to cut back on fiber the day or days before a race to prevent GI distress. Many athletes may be vegetarian or vegan or on special diets for health reasons and will therefor make different food choices.
Good nutrition is a tool that can catapult you from good to great.
Pay attention to the details, learn what works for you and practice in training to get dialed in and have your most powerful finishes yet.
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Stay tuned for What to eat during 1-5 hour long bike races.
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