What to Eat During 30 minute – 5 Hour Long Bike Races to Power Through the Finish Line
Carbohydrate intake during cycling competition in combination with ample glycogen stores heading into competition, are key factors in preventing fatigue and optimizing performance. Falling short on energy can lead to hitting the wall and choosing the wrong foods can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Giving your sports nutrition the attention it deserves will pay dividends in your training and racing performances.
Training is the time to test the quantity, composition, and timing of your nutrition and increase your tolerance for absorbing higher amounts of carbohydrates should this be required.
The duration and intensity of your races will factor into your carbohydrate needs. Short and intense races can deplete glycogen quickly as carbohydrate is the main fuel source for high-intensity sport. However longer races also rely heavily on carbohydrates. Race-winning moves will be intense even later on during these events and finishing sprints will demand intensity and fatigue resistance.
30 minute -1 hour races
Short and intense races can deplete glycogen stores quickly as carbohydrate is the dominant fuel source for high-intensity sport.
Brian Truman - Road Cyclist - The RAAS
Water will likely suffice for most during short intense competitions. You’ll want to arrive at competition with good glycogen stores from the previous days’ nutrition and your breakfast. However there are other options beyond water which may positively improve your performance.
Carbohydrate Mouth Rinse
During a short even like this a carbohydrate mouth rinse, without swallowing, may improve mean power output. Although the mechanisms remain unclear it appears the performance effect is a result of communication between carbohydrate receptors in the mouth and our central nervous system. Essentially your brain is getting messages sent to it. A carbohydrate mouth rinse can lower our perception of pain and/or send messages to muscles leading to additional recruitment of muscle fibers.
Small portion of carbohydrate:
Although you’ll have good glycogen stores for an event of this duration based on your planned nutrition intake leading into the race, consuming a small bit of carbohydrate such as a gel with water or a few chews during the event is not detrimental to performance and may improve performance through similar mechanisms as a carbohydrate mouth rinse . Do what you’re comfortable with and what works best for you based on your training experience.
1-2 hour races
Once you’re competing in races lasting 60-120 minutes, carbohydrate intake during the race in combination with your glycogen stores leading into the event become more critical for preventing fatigue and improving performance. Examples of races that fall into this time frame include mountain bike races , circuit races, some cyclocross races and longer criteriums.
Gunnar Holmgren – U23 Mountain Bike World Championships 2020: Photo Credit Caroline Gautier
Aim to consume between 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour from either single carbohydrate sources (ex. glucose) or multiple transportable carbohydrate sources (ex. Glucose, sucrose and fructose) for events of this duration.
Sports drinks with 4-8% carbohydrate are recommended as a quick source of energy and hydration.
Most sports drinks have approximately 20-30g of carbohydrates per serving, while some newer ones on the market such as Maurten, have as high as 80g per serving and have been successfully used by well-trained athletes during competition.
Examples of easy-to-digest carbohydrate sources with 30-60g could include any of the following in different portions.
sports drinks (20-40g)
bread and jelly
dates (too many may cause GI distress)
home made cookies low in fat/fiber
rice crispy squares
home made rice bars
Stick with low fat, protein and fiber carbohydrates which are easy for you to digest while racing.
Practical Tip: Races in this category often have very technical aspects. Make sure you pre-ride the course and figure out where you can eat/drink on each lap. Technical mountain bike races can be a challenge and often the feed/tech zone is the key location to fuel. For long criteriums or circuit races, you’ll get a sense of the flow once the race starts and find your best feeding spots.