As a coach, one of the most common questions I get from my athletes is ‘what should I be eating on race day?’ – or something along those lines. What to eat, when to eat, how much to eat? With a plethora of information out there it is quite easy to become overwhelmed with what ‘protocol’ to follow; high carb? low carb? What even is high carb? Carb loading = more equals better right? But then why am I suffering GI upset come race day?
Before I go any further, I will start by saying this. I am not a qualified nutritionist or dietitian. I do have, however, a Masters Degree in HP Sport, providing me with an understanding of what we should be putting into our bodies before, during and after exercise. That, combined with my own experience and research into sports nutrition, has helped me with working out what I need to get the most out of myself. Not to mention working with Sports Nutritionists to help me work out what it is that I need.
So here it is, race nutrition simplified. The lowdown on CHO intake for cycling; the how much, the what, and the when. Nothing you haven’t heard before, but hopefully some key tips to help you prepare for racing and training.
1. Everyone is different.
No two athletes are the same. We are different sizes, different body types and have different demands when it comes to the exercise we are doing. Which is why there is no blanket approach for how to tackle nutrition. It is important that you find what works for you. Practice race nutrition in training. Find the brand of sports nutrition that works for you. And whatever you do, do not try something different to what you are used to on race day. Practice what you know, and what your stomach is expecting. There is nothing worse than being limited by GI upset due to too many gels (also more commonly known as ‘gel belly’).
Below is a really handy summary from Yann Le Meur on how to work out how much CHO you really need; based on what exercise you are doing
So it is pretty simple, the greater the size of the athlete, the higher the intensity, the greater the need for CHO ingestion.Once you have that sorted, it’s on to timing of nutritional intake around exercise.
2. Nutrient timing
This is where guidelines come in handy. Depending on your race, you might be competing in the morning, midday, early arvo, or even having to tackle some double days (training or racing) – Sorry Tristan! So it is a good idea to know roughly when you should be eating and what. In saying that, it is important not to get too caught up in specifics. The biggest thing we need to be able to do as athletes is adapt. Yes, you might have a prepared routine, but depending on where you are racing and what facilities you have available, this may have an affect on what it is you have access to, and ultimately can eat.
Try and get used to simple options that are readily available at most supermarkets or options that travel well. This will help you when on the road.
3. But first, coffee
Rather than just lumping you with a whole heap of infographics, I thought I would share some of my go-to snacks and pre-race/session rituals and preferred foods. I like to keep it simple and decide what to eat, usually on the day; depending on what time of day I am exercising.
As a female racer, our races are usually in the mornings (or I train in the mornings due to having lots of jobs!) which makes it fairly straightforward – breakfast and/or a quick snack and I am good to go!
Breakfast usually consists of some porridge (1/3-1/2 c oats depending on the intensity of the exercise), 1/3 c berries, 1 tbs honey, half a banana and a dollop of yoghurt. Normally I just cook my oats in boiling water and cinnamon, but almond milk sometimes makes an appearance (I prefer nut based milks, but obvs normal milk is okay too). I usually tuck into breakfast 2-3h before the session/stage; with 3 h before TT’s generally (if time allows).
If I need a snack beforehand (if it is quite a while after breakfast or I am doing a session later in the arvo, before dinner) it is hard to go past some rice cakes, honey, banana (or a variation of).
With reference to CHO intake, a banana usually consists of ~30g of CHO, a tbs honey about the same and then if you top it up with rice cakes or even a wrap of some description, you can easily work up to ~100g CHO. Simple fuel, easily accessible by the body.
I usually have a cup of coffee about an hour so beforehand, double shot long black to get the blood flowing!
4. Ready, set, race time = top up time
This is where it is important to practice what it is that you need. Depending on your size and how much your stomach can handle, this should dictate how much you eat. As a general rule anywhere between 60-90g CHO per hour during a race is a pretty safe bet.
Choosing gels can be tricky. I am lucky enough to have found a supportive brand in Science In Sport. Not only do they have an extensive range of products, but they work well for me with regards to a happy tummy and nutritional needs for before, during and after exercise. Their full range can be found here
For me, 60g per hour is enough, being a smaller athlete. I tend to prefer higher CHO meals leading into the race, and then just topping up the stored glycogen periodically during the race, aiming for one gel/bar every half hour or so (about 30g CHO) My fluid intake is influenced by how hot it is; but regardless I try to be as hydrated as possible leading into the event.
You probably think I am starting to sound like a robot here, with doses and times being railed off, but the reality is I give myself handy little reminders and cues. In terms of timing, if it is a closed circuit, I usually pick a reference point on the course and think ‘right I should eat again’ whereas if it is point to point I sometimes work backwards from anticipated efforts ‘ah yep, there is a climb coming up in about 20 minutes, I should eat now’ or eat straight after a big effort to replace the glycogen used up, and so on.
Rather than thinking about the effort just completed, think of what’s next! This is where CHO intake can be manipulated. Protein ingestion is important for muscle recovery and synthesis, but depending on the following session (whether you have a rest day or another hard session for example) this will dictate how much CHO you need.
30g of Protein is normally a good benchmark to aim for (most protein powders contain this amount per serve – but you can also find this in a post ride meal such as an omelette (with eggs and canned fish or smoked salmon, cottage cheese etc.)
An example of where two recovery meals might differ (but still be the same meal) depending on the following day would be as follows:
Low CHO = Eggs with 1-2 cups of veggies and some cottage cheese or low fat dairy. Smoked salmon and 1/4 avocado optional
High CHO = as per above but includes 1-2 pieces of toast to accompany, or similar (in a wrap for example)
Low CHO = protein powder, 1 serve of plain low fat yoghurt, spinach leaves, berries, cacao and almond milk (or similar)
High CHO = same as above but addition of banana and/or 1/3 c oats.
Obviously the ingredients will vary but hopefully that highlights how simple it is to modify ingredients of preferred meals based on what you need to get out of yourself the following day.
6. What about before bed?
In high training blocks (high intensity and/or volume) it is important to keep your body ticking along and recovering properly even when you are asleep.
More often than not, due to the sheer volume of training, many cyclists are constantly in an energy deficit, even if they are eating the recommended intake around training. So this is where it is important to ensure that muscle breakdown doesn’t occur and that you are giving your body a chance to repair properly. There is no point putting in all the hard work and then seeing it undone or not being able to back up the day after next.
By having a serve of protein and small amount of CHO before bed this will help your body repair whilst you are sleeping, and maintain muscle mass.
A few options could include some fruit and yoghurt (I LOVEEEE frozen berries) with a tbs of muesli on top, or even something as simple as a protein smoothie before bed.
With regards to which protein, without going down the rabbit hole, it is important to find a protein that has a slower ingestion rate. Typically Whey protein has a faster absorption rate than Casein; so if you are able to find a protein that has a mixture of both then this is a great option. An example is the Science in Sport Overnight Protein, but of course another brand would be fine too.
A handy tip when buying protein is ensuring it comes from a clean and credible source that promotes themselves as being so. You don’t want to run the risk of your protein powder being contaminated. Be extra careful when buying online.
Sanity is equally as important as paying attention to what you eat. Rather than have ‘cheat days’ or whatever you want to call them, just try and be consistent. This makes it easier when preparing for the hard days/blocks.
Treats are not going to undo all your hard work, provided they are in moderation. Just be sensible, it’s pretty simple!
So in summary, please don’t take any of what you have just read as gospel, but rather a step in the riight direction of what you might need to get the most out of yourself. Using the old performance sports car analogy; you can have the best engine in the world but if you don’t fuel it properly then it isn’t going to run well. High performance vehicles need premium fuel. The same goes for you.
Feel free to drop me a line on any meal options or pieces of advice you might be chasing and I will do my best to help out 🙂
Until next time,
Attribution: this article was originally written by Kate Perry in Kateperry.net