The hard work’s done. You’ve put the hours in on the bike, threshold is now your friend and intervals haven’t gotten easier. You’re ready to take to the line for your first bike race. But how should you fuel on race day to make sure that you get the most out of your training and performance?
We’ve teamed up with Spoked.ai - a cycling coaching app that makes personalised training simple through the power of tech, coaches and community. We’ve broken down some simple aspects of a solid fuelling strategy in preparation for, and on, race day, because nailing your nutrition can help optimise where your energy is used to be at your best.
What Is ‘Fuel’?
Let’s start by recapping what your body can and will digest as fuel. Carbohydrates are used predominantly when your body is working hard; if the intensity is lower than fats will be the go-to; once the carbs have been used up and there’s less fat available the body will start burning muscle protein as a last resort.
The duration of your race impacts how much ‘fuel’ you’ll need to consume to stock your energy stores sufficiently. For shorter criterium or time trial type races of up to an hour you can get by with less, however when looking at longer road races for two to three hours or more then your fuelling strategy comes into play even more so.
Rewinding slightly, training is the place where it all should be tried and tested. This is the time
where you can use key sessions to really perfect your pre-race meals. Pick out a long ride and a hard interval session from the training diary as useful opportunities to test out fuelling methods and putting plans into practice.
When it comes to what specifically to eat, foods high in carbohydrates - rice or pasta for example - with some light protein, such as eggs, chicken or tofu, is a good place to start. As well as what, when is also very important as understanding the timing of meals is imperative to prevent gastrointestinal issues. Somewhere in the region of 2.5-4 hours before your session or race is an optimal time to digest and absorb all the calories and nutrients you need to perform at your best. This can vary between athletes though so, again, it should be tested to see if you need longer to digest your meal.
Get Your Timings Right
With race start times often varying throughout the day, it is important to opt for foods that you’d likely be used to consuming at that time of day - choosing porridge in the morning over a bowl of rice with chicken will always seem more palatable (until you’ve become accustomed that is)! Something to be mindful of when approaching a race is the volume of fibre you are consuming, often found in nuts and seeds, or fruit and vegetables. The nerves and excitement of racing can have the tendency to cause stomach irritation and reducing your fibre intake from about 48 hours out can certainly help manage any problems caused by this.
On race morning, new foods or food combinations should be avoided at all costs. Stick to what you know from training and practice to avoid unnecessary, unexpected surprises. Make sure you’re well hydrated the day before and morning of your race, then in the hour before the start, sipping on an electrolyte mix such as the Rawvelo Hydration Mix is a great way of staying hydrated before the start line.
In regular UK summer temperatures, 16-23ºC, a 500ml bottle of water or hydration mix should be consumed each hour as a minimum. A good way to tackle this is drinking little and often. For races of over an hour in duration, you’ll need to incorporate additional carbohydrate intake. For example, consuming two gels in a 60-90 minute race would be recommended, around 20 minutes apart but allowing the last one enough time to digest and take effect, alongside water to aid food absorption and hydration.
In longer races and also back-to-back race days consuming further fuel is vital, aiming for a carbohydrate rich food but with some fat and protein in there too. You’re not only fuelling for what’s to come that day but also for tomorrow too, as well as kick starting the recovery process. Energy Bars are a great form of pre-formulated snack food in-race. Cereal or fruit bars, fig rolls and rice cakes are other favourites used by riders at all levels as small bite-sized snacks to have in your pocket during the race to top up energy stores. Remember though that your body can only consume around 60-80g of carbohydrates per hour, or 0.7 g/kg of body weight - that’s 56g for an 80kg rider. (Estimated Carbohydrates per hour = 0.7 x Body Weight in KG). So don’t try to over do it.
When to eat and drink?
Once again, practice eating and drinking in training beforehand, not only so your body is used to digesting solids during longer, harder intensity, but also so that you’re used to having a hand off the handlebars on the bike too. Another trick is to avoid eating or drinking on the hills when the pace is high and doing so on flater, less technical sections is recommended. This will allow you to better respond to the race your heart rate will be lower, making it more manageable to consume and digest. When you’re breathing hard you’ll pretty quickly realise that you can’t chew or swallow very easily, and having two hands on the bars is beneficial. Likewise, if you’re feeling good and see someone start biting into an energy bar on the key climb of the race, it’s not a bad moment to attack or ramp up the pace - they’ll soon be fumbling around with the bar and losing what’s left of it from their mouth!
Some athletes will require more sustenance than others and not everyone can handle the same products for nutrition. A great place to start is the Rawvelo Sample Box, this allows you to test a range of different flavour combinations and types of fuelling. Of course, nutrition is a topic which is partially subjective and personal to each rider. No one plan specifically fits all.
Now you’re all set to get out there and enjoy it. Good luck.