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Nutrition planning for an important race

Proper dietary preparation is essential to your best efforts.

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With the race season now in full view, it is time to map out your nutrition strategy for important races (and the less important races for good practice). Whether you are planning on completing a long road race, criterium, cross-country mountain bike race, or track racing or maybe you just want to hang strong with the group on tough training rides, or even complete a century in style,proper, proper dietary preparation is essential to your best efforts. Good nutritional preparation ensures that you have more energy to complete the event at your best effort level and more fun as well.

Eating and Drinking Ahead
Daily training and eating results in a steady cycle of glycogen depletion and repletion. Falling short of your recovery fuel needs, especially carbohydrates, can result in subpar rides, and lackluster training. And before an important race or event it is essential that you arrive to the start with fuel at full capacity.

While weekly racing can be part of your training routine, start planning ahead by one to two days for important dates on the calendar. With less intense training, your nutritional intake can exceed your training needs, particularly in the area of carbohydrate, resulting in muscle glycogen stores filled to capacity. Muscle glycogen is your premium fuel for the race or event, so you want to arrive at the start line with full stores. Consume 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate (ranging from a full rest day to covering a light ride) per pound of body weight (6.5-10 g/kg) for the day and consider carbohydrate timing as well. Make sure that any easy training rides are followed by a good high carbohydrate snack or recovery drink to get a full start on the replenishment process.

Optimal hydration, without underhydrating or overhydrating is also essential for a successful event. Hydrating is important, but keep in mind that less training means less sweating. Match your fluid intake for that day’s activity. Clear or very light colored urine indicates that you are adequately hydrated. Overhydrating beyond your daily and exercise fluid needs is not advised, as this is one potential cause of hyponatremia, or lowered blood sodium, a serious or even fatal condition associated with endurance efforts generally lasting longer than four hours. Salty sweaters can also incorporate salty foods into their pre-event foods and salt food (unless otherwise advised by their physician for specific medical reasons).

Nightime Nosh
Eating properly the two days before the event or race, means that a moderate dinner the night before should seal up the nutrition plan until morning. Try to avoid having anything that is too heavy and you definitely do not want to feel stuffed from your day of eating late into the night come race morning.

Below is a pre-competition/event menu that provides 574 g of carbohydrate and 3100 calories. On a pre-event rest day, protein intake can be low to moderate and fat intake low. Cyclists whose energy and carbohydrate needs on lower than the menu outlined below can eliminate some snacks or trim portions as needed. The carbohydrate and calorie content of each meal or snack is provided. Choose lower fiber versions of grains if you have a sensitive gastrointestinal system. If you pre-event day is a busy one or if you prefer not to consume a lot of foods from carbohydrate, you can also use some liquid meal replacement products, energy bars, or high carbohydrate liquid supplements to reach your carbo-loading tally.

1 cup or orange juice 1 cup cornflakes 1 large banana 1 cup skim milk 2 slices toast 1 tsp. margarine 2 tbsp. jam 147 g carbohydrate, 750 calories
6 ounces of yogurt with fruit 20 g carbohydrate, 150 calories
3 ounces lean turkey 2 slices bread 1 ounce pretzels 1 large pear 8 ounces apple juice 105 g carbohydrate, 585 calories
energy bar 40 g carbohydrate, 200 calories
2 cups cooked rice 3 ounces turkey 1 cup cooked peas 2 slices bread 160 g carbohydrate, 961 calories
12 ounces frozen yogurt 2 Fig Newtons 102 g carbohydrate, 460 calories

Morning Fuel
Even if you have an early start time, it is good to wake the morning of an event hungry and looking forward to the morning meal. The morning of the race or event, stick with tried and true choices that have been tested out before challenging training rides. Pre-event carbohydrates boost depleted early morning liver glycogen stores, helping to keep blood glucose levels nice and steady and prevent hunger in the hours leading to the start. Your best pre-event fuel is the combination of food and fluid choices, portions and timing planned specifically for your start time. This meal will return early morning liver glycogen stores to normal and stores some carbohydrates in your muscles if portions are large enough. It can also prevent feeling hungry during longer events or competition.

Many seasoned racers prefer to leave at least two to three hours digestion time following breakfast, but may continue to fuel gently up to the start. For every hour of digestion time, aim for half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (1g /kg per hour digestion time). For three hours digestion time, a 160-lb. cyclist could consume over 200 g of carbohydrate in their pre-race meal. Many cyclists opt for some liquid carbohydrate choices, and easy to digest starchy foods. Protein can be added in as you tolerate, with fat usually kept to minimum levels. Experiment with food choices and timing in training. For riders with very early morning starts, such luxurious timing and portioning may not be possible. You may need to eat a smaller pre-event meal to compensate for the decreased digestion time.

Have foods, sports drinks, gels, and liquids readily available the morning of the event. Pack your favorite items as needed, and be confident about what works best for you. While longer efforts necessitate a larger pre-event meal, very high intensity efforts like a criterium or mountain bike race can also demand more digestion time.

If you have a later start time, plan out your meal and snack times. Perhaps you can eat a rather large breakfast that morning, and then a light meal or snack several hours later and two to three hours before the race start. For example, if you have a 2:00 p.m. start, you can have a good breakfast at 7:00 a.m. and then a 11:00 am light meal which can also consist of breakfast foods.

On the bike
Of course what you consume on the bike is essential to fuel efforts lasting longer than 90 minutes. Sports drinks provide a good balance of fuel, fluid, and electrolytes. Drink to minimize dehydration. Like your pre-event plan, it is important to consume an optimal amount of fluid, and not under- or overhydrate. Seasoned cyclists often have high sweat rates, an adaptation that cools their bodies, but requires focused fluid replacement.

Knowing your own sweat rate is important when training and completing an endurance event. Check your weight before and after training. Every pound of weight loss represents 16 ounces of unreplaced sweat. If you are losing more than two pounds when training, you likely need to improve your drinking efforts. Gaining weight could mean that you have a relatively low sweat rate, and could be overdrinking. Sweat rates can range anywhere from half a quart to 3 quarts (about 1 to 3 liters) per hour. Knowing your own sweat losses, and drinking to replace them appropriately is essential to both minimize dehydration (from underdrinking) and preventing hyponatremia (from overdrinking). Some extra fuel may also be needed for longer efforts. Just know what your stomach can tolerate and consume any gels and bars with water.

Personal Plan
Your own pre-event nutrition plan should allow you to arrive to the start well-fueled, optimally hydrated, with a calm and easy stomach. Fine-tune your strategies before and during pre-event rides to reflect your own food tolerances, sweat losses, and fueling needs. The table below outlines some race and ride preparation strategies.

Event Pre-race Race Day
2 to 3 hour road race or cross-country race Rest and feed muscles for 1 to 2 days prior with 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per pound (6.5-10g/kg)  Hydrate so that urine is clear. Do not overhydrate. You can include sodium in your pre-race day foods and fluids. Do not eat a heavy meal close to bedtime and choose easily digested and well-tolerated foods. Have a high carbohydrate pre-race meal 3 hours prior.  Consume a sports drink up to the start to maintain hydration.  Add a gel to the pre-race mix if tolerated.  Start optimal fluid replacement (in relation to your sweat rate) with a sports drink early in the race. Aim for 40 to 70 grams of carbohydrate per hour. You can add in gels for additional fuel as needed and as tolerated.

Event Specific Considerations

Criterium Shorter, higher intensity efforts can significantly deplete muscle glycogen stores, so rest and replenish.  Arrive at the start fueled and hydrated. Allow longer time for digestion. Plan meals and snacks carefully for later race starts. Stick with very easily digested foods. Practice fluid replacement during higher intensity efforts that mimic race conditions, as dehydration can affect performance in 45-minute races.
Marathon Mountain Bike Race Consume a large pre-race meal with adequate time for digestion. Add small amounts  of easily digested protein as tolerated. Know the course well and plan to drink and fuel during less technical or demanding sections.  Start hydrating and fueling early into the race to prevent large deficits that cannot be corrected.
Century Taper and carbo-load for 2-3 days prior. Optimally hydrate and replenish any fuel burned during rides. Use a sports drink as your staple food/fluid. Consider a higher sodium sports drink if you are a salty sweater and don’t over drink in relation to your sweat rate. Use gels and solid foods to offset hunger and fuel needs while working within your  gastrointestinal tolerances. Keep solids to small, steady portions to minimize any stomach discomfort.

Monique Ryan
Monique Ryan

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionistwith over twenty-two years of experience and is owner of Personal NutritionDesigns, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutritionprograms for endurance athletes across North America ( consults with the Chicago Fire Soccer Team, and was the nutritionistfor Saturn Cycling from 1994 to 2000. She has also consulted with the Volvo-CannondaleMountain Bike Team, the Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Team, and the RollerbladeRacing Team. Monique has consulted with USA Cycling, and was a member ofthe Performance Enhancement Team for the Women’s Road Team leading to the2004 Athens Olympics. She has also provided nutrition consultation servicesto USA Triathlon for coaching clinics, athlete clinics, and for the residentathlete team and was a member of the USAT Performance Enhancement Teamfor the 2004 Athens Olympics. Monique is the author of “SportsNutrition for Endurance Athletes,” 2nd edition (March 2007), from VeloPress,which provides sports specific nutrition for road cycling, mountain biking,running, triathlon, swimming, rowing, and adventure racing. She is alsoauthor of “PerformanceNutrition for Winter Sports” (PeakSports Press), “Performance Nutritionfor Team Sports” (PeakSports Press), and “Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.”Monique is a regular contributor to VeloNews, Inside Triathlon,Outside, and ACE Fitness Matters. As part of the FeedZonecolumn, Monique will answer selected questions online. Please send your questions to