On-the-bike nutrition is one of the keys to performance during longer events like gran fondos, gravel grinders, road races, and MTB endurance races. A successful nutrition strategy takes planning, practice, and training. Here’s some practical advice on how to develop your nutrition plan for race day.
What should I eat/drink?
The most important macronutrient during endurance exercise is carbohydrate. The key to success is taking in enough carbohydrates to maintain energy levels and keep the dreaded “bonk” at bay.
Sports nutrition science suggests that for events longer than 2 hours, you should be shooting for at least 60 grams of carbs per hour, with up to 90 or even 100 being ideal in some cases. This is a large range. Athletes burning more (higher watt or RPE outputs) should aim for the top of this range. Athletes putting out lower watts or relative efforts can aim for more in the 60-70 grams of carbohydrate per hour range.
Carbohydrate absorption rates are higher when mixing carbohydrate sources (glucose/fructose, for example). All athletes should consider mixing carbohydrate sources, but it’s absolutely necessary for athletes shooting to take in 80+ grams of CHO per hour. Many commercially available drink mixes are formulations with a mix of sugars (see SIS Beta Fuel).
You can take in other macronutrients (protein & fat) but these will slow overall absorption (they take more time to digest). Whole foods tend to contain a mix of macros, so will be slower to digest. This is okay if consumed early in the event or when effort level is relatively low (resources available for digestion). If you tend to tire of gels and bars in longer events, try some whole food substitutes (fruit, mini-sandwiches, etc.).
Developing Your Nutrition Strategy
Good race nutrition doesn’t happen by accident or come from last-minute preparation the week of the race. You should develop and improve your planned approach throughout your training season.
A good first step is to evaluate your current or prior practices. How much carbohydrate have you been taking in during events or long training rides. You may find you are far below the quantities recommended here. Next, practice your race-day nutrition during your longer training rides. The best “tests” will be long, hard training rides that resemble your goal event. Experiment with different combinations and timings of drink mixes, bars, gels, and whole food.
Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat.
Once you have a strategy that works for you, practice it. Just like training your fitness, you can train your gut and repetition is a key to success. Additionally, your nutritional strategy must become automatic. You want to be conditioned to stick to the fueling plan regardless of the conditions: race-day adrenaline, bad weather, food is buried beneath jackets, and primary focus on the race flow and your competitors. Failure to reinforce good fueling habits in training usually results in pockets full of uneaten food and low energy levels at key moments in your goal event.
The well-executed nutrition plan is absolutely necessary to achieve your best result. Don’t waste all those hours you’ve put in quality training by failing to properly fuel the engine.