By: Cary Smith
As an endurance mountain bike racer watching this year’s Tour de France, I was struck by how different my nutrition plan must be from theirs. I don’t have the luxury of radioing back to my team car to ask for bottles. My races require a substantial amount of planning and, unfortunately, stress during the days leading up to a race. Since I have done a fair number of races lasting 4-24 hours, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.
Make a plan but be ready to adapt. Study the course so that you know mileage and elevation profile. Look at results from previous years to give you an idea of how long you’ll be out there. Watch the weather to know temperature, humidity and chance of precipitation as all these will change your nutrition requirements. Factor in elevation if it is different from where you live. If you’re going higher, plan on drinking more than you do at home. Lastly, look at feed zone locations, what is available and if you can have personal support or have race crew take personal food and drink.
Once you have a general idea, start to fine tune your plan. The first thing I do is figure out how much liquid I will need between feed zones. I plan on a bottle an hour but will have more available for the second half of the race when it’s warmer and I’m depleted. As difficult as it is to drink when it’s 6am and 45 degrees, don’t neglect it or you’ll put yourself in a hole. Knowing this, I will usually start the race with a low caloric drink, such as Gu Electrolyte Tablets or Electrolyte Brew, since I know these will go down easily. I typically don’t drink plain water unless I need to rinse my mouth, soothe my throat or just need a change of pace. I will have a bottle of water available at each feed zone but it often is still there after the finish.
Most athletes try to ingest 250-400 calories per hour during a race. The tricky part is how to get those calories. Some people swear by liquid calories, others rely on gel and some need solid food. For most of us, a combination of all three seems to work best. What you need can only be found by trial and error during training. For me, during races lasting less than four hours, I will rely on liquid calories and gel, but will carry something solid just in case. I mix Gu Roctane drink in the recommended strength and if I stick to my bottle/hour formula then I get 240 calories per hour. This, combined with a Gu packet to top me off keeps me hydrated, fed and my stomach doesn’t revolt.
In longer and/or hotter races, I will decrease my liquid calories by drinking less Roctane and more Electrolyte Tablets and Brew while increasing my gel and solid calories with bars or sections of almond butter sandwiches. The reason that I decrease my liquid calories during long, hot races is to ensure I meet the increased hydration demand without souring my stomach from too many calories. Some racers find that it’s harder to absorb calories in the heat but you will need to figure out if that’s true for you. If you’re worried about not getting enough electrolytes in your drink then supplement with Roctane Capsules. These are easy to take and can often get your electrolyte levels back up if you’re behind on your hydration, giving you the boost you need to stave off cramping. Just make sure you take them with liquid. I usually carry a handful of capsules in a small container in my jersey pocket.
Finally, go experiment with different combinations of products to find what works best for you. Write it in your journal if that helps you remember. Bring some duct tape and a Sharpie to the race to mark your bag/cooler for the feed zones. Write your name and contents on your bottles. Figure out if bottles or hydration systems work for you. I like hydration systems, but it means that I need to bring several to each race so that I can just toss one and grab another without refilling. Ideally, I put Electrolyte Tablets/Brew in my pack and Roctane in my bottle. Cold liquid tastes better and is absorbed more quickly. If you have the capability, keep your drinks cold, or start with half the bottle frozen. Just make sure it’ll melt in time. If you’re feeling low or daydreaming during a race, take in some calories, you might be running on fumes. But that doesn’t mean you should take a seat at the feed zone buffet. Get what you need and get out. After you finish, start the refueling/recovery process as soon as you can. Mix a bottle of Recovery Brew, start eating a mix of protein and carbohydrates and drinking plain water.