Going long on the mountain bike: fuelling the fire…
One of the great bonuses of doing endurance cycling races and events for me is the feeding frenzy that follows. It always amazes me how much I can process the week after a big race. From cakes to all you can eat buffets (pizza hut challenge anyone?!), post race, getting stuff down isn’t an issue. However, mid endurance event itself is an entirely different ballgame and a pizza followed by a chocolate sundae just isn't going to cut it!
I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences of feeding before, during and after a endurance cycling event. I think this applies to both mtb and road but these experiences are my own and based mainly on experiences of 12-24hr mtb races where strain on the body and gut is pretty high. I use the same principles in shorter races with some modifications as I’ll go on to describe.
The most important thing to take from this in my view is to understand that everyone is different, you need to find out what works for you in each situation which there aren’t any shortcuts for. My experiences are based on trial and error and I’m certainly no nutrition expert! Chuddering 4 hours in to a the 12hour Bristol Bike Fest due to overheating was a particular highlight. Anything I say is either based on personal experience informed by stuff I’ve read somewhere but can’t be bothered to reference right now. Additionally, advice from seasoned racers is gold dust so never be shy to ask if you’re unsure. If you’re really serious get a coach who will help as well.
- Eat clean
Without going in to the usual white noise about diet etc, the weeks leading up to the race should revolve around ‘eating well’. By that I mean do the obvious things you think you should do regularly but never quite manage. It’s hard to do the right thing all year but even just getting the right stuff down in the lead up to event can help make sure your body gets what it needs for the thrashing to come. By eating well I just mean eating clean wherever you can. No processed rubbish, plenty ofveg, lean protein and quality carbs(google will help you hear so I won’t go in to more detail).
- Lay off the pasta
In my experience you don’t need to carb load in the sense of smashing a load of pasta the night before. In the week leading up to a big event you should be reducing the volume of your training particularly if it’s a long event you’re doing. Therefore if you continue with your normal clean eating plus a little bit extra you’ll naturally carb load anyway as you won’t be burning as much off. 1kg of pasta the night before will just sit on your stomach and make you feel sluggish. I prefer to eat earlier in the evening if it’s an early morning race to give plenty of time to get down to race weight the next morning ;)
- Keep it simple
Keeping meals simple particularly the day before a race is good practice in my view. Something like a chicken breast with pesto, roast veg and some cous cous is my preferred option. If you're eating something new or different you risk your stomach taking umbrage. Your stomach is apparently trainable so consuming something it’s used to makes sense, more on that later.
SCIENCE ALERT! Mark Cavendish does it so it must be right…I’ve experimented with upping my nitrate intake the week before important races, I have no way of measuring whether this has the desired effect of making me faster (again see google for details). Beetroot is the preferred method of upping nitrate levels but like a geek I had some contact with the original researchers and confirmed that it’s just as effective (if not a bit more inconvenient) to get nitrates through other forms such as salad. As I eat a lot of salad anyway it was just a case of stuffing a bit more on the plate at lunch and dinner.
- Practice makes perfect
It’s really important that you test out what you are planning to eat on race day prior to the event. This means trying to replicate as close as possible the strain that you will be putting on your body. For a 24 hour race I don’t go out and ride 24 hours in training but if something works for a 6 hour ride then you should be safe for longer hauls. I usually use Torq energy products for racing but here are a couple of cheaper options for riding in general:
- Homemade flapjack. Mix Oats with dates, honey, dried fruit and a bit of salt. Avoid butter as it clogs you up and makes digestion harder
- Oat cakes, come in handy packets, easy to digest carbs
- The king all energy products: Banana
The day before an event sometimes I will sip an energy drink (1 not several) through the day to make sure my electrolyte levels are topped up as I’ve had some problems with cramp previously. Again difficult to say the impact but if you regularly get cramp it could be something to consider.
- In the morning
On the morning of the event, KEEP IT SIMPLE, although advice varies I wouldn’t leave it later than 2 hours before an event to have your last meal. My races are usually in the morning so porridge with honey is pretty much my everyday breakfast so I have the same race day.
In the 2 hour window before the race starts I would usually eat a bit of something like half an energy bar or a banana. This is probably more useful for long events rather than short sub 2 hour jobs.
- During the race
During a race of any length I tend to stick to trying to consume on average 1g of carbohydrate for every kg of my bodyweight per hour. So currently around 73grams. Bearing in mind that you should have enough in the tank from your previous meal you shouldn’t need that much in the first 1-2hours. For me the balance is making sure you fuel from the off but not so much that the shock of the first couple of hours means your gut struggles to digest things as all your energy is being used elsewhere. I tend to consume around 60g per hour for the first 2 hours before building up gradually as the event goes on.
In terms of what I eat. I’ve experimented with lots of different things but what I’ve found to work out well is to KEEP IT SIMPLE. For me that means sticking to energy products from Torq that I (crucially) like the taste of so typically energy powder in my drink and a gel per hour to start then introduce energy bars as the event progresses. If you ride with energy products normally or at least in the run up to the event your gut actually gets used to that type of food which will help massively when it tries to process it whilst you’re blowing out of your arse mid race. Most people can’t survive on purely energy products, me included so I introduce bananas after about 4hours of riding but they are good to eat at any point. There’s a reason you see tennis players at Wimbledon munching them! If you’re going really long then something more substantial on the stomach is worth investing in. For me this is rice pudding, tea (this helps digestion as well) and soup, and maybe a protein shake or chopped up bits of protein bar so they are more digestible. Again the more different types of food you try and shovel in the more your gut has to deal with. It's important to remember that the alternative "give your stomach a break" food will also contain carbohydrate so try to adjust your intake of the other products accordingly so you are not consuming too much carbohydrate. In my experience, consuming too much can result in stomach pains / sickness as it is surplus to requirements. Stay off the caffeine the week before and then hit the caffeine gels mid race if you want a boost.
- The don'ts
So there are some do’s, how about the don’ts… Fatty food hinders the absorption of carbs and can make you feel bloated so avoid anything with high fat content. Think about climate on the day of your event. If it’s really hot you will struggle to take solid food down as being dehydrated makes this a lot harder. So you’ll need to be thinking about the balance of liquid vs solid food. With hotter conditions lean towards getting the amount of carbohydrate you need through liquids and colder conditions have more of a balance. As mentioned above there is a limit to the amount of food you can digest whilst exercising so if you find yourself bloated and having gut problems switching to just water or electrolyte only drink will help dilute the build up of the solid stuff. I was once in agony for 8 hours of a race as my stomach turned to soup by taking on too much food and not enough liquid on a hot day, not nice!
A nice little tip for food on the go on lapped races is to get some disposable plastic cups and fill them with your food ready to slip in to your back pocket and pick at or else get a highly uncool but highly effective top tube bag to snack from.
Getting a decent feed down you as soon as possible after the event will massively help recovery. Certainly drink a lot of water. People tend to use protein shakes as an easy way to get the necessary down you quickly and conveniently but a glass of milk does the same thing. I make my own protein bars with a bit of protein powder but lots of nuts and seeds and peanut butter in there which are a tasty post race treat. After that just enjoy the feeding frenzy and eat well to get set for tackling your next challenge!
Trial and error is key so on those training rides if you can establish what keeps you fuelled whilst not giving you stomach problems then half the battle of endurance events is won. I’ve never had to pull out of a race through stomach issues but I know many who have had to take regular trips into the woods mid race to relieve the pressure!