Someone once told me that an endurance race was actually an eating contest. ‘He who has the best nutrition wins the prize.’ Of course, there are many components that go into completing an endurance mountain bike race; but all things accounted for, if you don’t fuel the engine, it won’t run! The best rule of thumb…eat early and eat often!
Although I rely heavily on the GU brand for most of my training and racing needs, I knew that making it through a 24 hour race with a happy tummy would require something more than only their time-tested gels and brews. So I worked to put together a small variety of bite sized foods containing the right amounts of protein, carbs and calories to complement my GU nutriments and see me through the entire race.
So how do we race well with a good nutrition plan? We train with it! A very important fact about race day is that we don’t ever do anything brand-new, we do what we’ve trained with, what we know works for us. There will be no G.I. distress on race day, there will be no surprise port a potty stops or returning from the trail sock-less and there will certainly be no bonking! This means that a nutrition plan starts weeks and even months before the start line.
The first thing we need to figure out is how many calories is enough to sustain energy, but not overload the system. Everyone is slightly different for this number; however, there is a particular range that works for most people and is a good starting point. This range is usually 200 to 300 cal per hour, give or take a few. Some of this number is based on weight, size, efficiency, intensity and duration of the sport you are participating in. The way to find out what is actually your ideal number is to train and practice, you will find out rather quickly what is too little and, as the training hours get longer, what is too much. Even tho your body is burning thru calories like crazy in a race, it is still only capable of metabolizing and digesting a certain amount of intake at a time; here is where the balance needs to be found. The other factors to consider along with your calorie intake is the amount of carbs you need, the amount of protein your digestive system can handle, water and hydration needs and when to watch out for fiber (and how much your own body is used to having). This brings me to think about pre/post race nutrition.
The age old adage of ‘carb-loading’ is on it’s way out the door. I know, personally, that dumping a giant bowl of pasta in my belly the night before a race just makes me feel sluggish, full and bloated. Doesn’t sound comforting anymore, does it? I am a firm believer that your body will perform its best on what it’s accustomed to and I am also a big advocate of eating real food. That means using the benefits of specific foods to promote top performance and timing it to best aid your goal. For example, going to high altitude for a race? Beets. Lots of them. They get those vessels open and increase blood flow. Add in whole carbs slowly and consistently leading up to it. And stay plenty hydrated. Need to recover? Get some carbs and protein in you quick. GU Chocolate Recovery Brew mixed with some unsweetened almond milk is great for this; but in the end, what you need is a whole meal consisting of Vitamin C, quercitin, protein and omega-3s. So eat your broccoli with some red onions, red apples and wild salmon.
Benefits of a real food lifestyle could be a whole other chapter, or book, in itself. So enough of that and on to the immediate race plan.
Having done a few endurance races, I basically have an idea of the amount of calories I need and can tolerate an hour. My number is just about 230 for middle endurance and upwards towards 280 for ultra. To put this into perspective for you, I am 5’2″ and 110 pounds. I also have a basic idea of how much protein I can handle. Based on a rather unpleasant past experience, I know that I don’t tolerate a lot of protein per hour. My gut does not like it; however, I know that I need some protein to help my muscles recover while in the middle of such taxing endurance events. This is one reason why I like to race and train with GU Roctane, because it utilizes certain essential amino acids without overloading the gut to help promote said muscle recovery while still riding. I have noticed such an improvement since I’ve started racing with Roctane! Grape Roctane is one of my favorite mixes and the Vanilla Orange gel is yummy! I also choose to use the GU brand because they provide a favorable electrolyte balance and have carbohydrate ratios that work best for me. Of course taste does have a lot to do with it. If I don’t like the taste, I’m not going to eat or drink it; so it seems a very important factor and I have found many GU gels and brews that I actually enjoy the taste of even when it’s 110° outside; which for those of you who train in severely hot weather know what can happen to drink mixes when they swelter in the heat. Blueberry Brew is another of my favorite mixes (and has extra sodium!)…and…oh yes, the Salted Caramel gel is like eating Christmas! 🙂
The other product I found from GU that I’ve truly gotten excited about, is their Roctane electrolyte caps. I have always added extra sodium to my drink bottles during high heat/intensity training or races, but the difference with Roctane is there is also ginger and magnesium included to help stave off any potential stomach cramps or nausea. I have found this a huge plus! I just open those caps up and mix em right in. Easy. Done.
Ok, so I have a GU regimen down, I needed to figure out how to blend in those bite size morsels. I started with The Feed Zone and chose a few to try. What I found out, is although I might be a better than decent cook, I am a terrible baker. The preciseness needed for such things to turn out correctly left me with a giant mess in my kitchen during every attempt! I had to decide on 2 or 3 and just perfect making them. I’m not going to sugar coat this…it takes time…and lots of it if you’re inexperienced in the process. I had 5 months planning for my 24 hour race to play with this and once I got the hang of the portables I liked and worked for me, I could breeze thru them quickly (although still rather messily). They are freezable, so I can make a large amount ahead of time and now I have what I need to utilize them during any of the endurance races or all day rides I do without starting the learning curve over.
I chose three different portables, two on the sweeter side (carrot cake ball? Yum!) and one savory (mmm, pizza!). Two each was approximately a 100 calorie serving and I managed each down to a two bites-gone system. I also chose convenience so that I could just stick those bites into my pockets unwrapped and pop them whenever without having to fool around with wrappers. Wrappers are like child-proof caps…who can open them? Also, using real foods, in small bits at a time, that are essentially made with water, can be a great factor in digestion and hydration. Plus, as an added benefit, the simple act of chewing real food can be so uplifting amidst such prolonged physical activity in which we consume so much of our sustenance in liquid or concentrated form.
Hydration comes next. Water. You need it, no getting around it. Our bodies are 80% water, when we deplete it, we basically end up all contracted like a shriveled prune. Think cramps. Legs, sides, guts. Our muscles need not only the right electrolytes to contract and relax properly, but water to keep them plump and give them space to continue those electrolytes moving where they are needed. Also, in order to help a gut digest concentrated foods like gels, water is necessary to assist them in working properly. GUs are fast acting, but you must drink water to make them deliver properly, otherwise it’s a bit like eating a meal and you have to wait for the results. Can’t wait during a race or it’ll be too late. Although drink mixes are made with water, I believe we need to still include pure water to assist in the digestion and movement of all those sugars/electrolytes/aminos.
So, here’s how I broke things down for my own race.
Knowing how much…or how little…I may tend to drink when under a high stress situation (ie: the first lap of a 24), I start with a higher calorie drink while only drinking partial bottles and then switch off to the lower calorie when downing more ounces and eating other foods. I personally can handle about 3/4 of a bottle an hour, so this is my goal in each lap. Then, to provide enough water hydration, I drink 1/4-1/2 a bottle of plain (ice cold!) water between every lap. This gives me one whole bottle per hour. Great-hydration accounted for!
Taking in one GU gel per lap, plus my bottle of Brew or Roctane gives me approximately 250-300 calories. I don’t normally get an
entire bottle down and by supplementing with my portable foods, I can be sure I hit my count. With my gels giving almost instant energy (I alternated regulars with the Roctanes), drink mix supplying continuous calories and the bite size real foods providing long lasting fuel; I can keep just enough, but not too much, digestible fire burning throughout the entire race.
Another important piece of my nutrition, as with many athletes, is adding in caffeine. Studies have actually shown that not only does caffeine give an energy boost, it increases mental focus and decreases pain receptors. How can we go wrong? I am a huge proponent of using caffeine and find that it definitely assists my mental and physical alertness during endurance events. Caffeine does have its limits, it will not fix fatigue and one can build up a tolerance. Being the daily coffee lover that I am, I actually chose to be somewhat under-caffeinated during the week leading up to the race in hopes that when I needed it the most, the caffeinated GUs would work their best. I might have been slightly irritable during that week as a result of this, but you’ll have to ask my husband for a truthful answer! The one thing I would change for the next time, is starting those caffeinated GUs earlier…I perhaps waited 2 laps too late. Live and learn.
The last thing to plan for is comfort foods. Think: cold weather, rain, dark night. What do you want? Something warm is what comes to my mind. I highly recommend chicken broth for those times when you just need something warm and savory, it can bring you back from the dark side immediately without overloading your stomach with something heavy. Want the noodles, too? Go for it, they’re usually minimal and contain some quick acting carbs.
So this is the basic plan that I trained for and raced with during my 24 hour solo. I researched and read studies, listened to other people’s experiences and tried new things. Actually, it was quite fun learning about different ways to feed your body while racing and I find the things food can do for you quite intriguing!