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Cycling Race Day Nutrition

Updated: May 8

Whether you are racing or completing a sportif, nutrition will be required to produce the performance you are capable of. Failure to meet your nutritional demands will likely lead to bonking and failure to perform and possibly even finish.

This blog will explain

cycle race day nutrition in the mountains

Why You Need To Eat During

Firstly, let us establish what fuel you will be using in your event. Your body has several fuel sources, but the main two are fat and carbs. We all know where fat is stored on us and we know it is not in the muscles where energy is needed for exercise. This means it takes time to use fat as energy; it has to move from [insert fatty body part here] to our muscles.

Meanwhile, carbs are stored in our muscles as glycogen. This is very easy for our muscles to use and, therefore, is the preferred energy source, especially at high intensities when energy is needed fast.

So, you need carbs for your cycle race day nutrition, this is what your body will be using. Your body will always burn a little fat, but everyone has plenty of this stored. Compare this to carbohydrates where your body stores very little, normally enough for 1 hour of exercise.

Carbs are stored in your body as glycogen. Glycogen is in your brain, liver and muscles. The glycogen stored in your muscles is used to fuel muscle contractions. There is some variation, but normally this is sufficient for 1 hour of exercise.

In the graph below you can see the amount of carbs used as energy increases with increased intensity. At maximal intensity this athlete was using 3g of carbs a minute. This is 180g of carbs an hour. At this intensity carbs stores will likely be exhausted within the hour and the intensity of exercise will be unsustainable.

cycle race day nutrition carbs per hour

Once carbohydrate stores are exhausted you are reliant on fat metabolism to sustain exercise. Carbs are also your brains preferred source of fuel and running out makes you feel fatigued, dizzy and emotional. This is sometimes called ‘The wall’ or 'bonking'. Your pace becomes a shuffle as your body becomes reliant on fat metabolism. A very slow way of producing energy due to the transport from storage to the muscles. ‘The Wall’ is a nutritional issue and is entirely preventable with preparation.

What Nutrition you Need to Eat During a Cycle Race Day

Your requirements are dependent on the intensity. Look at the graph above. The higher the intensity, the more carbs you need to be taking in. At higher intensity exercise more blood is flowing to your muscles and less to your stomach and intestines. This means absorbing becomes harder with increased intensity.

See my instagram on training your gut for absorption

The best absorbed carbohydrates are glucose or maltodextrin. These are the most easily absorbed and 60g of these can be absorbed an hour. The next best carb is fructose. 30g of this can be absorbed an hour. This gives 90g of carbs an hour; far from the 180g an hour the graph shows an athlete was burning at max intensity. Some people can absorb more than 90g an hour, but attempting this risks upset stomachs.

cycle race day nutrition types of carbs

There is a balance between too little carb leading to low energy and too much carb leading to stomach issues.

As absorption rates cannot meet the demand of muscles it is sensible to reduce intensity to a point where absorption rates can meet demands. For the athlete in the graph this point is around 165 heart rate. Endurance training reduces your reliance on carbohydrates and makes intensities more sustainable by increasing your ability to use fats as fuel. Read my blog for more detail.

If you are exercising at an intensity using less carbs per hour there is no need to be aiming for 90g of carbs an hour. The body won't use it and could cause problems. It is better to meet the demand.

Research has shown absorption rates are better when nutrition is taken every 15-20 minutes.

Therefore, my suggestion would be to take nutrition in from the first hour, every 15 minutes and meet 90g of carbs every hour as 60g of maltodextrin and 30g of fructose to sustain high level exercise.

cycle race day nutrition competing

What Kind Of Things To Eat

The lower the intensity the easier it is to absorb foods and the closer to normal foods you can eat. Starchy food like bread, hot cross buns, jam sandwiches, rice crispie bars and malt loaf are great. Look at the food packaging to determine quantities needed.

However, at high intensity nutrition needs to be easily absorbable. This is where sports nutrition products are needed. There are 4 main kinds: bars, jelly, gels and drinks. It is best to mix between all to sustain interest in food and limit flavour fatigue.

My opinion is bars are hardest to eat, then jelly, then gels and drink is easiest. Drinks obviously have the added benefit of hydrating you simultaneously. I suggest transitioning from hard to eat to the easiest through an event.

Big sports nutrition brands, such as SIS or Mauten, normally have the correct ratio of glucose/maltodextrin and fructose built into their products for maximum absorption.

An Emerging Area in Sports Nutrition

As discussed, absorption is a limiting factor to delivering nutrition to muscles. A new line of research is suggesting lactate could be an additional sugar to help meet requirements.

Traditionally lactate has been thought to be negative to exercise and cause the burning sensation in muscles. Newer thinking is lactate may just occur alongside fatigue and burning muscles, but not be the cause.

Additionally, lactate can enter metabolism directly to produce energy. See the complicated diagram below showing lactate being converted into pyruvate (article linked). This is a novel way of fuelling and some sports brands have started adding lactate to their gels.

cycle race day nutrition lactate as a fuel source

If you have found this blog useful please like and comment.

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If you want a nutrition plan developed for an event see my shop tab or contact me.

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