Race Nutrition – article by Liz Van Houweling
Mountain bike races can vary greatly in length depending on the category and type. Marathon races typically last 3-5 hours while cross country races are only 1-2 hours. No matter the duration, proper fueling is key for meeting race demands.
For all race distances, a good meal that is a mix of carbohydrates and protein with a little bit of fat about 3 hours prior to the start is usually sufficient. Another 100-300 calorie snack about an hour before the race could also be necessary. Entering races hydrated is also important and this process should be started the night prior to the race.
Races that are only about an hour (and up to about 90 minutes) in length do not require much on-the-bike nutrition. If you ensure that you are properly fueled prior to the start, you should be fine without any supplements during the race. If it is hot, you may benefit from having a bottle of sport drink to help keep your electrolytes in balance, but most of the time plain water will suffice.
Races that are much longer than 60-90 minutes require you to eat and/or drink while on the bike in order to continue to perform at your best. For XC races that are over 90 minutes, a good rule of thumb is to plan to eat every 30 minutes, right from the start. Aim for about 150-200 calories per hour of racing. Easily digestive foods like gels or gummies are great options so that you get energy quickly into your system. Another option is to drink a portion of your calories by having one bottle of sport drink on your bike.
Marathon races are significantly longer and require much more attention to nutrition. The same principle of eating about every 30 minutes immediately from the start applies to these races. One consideration is to begin with more substantial, solid food such as bars during the beginning hours of the race and then transitions to gels, gummies, and liquid calories in the later hours when the stomach cannot tolerate much solid food. Aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, depending on your size, course demands, etc. This is tough to do! Choose calorically dense foods because you can only carry a limited number of items in your pockets.
Eating while mountain biking can be challenging, so make sure that you know the course well and plan your nutrition. Eat and drink during the less technical portions so that you do not risk crashing. Some people like to carry all of their water in a camelback but another excellent option is to just place extra bottles somewhere easily accessible on the course. Or if you are lucky, find a friend to give you a bottle hand up!
There is no one right answer when it comes to on-the-bike nutrition. It is different for every person and every race. Experiment during training FIRST to see which foods and how much food your body can handle. Then make a plan and implement it on race day! Learn from each race and adapt your strategy as necessary.
Nutrition is one of the most common mistakes, especially as races get longer. However, it is one of the few factors totally in your control. No one likes to hit that invisible “wall,” so develop a plan that works for you and allows you to race to your fullest potential!
USA Cycling Level 3 Certified