By Anthony J. Nocella II and Christine Camille — Recently, a number of people have asked us, “How should I eat to fuel my body the day before and the day of a mountain and road bike race?” Here are our thoughts on what to eat before any endurance race.
Suppose you have an endurance race in two weeks, and you are developing your technical skills like climbing, jumps, and natural obstacles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (in the gym or on focused rides on the bike) and doing increasingly longer rides on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Your intensive endurance runs or rides are Saturday mornings with a group to push you a bit to go faster and longer. You are lifting, riding, and getting enough sleep, what else is there to get you ready?
Let’s think of it in automotive terms. You have one of the best hypercars ever made, with carbon fiber body, top-of-the heap aerodynamics, and a 1200 bhp engine. If you do not fill the tank up with some sort of fuel, you are not going to move. Period. You won’t even make it out of the starting gate.
Likewise, if you are filling your tank up with soda, sand, or anything other than the correct fuel, you will not only will your car not move, but you will destroy the engine. Whether you are referring to your body or a hypercar, the analogy holds.
Regardless of your age, endurance athletes should strive to eat a healthy diet and avoid fast food, candy, fried food, and food high in cholesterol. You should be drinking 3 to 4 liters of water per day, juice that is 100% from fruit and vegetables, and take daily vitamins.
Start preparing your body the morning before race day. Take your vitamins as usual and then begin fueling yourself. Start with a breakfast that has fruits, nuts, and oats in a smoothies or bowl. A great example of this would be drinking a glass of orange juice and eating a bowl of oatmeal, blended with bananas, berries, and granola. Start drinking water right after you wake up and continue drinking it throughout the day to keep hydrated. I would also suggest taking an easy bike ride to keep your legs loose and stretch.
For lunch have a large protein powder-based vanilla smoothie with strawberries and bananas. We use Garden of Life Sports Protein Powder, in the silver container, which has 30 grams of vegetable protein. Since every athlete is different, you should use whatever product works best with your system, evaluated over time. This will keep the athlete lean and clean. Don’t forget to keep drinking that water.
For dinner, start off with a few pickles (about 3) for sodium. For your main course, we like pasta, a carbohydrate which will turn into sugar, split peas, for protein, olive oil which provides some fat, and garlic for immunity. Seasoned with red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning, and a bit of Braggs liquid aminos for additional sodium … yum! Again, you should eat something with a similar nutritional profile, but that your body can easily digest.
This is also a good time for you to start topping up with electrolyte drinks. I like watermelon flavor Nuun electrolyte powder mixed with water, which has RDA values of 8% potassium and 23% sodium. Other people use children’s electrolyte solutions such as the name-brand Pedialyte, or a generic/store brand like TopCare, found in many grocery store chains.
Afterward, take a walk around your neighborhood to keep your legs loose and give you a chance to think about the course and your strategy for winning. I find it best to give it my all right out of the gate.
Mountain bike races are often won (or lost) in the first 10 to 20 minutes of the race, so if you can get ahead of the pack early, do so. This will help you avoid all the dust kicked up by the other riders and keep you from having to pass as many riders as possible on the course, which can be difficult on singletrack.
You should also check your bike over the evening before your race. Check the bolts, lube, tire pressure, gears, shocks, and pedals. Make sure to bring your tools with you on race day for last minute adjustments and unforeseen issues. You may also wish to bring your trainer and a tent to ride under to keep cool. Lastly, make sure your clothes are all laid out for the race and get to bed on time.
On the day of your race, wake up, take a salt tablet, and start drinking water right away. This will help get your body going. We do not take vitamins before the race, as it might cause digestive issues.
Try to wake up with plenty of time to eat a banana for potassium and electrolytes, and something light like nuts or oatmeal at least 3 hours before your race if you have the time to allow your body to digest and top-off your fuel load. If you don’t race until later in the day, we recommend a fruit bowl with banana, berries, and oranges, again, about three hours before your race to give your stomach time to settle. You may also want to snack on a pickle to replace the sodium you will be sweating out. Keep drinking your water too.
Avoid eating a bunch of energy bars or a burger or pizza or fried food. Have granola, oats, and fruit if you need to eat more before your event. Make sure to eat light, thin, clean food hours before a race, nothing heavy or processed.
Now, don’t forget to visualize deeply about the course and winning. You just have to give it all for a short amount of time. Leave everything on the course, do not hold back.
If you’re fast and you race on adrenaline, then start the race at top speed. If anyone is in your way, just keep close enough to take the lead strong and aggressively at a significant moment where the leader is weak and cannot catch you. Keep that pressure from all the cyclists behind you on the trail as motivation to push your threshold and past the burn in your legs. Before the climbs, take deep breaths to give you the oxygen you need to make it to the top, and drink water. People normally drink water after the climb, which is not the correct time for two reasons. One is that it is a reactionary response and drinking water when you are sucking for air at the end of your climb will make you choke, thus slowing you down.
Most importantly, be prepared, get out there, and have fun.
[Editor’s note: Nutrition does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Athletes should consult with their own physicians and/or registered dieticians to determine what balance of foods and other fuel are most appropriate for their individual body and should not make any drastic changes right before an event.]