Nutrient dense foods

Stage races provide little to no room for error when it comes to nutrition. A mistake in hydration one day might lead to a steep decline in performance over the next several days, perhaps leading to other problems like GI distress, poor recovery, lack of appetite and diminished mental acuity. The deleterious effects become magnified with each subsequent stage. Optimal nutrition for performance during a stage race requires a more comprehensive, proactive strategy than simply applying routines for a one-day event repeatedly over several days.

In the pro peloton, we have a saying: the finish line is the start of your next race. This is especially true in stage racing. The moment you finish the stage, your preparation for the next begins.

The most essential aspect of fueling your body for the next day is to get carbohydrate and protein into your system within that “golden glycogen window” — 30 minutes from the moment you cross the finish line. For a one-day race, a normal dinner the night before and breakfast the day of an event usually suffice to top up muscle and liver glycogen stores. In stage racing, however, the body’s ability to replenish glycogen after each stage can become compromised after a few days of intense racing. Re-fueling your body with carbohydrate and protein within 30 minutes of the stage finish maximizes your body’s ability to replenish glycogen for the following day; how you do so is almost irrelevant, except insofar as the method of delivery is appealing and agrees with your own digestive system. Some folks prefer a liquid recovery shake, while others find solid foods sit better in their stomachs (our Italian soigneurs make great post-race panini, a personal favorite of mine). The bottom line is to get quality protein and carbohydrate into your system as soon as possible, in a way that you find satisfying and comfortable (what satisfies and sits well might change from day to day during a stage race depending on weather, race conditions and your own physiology – that’s normal).

The second most important aspect to recovery and performance in a stage race is hydration. Some even argue that hydration affects recovery more than any fuel. It is important to note that hydration is completely different from fuel: fuel is food and includes the carbohydrates, proteins and fats your body needs for energy production, while hydration replenishes your blood plasma with water lost in the race. Electrolytes (including minerals like sodium and potassium as well as some carbohydrates like sucrose and glucose) are important because they help your body absorb more water. Many sports drinks advertize “electrolyte replacement” as a goal, but it’s more accurate to think of electrolytes as an essential means (they facilitate hydration), rather than an end.

The best hydration strategy is to continuously sip on water and ingest a reasonable amount of electrolytes. Sugary sports drinks do not hydrate. Most formulas contain so much sugar that all of the fluid of the drink gets used up in digesting that sugar and can lead to dehydration. Avoid this by significantly diluting those formulas, or even better, by drinking pure water and getting electrolytes from your food (you also avoid all the chemical additives in the sports drinks this way). The most important electrolyte lost to sweat is sodium, so liberally salting your food with sea salt or regular table salt can be enough to replenish lost electrolytes. (No need to overdo it; salting to taste will probably give your body exactly what it needs.) In hot weather, I will even add a pinch of sea salt to a bottle of water; I don’t taste a difference and find that this very effectively prevents cramping. Another good option I have found is to add a packet of Emergen-C to a bottle of water; the powder contains very little carbohydrate, a boatload of mineral electrolytes, as well as a hefty dose of vitamin C and B, both great for post-stage recovery. (I also bring these on long flights for the same reasons, and no I’m not sponsored by them!) Keep in mind that with hydration, consistency is key. You’re better off sipping two liters of water over a few hours than chugging it all down in the first hour after the race. Make a habit of carrying a bottle (or travel mug or glass or canteen) of water with you and sip at a rate of at least half a liter an hour; you should be constantly drinking between stages.

Once you’ve re-fueled during the glycogen window, made it back to your hotel, showered and decompressed a bit (sipping a hydrating drink the whole time), it’s time to eat a real meal. I know some athletes who avoid anything with fiber before a race, but that can be problematic during stage races. Suddenly avoiding fiber for a week can lead to serious GI problems. Instead it’s best to eat a normal, balanced meal with high nutrient density — quality protein, vegetables and fruit, good fats, complex carbohydrates, salted to taste of course!

Equally essential for optimal recovery are taste, enjoyment, satiety, digestibility, personal preference and psychological satisfaction. Don’t force down a meal that grosses you out, just because it has the “right” proportions of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Appetites quickly become finicky during a stage race, and maintaining a healthy appetite is crucial (you might be surprised by how difficult it can become to eat a simple and otherwise mouth-watering meal just a few days into a hard stage race). In fact, appetites can get downright weird: I’ve seen athletes eat Nutella with chicken, and I’ve mixed marmelade into my pasta to make it palatable. That’s okay – just keep in mind you need to get fuel into your body, and it’s best if you can enjoy it and feel satisfied as well. There’s no shame in trying new – even weird – combinations! Eat what tastes good, nourishes and satisfies you. Then get a good night of sleep.

What to eat the morning before a stage depends upon the stage. The European tradition is to eat precisely three hours before the start, and in Italy, this means a plate of pasta, some prosciutto and a ball of mozzarella, and maybe a slice of crostata. The rationale is to give your body time enough to digest everything, so your glycogen is topped-up without that uncomfortable full-feeling.

Eating three hours prior to the start is a very good rule of thumb, but I like to tailor my pre-race meals to what the specific stage entails. For longer stages where the selective action may not occur until a few hours into the race, I might snack up to an hour or two before the start, so that energy gets delivered closer to the time I will need it. If the stage is short — a time trial or crit — my breakfast will be considerably lighter than it would be for a road race, and I’ll be sure to eat at least three hours before the start. Race-day food is extremely dependent upon each individual’s physiology and psychology, which means everyone must learn what works for him- or herself via trial and error. Keep a race diary and take notes; you’ll eventually discover patterns that work for you, so you can perfect your own pre-race meal plans.

Lastly, we come to the question of what to eat during the race. There are many differing opinions and contradictory studies out there, but what you can be sure of is this: you need to eat food and drink fluids. The better you can fuel and hydrate yourself during the stage, the better you’ll be able to recover for the next day; the last thing you want to do is put yourself into a nutritional hole, as your performance on the day will suffer, as well as your ability to recover from the deficit.

When it comes to drinking, as previously mentioned, fluids with electrolytes best facilitate hydration, so long as they don’t also contain too much carbohydrate. Remember your body uses water to digest the carbohydrate fuels (foods) you’re ingesting, so you need to drink enough water for digestion and then some, in order to truly hydrate.

As for food on the bike, this is again a highly personal choice. Normally I’m a proponent of whole, non-processed foods for all nutritional needs, but I really struggle to eat solid foods during races; I end up with a wad of bar in my cheek like a squirrel. I guess you could call that a time-release system, but it’s distracting and uncomfortable – not a good combination for races that demand complete focus. So, I eat gels to fuel my races. I know plenty of other pros who have great success with regular bars, panini or rice cakes. (For training rides, I make my own bars from whole foods and do fine, but when it comes to racing, gels work better for me.) Experiment with different foods and timing to see what works for you. Whatever you use for fuel in the race, though, you should regularly use for fuel in training, to train your gut to process what you need on race day.

On the whole, effective, healthful nutrition depends heavily on your own physiology and psychology. Getting your body the nutrition it needs over the course of a stage race requires intense mindfulness and a proactive approach — you don’t get a recovery day if you happen to bonk on one stage. Developing these nutritional habits can provide a foundation for success.

  •  Eat quality protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes of finishing a stage.
  •  Hydrate by consistently sipping on water with some electrolytes.
  •  In the evening, eat real, whole foods with a high density of nutrients (don’t shy away from fiber).
  •  For breakfast, adjust what and when you eat according to the demands of the day’s stage.
  •  Hydrate and fuel your body as much as possible during the race to optimize your performance for that stage, as well as for subsequent stages.

What are some nutritional strategies you’ve used during a stage race? Post your suggestions, ideas, comments and questions!

{photo by Amber Pierce}