What should I eat during a race? When it comes to race day, this question comes up every time, or at least it should. Before you spend thousands of dollars on equipment upgrades, consider what would have more impact on your race-day performance, better nutrition or a lighter wheelset?
Taking in the right amount of fluids, carbohydrates, minerals and calories during your big event can’t be overemphasized. If you don’t eat or drink enough on the bike you’ll experience a significant drop in power and performance.
Think about this: Is your on-the-bike nutrition holding you back or propelling you forward?
Knowing what to eat and drink, and how much to consume will give you confidence that you’re on the right track to optimal nutrition and peak performance.
We’ve sorted through multiple research studies and articles in addition to our own experience as coaches and elite athletes to compile the recommendations below. How on target are you?
Short answer: Moderate to High-glycemic Carbohydrates (CHO)
Our bodies store enough glycogen to fuel a maximum of 90 minutes of high intensity exercise. After 90 minutes, there’s nearly nothing left in the tank for high-intensity activity, you’ve run out of fuel. (a.k.a. bonking)
This means that any race over 90 minutes absolutely requires that you consume carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores. The quantity ranges anywhere from 45-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise (See Calculation Below!). The body replenishes glycogen stores best when carbs/sugars are in a mix of “types” such as glucose, fructose and/or sucrose (which is a combination of fructose and glucose).
It is ideal for race fuel to have a higher ratio of glucose to fructose (approx. 3:1). Fructose and sucrose are digested in the intestines, whereas glucose is absorbed immediately starting in the mouth.
There is large body of scientific research on carbohydrate intake and performance, and it consistently indicates that the more grams of carbohydrates you ingest, the better you will perform both in time and speed.
Examples of Carb-rich (CHO) Food:
Pro Bar Meal: 51g CHO, 360 kcal (glucose, fructose)
Larabar: 30g CHO, 200 kcal (fructose)
ClifBar Chocolate Chip: 45g CHO, 250 kcal (10g high-protein – not ideal for racing)
Honey Stinger Gold Gel: 29g CHO, 120 kcal (glucose, fructose)
Gu Gel: 22g CHO, 100 kcal (fructose, maltodextrin*)
*Maltodextrin can cause indigestion and digestive issues for many. In the U.S., it is typically derived from genetically modified corn. Test to see if your body can tolerate it.
An easy way to estimate your in-race carbohydrate intake needs is to use the calculation below. Identify the duration of your event and calculate your nutritional needs. You’ll need to make sure you pack enough food to see you through the end. It’s always better to carry extra food in your pockets than to accidentally drop a bar and risk a bonk.
Carbohydrate Intake: 45-90g CHO (carbohydrate) per hour
Or approximately 1 gram CHO per kilogram of body weight per hour
An 80 kg rider would need to consume ~80 grams of CHO or carbohydrate per hour, or 1 Pro Bar (51g CHO) + 1 Bottle Osmo Active Hydrate (27g CHO)
A 65 kg rider needs ~65 grams of CHO or carbohydrate per hour, or 1 LaraBar (30g CHO)+ 1 Honey Stinger Gel (29g CHO) + 1/4 bottle of electrolyte drink (6g CHO)
Sound like a lot of food? It can be. You’ve got to “train” your body to digest this quantity of carbs. If you’re not used to consuming this much carbohydrate during a high-intensity bike race or ride, you’ll need to build up your body’s tolerance of high-carb consumption during hard training rides. It’s also a good idea to include a lot of variety of foods in your pocket to entice you to eat.
Do not underestimate the importance of proper hydration. Not sufficiently replacing sweat losses will negatively impact cognitive performance, reduce power output and is ultimately very dangerous for your health.
Are you feeling thirsty on the bike? If so, you’re already about 2% below optimal body water, which can mean an 11% drop in power output. That kind of wattage disparity can mean the difference between leading up a long climb versus getting dropped and spit out the back.
How much you need to drink varies among athletes and depends on factors such as intensity, sweat rate, heat, humidity, body size, and altitude. The warmer the day and the more you sweat, the more fluids you’ll need to consume to prevent dehydration.
On race day, we recommend drinking ~1.5-2 bottles (or 24-48oz) of fluids per hour. Sip small amounts frequently to avoid gastric distress and support absorption. Aim to drink 7-12 ounces or 1/4 to 1/2 of your 24-ounce water bottle every 15 minutes.
In many cases, athletes can’t orally replace the amount of fluid lost during exercise. That means you’ll need to start your race fully hydrated. You can pre-hydrate in the two days leading up to an event by regularly drinking salty, electrolyte-rich fluids. It also means you should never wait until you’re thirsty to drink, and that you’re better off drinking salty, electrolyte-rich fluids over plain water during and in the 4-6 hours after exercise.
You should drink enough during activity so you don’t lose more than about 2 to 3 percent of your body weight during the race. You can weigh yourself before and after to help determine fluid loss.
Short Answer: Electrolyte Fluids & Water
It’s important to replenish sodium and other electrolytes lost through sweat. Electrolytes, which are included in most high-quality sports drink products, are essential for muscle function. Plus, when glucose and sodium are present in the small intestine, water is drawn into the bloodstream at a much faster rate, off-setting time to dehydration. We also suggest carrying plain water as it can often be more appetizing than drink mix. One way or another, get your fluids in.
We recommend the majority of your fluids come from electrolyte drink. On the bike, you can start a race with 2 electrolyte mix bottles and pick up plain water in the feed zone.
Beware if you carry high-calorie mix in your bottles. A high-carb mix like Perpetuem can be great during a long road race, but don’t count it as hydration, as it requires extra water to process. Instead, go by the saying “hydration in the bottle, food in the pocket.”
Osmo Active Hydration, 24 oz bottle: 27g CHO, 90 kcal. Sodium: 480 mg or 20% Daily Value
Isagenix Amped Hydrate, 24 oz bottle: 18g CHO, 105kcal. Sodium: 330mg 14% Daily Value
Nuun Active Tablet, 24oz bottle: 1.5g CHO, 12kcal. Sodium: 539mg or 22% Daily Value
Hammer Heed, 24 oz bottle: 27g CHO, 100kcal. Sodium: 45mg or 2% Daily Value (high-carb, low sodium, not ideal)
Race Day Nutrition Strategies for races under 90 min. and over 90 min.
It’s never a good idea to eat high fat foods, even if they have a lot of carbohydrates (croissants for example) because fat slows glucose’s release in the the bloodstream – sometimes by as much as 2 hours! So while you thought you carb-loaded at breakfast, that glucose isn’t hitting the system until you’re almost home, where it will not be used for energy but instead be stored as fat.
Remember, recovery starts on the bike. The more glycogen debt you are in by the end of a race, the longer it will take to recover. Sufficient carbohydrate consumption during and after competition will speed up glycogen resynthesis, reduce muscle soreness and enhance recovery . For more info, check out our blog on nutrition tips on post-ride/race recovery.
Race-day nutrition and hydration can make or break your performance. See what works best for you and become a pro at meeting your personal nutrition needs.
Keep track of what you eat and how much you eat during races and identify what made you feel good and what didn’t. Test your fueling strategies during hard training rides and group rides; practice eating/drinking at speed while moving in a peloton. Mix and match foods to dial in your fueling and hydration plan.
Proper race-day nutrition can mean the difference between winning and losing, between finishing strong and getting dropped. Make sure you give it the attention it deserves. Get after it!
3] International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/ijsnem.2016-0316?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&