Incorporating race day nutrition into training

By Jarrod Shoemaker

Ultimately your goal as an athlete is to race effectively, but are you doing everything you can to optimize your performances? Leading into a race it is important to make sure your bike is working well: brakes, drivetrain, and tires should all be ready to go. It is important to make sure your body is ready to go too, of course: massage, rest, and recovery all happening before race day. Many athletes, however, overlook the final puzzle piece: nutrition. Instead of practicing their eating as assiduously as they practice swim technique, bike intensity, and run economy, they leave nutrition practice to chance, saying something like “I’ll just eat whatever is on course.” You might as well leave one of your bike’s wheels at home, given the results you will probably get with this approach. Here are four rules to take the guesswork out of race day nutrition.

  1. Find a drink mix you like. Finding a drink mix that tastes good to you is probably the most important piece. Your friends or coach might love one product, but if it just does not taste good to you and it is not something that you want to drink during a race, keep looking for something else.
  2. Find a drink mix your body can handle. Some people just cannot handle certain drink mixes, experiencing gastrointestinal distress each time they consume them. Remember that what works for one person might not work for you. The issue can be the type of carbohydrate in the mix, the flavoring, or even how concentrated (the “osmolality”) the mix is. The short answer? If a drink mix doesn’t seem to work, keep looking!
  3. Research what is offered on the race course. If you know you are going to be doing a longer race like a full- or half-distance race and will need to refill your bottles during the race, find out what the race offers. Taking the time to do so will  allow you to find out if you like the on-course option, and if it sits well for you in your gut.
  4. Test out what your body can handle. Most athletes are wary to drink and eat a lot on a bike ride or on a run. Learning what your body can handle during training will help inform your choices on race day. Start by drinking one bottle every hour and eating something every 30 minutes. See how that feels. See if you can handle more or need to cut back. Remember that it is easier to consume calories on the bike, so you should focus on learning how much you can eat while riding.

The most important lesson from today: whatever you discover after going through the four steps above, you must practice your race day nutrition. In fact, calling it “race day nutrition” probably doesn’t help, since doing so suggests you only do it on race day! Let’s call it “all-the-time-training nutrition.” Once you have found a plan that effectively supports your training, practice it! Leading into your race you should be doing several rides as long as or longer than your race distance, so set out your nutrition as you would for a race. Try to drink the correct number of bottles and eat the right number of calories. Training is your test—do not test what works on race day!

A lot of athletes will train hard, recover well, but forget to practice nutrition. Why would you spend all of this time, effort, and money on training, but sacrifice it because you didn’t support that work with proper nutrition? Many athletes fail to improve because they did not practice their nutrition before race day. Do not be that athlete! I challenge you to leave no stone unturned in your quest for improvement, and focus on your training nutrition as fiercely as you focus on your training sessions.