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How to fuel for your next race

Some tips from team nutritionist Will Girling 

December 2, 2021

Whether you are riding a gravel event or the Tour de France, all of your training will come to nought if you run out of the right fuel on the road. And you will never get the best out of yourself in training if you don’t have the energy to finish your hardest sessions.

Professional bike racers burn through thousands and thousands of calories on a daily basis. A six-and-a-half-hour classic will often cost them more energy than most people need for three days. That’s extreme, but if you want to be competitive on your bike, you’ll need a lot more fuel than the average person too. EF Education–NIPPO’s nutritionist Will Girling thinks that you can learn a lot from our riders’ approach to fuelling.

The first thing to note is just how much the riders take in on their bikes. Neilson Powless, winner of the 2021 Clásica de San Sebastien, is one rider who has benefitted from eating more in races. “It’s just incredible how I’ve gone from eating, like, one gel an hour to now taking in 500 or 600 calories an hour,” he says.

Will explains:

“As exercise duration increases, especially if it goes above two hours, carbohydrate intake should be heading towards 90 grammes per hour. If a race is going to be four hours or more, hitting 90 grammes per hour is going to be the minimum. It’s then important to consider other factors as well, such as the intensity of the race. So, if it is a one-day race, it’s normally longer and harder for the whole day, so riders should aim to consume 90 to 120 grammes of carbs per hour.”

That is a lot of carbohydrates. Scientists used to believe that athletes could only absorb 60 grammes per hour. That was based on glucose. Now, modern research shows that when glucose is mixed with fructose and other types of sugars, athletes can digest significantly more. That is because the different types of carbs take different pathways to get to your gut.

Consuming 90 to 120 grammes of carbohydrate per hour will give you an advantage over rivals who consume fewer, especially towards the end of a long, hard race. The higher intake will allow you to maintain higher blood glucose levels and better preserve your stores of glycogen. Glycogen is the fuel that you will need to launch a race-winning attack or stay with the leaders on the last climb of a stage.

“Glycogen is the fastest and most immediate form of energy that we have,” Will explains. “It is stored in our muscles in a format that we can use straight away. As intensity goes up, our bodies go from burning predominantly fat to glucose and then from glucose to glycogen.”

However, your muscles can only store so much glycogen—about 1500 calories worth. You won’t have any left when it counts if you’ve been running low on glucose. Racing with low blood glucose levels will force your body to use more glycogen to make up the deficit, so, when you really need that glycogen during the crux of a race, you will be running on fumes.

It’s one thing to know how many carbs you should be taking in; actually doing it is another thing altogether. The first challenge is knowing what is in your food and drink. Different sports nutrition products contain different amounts of the different types of carbs in different ratios. During a race, no one has time to read nutritional labels or do mental maths. EF Education–NIPPO’s performance nutrition partner NEVERSECOND does away with this problem.

“With NEVERSECOND, everything is just divisions of 30 grammes,” Will says. “So, the guys are just like, I need three units or four units, and it’s that simple. The bottles will either have 30, 60, or 90 grammes of carbs. They can see on the bottle what it is—obviously they will have a slight preference—and then they just have to have a gel or two or a bit of food per hour.”

NEVERSECOND’s gels and drink mixes are made with a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose to ensure maximum absorption. Since the riders often prefer to eat solid food during the first couple of hours of a race, the team’s soigneurs make rice cakes which contain 30 grammes of carbohydrate as well.

Still, the riders need to train their bodies to absorb so much carbohydrate during intense efforts. Will encourages them to practice.

“You need to be able to train your gut to be able to manage high levels of carbohydrate,” he says. “That requires two sessions a week. Preferably, a session will include some intensity and be at least four hours or so, similar enough to a race day, so they have the expenditure and can really put in the fuel. That way they will get that practice they need, without negatively affecting body composition.”

These types of practice sessions make the riders’ bodies more efficient at burning carbs as well,, which is something that they will struggle with if they do too many undernourished rides.

“I like to think of enzymes like workers,” Will says. “We’ve got guys with sledgehammers essentially who knock down walls of fat. And we’ve got other ones who knock down walls of carbohydrate. If you do loads and loads of fasted, low-carb training, you are going to start to lay off your carbohydrate wall demolishers, and you are going to increase the hiring of guys who knock down fat walls. But that means that when you suddenly come to race, if you haven’t practiced knocking down any carbohydrate walls, you are going to be very inefficient at doing it.”

That doesn’t mean that you need to eat gels every time you ride your bike. It’s all about fueling for the work that you are going to be doing.

“If you are going to go for a two hour mosey with your mates to a cafe, I wouldn’t say that you need to be on top of your fuel for that,” Will says. “Probably just the cafe stop will be enough. But if you are going to go out with your mates to do a three-hour to four-hour ride—you know what it is like with your friends; you start hitting those hills and smashing it up every single one, and guys start giving digs to each other—you probably want to be on top of your fuelling on that day.”

It is much better to nourish yourself well on the bike than to come home famished and eat everything in your refrigerator. You want to avoid getting into an unhealthy cycle of under-eating and overeating and then under-eating again to compensate. If you balance out your diet, you will be able to train much better.

“If you have more fuel on the bike, then you can also put in more work on the bike and burn more calories,” Will says. “You can put out more intensity and do your efforts properly.”

This is especially important if you have a race coming up. Will advises every athlete to practice their race-day nutrition.

“You want to do some big rides and get your nutrition dialed in. For four to eight weeks, I would be taking those products that you intend to use with you one to two times per week. If you are going to be racing and you want to give your best effort, then undoubtedly 90 grammes of carbohydrates per hour has been shown to improve performance, reduce finishing times, and also improve recovery.”

That strategy has surely worked well for Neilson Powless and his teammates.

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