Whether you're racing short-track cross-country, marathon, downhill or stage, the right fuel can make or break your race. For short races, you don't have to eat during the ride, but your pre- and post-race meals affect performance and recovery. For longer races that last hours or days, what you eat during the competition may be the difference between a good showing and a bonk that makes it impossible to finish. Of course, always consult your doctor for the last word before beginning any new exercise or diet regimen.
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Short and Sweet
Short-track cross-country mountain bike races last only a few minutes on an 800-meter course, while professional cross-country races can be as long as 50 kilometers -- or about 31 miles. Regardless of the distance, you have to be at your best every second to pull out a good performance. Plan a meal three to four hours before competition that offers a mix of carbohydrates, protein and a small amount of fat. Examples include whole-wheat pancakes with a protein smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal with berries and scrambled eggs on the side.
An hour before your event, renowned cycling coach, Chris Carmichael, in his book "Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness," recommends you eat a 100- to 300-calorie snack containing mostly carbohydrates for energy. A sports drink, energy bar, a few dates or a piece of fruit are possible options. Since most people finish even the longest cross-country mountain bike races in less than two hours, you don't usually need food during the race. Water or a sports drink should be plenty.
Marathon mountain bike races usually range between 60 and 80 kilometers, or 37 to 50 miles. Ultra-marathon races are a metric century, or 62 miles. Enduro and stage races take place over several days; riders complete a specific number of miles each day and their cumulative time determines their place. These races typically require hours of riding each day and complicate your nutrition needs. You should start competition for each day with a hearty breakfast that contains mostly carbohydrates and some protein and fat, just like you do for short courses.
As you race, you'll want to consume between 30 and 60 grams of carbs per hour to keep your energy stores up, says Carmichael. The Ultramarathon Cycling Association recommends a minimum of 300 calories per hour on long rides. Energy gels, bars, drinks and chews are ways to get these carbs and calories, but all that sugar can upset your digestive tract. Whole foods such as pretzels, boiled potatoes, dates, bananas and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are portable options. Choose foods that have a lot of calories per serving (you can only carry so much) and that sit well in your stomach. Experiment during training -- some people have a stronger digestive tract than others; figure out which specific foods work best for you.
The food you consume after a race impacts your recovery. Eat carbohydrates in the form of fruit or grains to replenish your glycogen stores and some protein to help your muscles recover and repair. A study published in the journal "Metabolism" in 2011 found that adding protein to a post-workout, carbohydrate recovery beverage enhanced the rate at which athletes' bodies were able to refill glycogen, or energy, stores. If you are doing a multi-stage event that occurs over several days, the meal you consume after your ride is particularly critical to the next day's performance.
Nutrition When You're Not Racing
Of course, following a generally healthy diet during training is critical to building a good performance base. You can have anything in moderation, but most of the time, emphasize healthy foods and a variety of them, so you consume a balance of nutrients. Eat enough to fulfill your energy needs, especially to support training, and stay well-hydrated. Eating your best during training means you can get the most out of every workout, which only sets you up for success during competition.