Nutrition Guide: What to eat to have a successful gravel race
By Reid Beloni,
CTS Senior Coach
We’ve all heard the saying that “long gravel races are really eating contests that happen to involve riding a bike” The contest is not to see who can eat the most or the fastest, but rather can you consume enough calories and fluids to perform at your best and without causing gastric distress. It’s about having a plan and seeing how close you can stay to it, and how well you can adapt it when needed. A well managed nutrition plan can mean the difference between having your best possible race and having to pull the plug early. With SBT GRVL about two months away, and summer heat in full swing, now is a great time to come up with a nutrition and hydration plan, test it out in training, and refine it for race day. Even if you have another gravel race less than a month away, be sure to keep reading for some race day nutrition and gut management tips that will help you have a smoothly fueled ride.
Step 1: Assess and Plan
It’s best to start your planning by taking a look at your event and estimating how long you think it will take you to finish. Your goal time will give you an idea of how many total calories you will need to replace, because your total hourly intake should be about 25-35% of the calories you burn each hour. I find that as the events get longer than 5 hours, it’s beneficial to aim for the higher end of that range.
Your intake should be evenly spaced. Smaller, more frequent bites and sips are better than gulping down a lot at once. If you can eat every 20 or 30 minutes instead of once per hour, you will burn a more balanced mixture of exogenous carbohydrate and stored muscle glycogen, which means glycogen stores will last longer and you’ll have a lower chance of bonking later. What you eat is up to you; there is no one magic food that will get you through your event. However, it is a good idea to start with foods that are more solid and feature a mixture of macronutrients, like bars or sandwiches and shift towards simpler foods like gummy chews and gels as you go.
For hydration, I recommend carrying one bottle of water and one bottle of a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink. The mix is easy to drink, and provides a little bit of sugar and electrolytes which speeds fluid absorption. The water is good for keeping you hydrated and rinsing down the food you are eating. As a starting point, drink one bottle per hour, and more when it’s hot or humid. Check to see what sports drink the aid stations will be supplying, and ideally try that drink during your training. If you prefer something different, be sure to pack some in small bags in your pockets to add to your bottles while you’re out on course.
Step 2: Develop and refine good habits
All of your training rides are opportunities to make nutritional strategies habitual. It can be easy to get complacent with fueling on shorter or less critical rides, or maybe your newfound fitness may trick you into thinking you can eat less. Beware of this and make sure to treat every ride as an opportunity to train your gut and practice good nutrition strategies. Having strong habits means you will have to make fewer conscious decisions during your event, which is vitally important when you are 6 hours into a 9-hour event.
After you do any of your training rides, but especially after your long rides, you should assess what went well and what you can improve upon. My favorite post-ride assessment is to empty my pockets to see what’s left. If you plan to eat 1000 calories on your 3000-calorie training ride, pull out all your wrappers after you finish and assess what you ate vs. what you planned on eating. If you were off from your goal, was it because you forgot to eat, were struggling to eat due to the terrain or temperature, lost your appetite, or had gut issues? If you forgot to eat, look into setting up timed fueling alerts on your cycling computer that nudge you to eat and drink. If you struggled to eat due to the terrain, maybe look into eating simpler foods or taking in liquid fuel. If you lost your appetite due to flavor fatigue, look into other flavors or textures of foods that work for you and will be appealing when other choices aren’t. If you had gut issues, then you may need to increase your water intake or look at different fuel sources altogether.
As for hydration, assessing your body weight pre- and post-ride is a great way to determine if you are drinking enough. Keeping weight loss due to dehydration to less than 1% of your starting weight is preferred. Use that feedback loop to make incremental improvements each week until you have a really dialed plan.
Step 3: Race day nutrition tips
Even the best pacing and nutrition plan can get derailed on race day. The start can be chaotic, making it hard to eat and drink. You may be a little bit anxious, and that might make you forget parts of your plan. It can be good to remember that while there is a lot going on in the first hour, your race won’t be won or lost there. Make sure to keep checking in with yourself to make sure you aren’t overextending your fitness or throwing off your nutrition plan, and your race will likely go smoothly.
For long events, it’s usually not possible to carry all your water, nor practical to carry all the food you’ll need for the whole event. Study the locations of aid stations and estimate your water and food needs between them. If the event has frequent aid stations, then you may decide to skip some of them or only use water bottles instead of a hydration pack. However, if they are really far apart, you may need to bring additional water bottles or a hydration pack. The best-case scenario is to have a plan before you get to the aid stations. You should have an idea of what they have, and what you need from them so you can get in and out efficiently.
One other strategy that is often overlooked is to make sure to carry more food and water than you think you’ll need. It might take you longer than expected to get between aid stations, or you might just simply get hungry. Carrying extra food is easy because it is small and lightweight. Bring an extra 10-20% more than you think you’ll need. You can also utilize toptube or feed bags to make food accessible. Anything that can make it easier for you to eat without thinking about it is going to help you on race day.
Step 4: Handling a Nutrition Crisis!
A lot of times your event will be harder or longer than your longest training ride. This means you will likely be in uncharted territory, which can present some challenges. If your plan goes sideways, be sure to slow down, do an assessment, and come up with a new plan.
Cramping is a common issue faced in long gravel events, but muscle cramps don’t necessarily mean your race is over. The science is now telling us that cramping probably isn’t a nutritional or hydration issue as much as it is from overexertion or excess fatigue. However, some nutrition and hydration strategies can help fix them: slow down, cool down, eat and drink a little more, and try eating mustard packets, drinking pickle juice, or taking in any other strong flavors (vinegary and spicy foods/liquids in particular seem to help). These can be a reset switch for cramping that allows you to get some relief and adjust your pace.
“Gut rot” is probably everyone’s greatest nutritional fear. Usually this is caused by having too much food and not enough water in your gut, so your digestion comes to a stop. Gut motility drops when athletes are overheated as well. If this starts to happen, stop eating food and start sipping small amounts of water more frequently. This will help dilute the solution in your gut and restart absorption.
Another issue that crops up during long gravel events is flavor fatigue. The best sports nutrition products in the world can’t do you any good if you leave them in your pocket, and sometimes what you need is a new or different flavor or texture to incentivize reaching back into that pocket. Ideally, you should have a range of foods that you know will work for you, including options that are sweet, salty or savory, crunchy, or soft. Then you can look for these options in aid stations or make sure they are all in your drop bags or with your personal support crew.
Finally, if you run into any major issues, ask for help. If you drop your snacks, or your bottles go flying out on a rough descent, ask around if someone has any to share. Most people are just trying to get to the finish line, so there are a lot of helpful people around. You may loan someone a pump and get a gel in return, and who knows, you may just gain a new friend in the process!
Dropping items or running into nutritional problems are just a few of the crises people can run into during long gravel events. In our next article we will talk exclusively about crisis management so you’re ready for anything at SBT GRVL!
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Great, great Advice! “If your plan goes sideways, be sure to slow down, do an assessment, and come up with a new plan.” My plan changed to “fat burning mode” during the recent Unbound 200! I’d like to pick your brain about my Unbound 200 finish while surviving a stomach bug/gastritis ( from food truck chicken 2 nights before event) and only consuming approximately 900 calories and 3-4 liters of water ( minus vomiting) to finish in 19hrs ( about 4-4.5 hrs longer than initially planned!)