A good nutritional plan while on the bike can boost your performance providing quick, explosive energy late in a race or training ride when it is very critical. Whether you are out on a hard training ride, or doing a cross country or 100 mile mountain bike race, nailing down the following nutritional guidelines will have you passing riders, and not being passed, at the end of a race.
When it comes down to nutrition, there is a ton of information out there. Given the vast quantity of information on the internet, I am here to help distinguish what you need to do to improve your mountain bike racing with a solid on the bike nutritional plan. This article will review the nutrition that is best for you while training and racing on the mountain bike. The article starts off with a scientific breakdown of the most important substrate while on the bike, and then is broken down into how to apply this information for both shorter cross country and longer endurance mountain bike races and training rides.
Carbohydrates are the Key to Success
Using the proper nutrition to get faster on the mountain bike is pretty simple. You need to provide your body with the main energy producing nutrients that it uses while exercising. Doing this with help you feel faster, more powerful, more explosive, and finish stronger at the end of a hard workout or race.
Providing extra energy when on the mountain bike is quite simple: take in simple, fast digesting carbohydrates. Why: carbohydrates provide the quickest source of energy production and are required for a large portion many of the hard efforts you do while in tough singletack and hard rides on the mountain bike. When you do hard efforts, or more precisely efforts at or above your functional threshold power (or threshold) you are producing a large portion of energy through glycolysis, or the breakdown of carbohydrates into energy. Some of you may be asking, "what about that whole fat thing to increase your performance". Yes, there is a time and place to try to increase your body's ability to use fats, but race day and hard training days on the mountain bike are not those (see picture on top of article for details on why). The good news is your body has stored carbohydrates in the form of liver and muscle glycogen. The bad news is that those storages only last 1-2 hours for most athletes leaving you feeling weaker, slower, and sluggish at the end of a race. Ever heard of the word "bonking"........guess what, bonking is a state of when your body runs low on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are needed in your muscles to perform well, but also required for brain function. So, by cutting yourself short on carbohydrates, not only do you get weaker due to cutting your muscles short, but your brain function can decrease also. If you have ever had this feeling, it sucks! Light headed, angry all the time, extremely hungry, and low energy. You can always tell when someone bonked if they passed you flying by early in a race, and then look like a snail at the end.
Getting back to the basics, carbohydrate supplementation is critical if you want to increase your performance on the bike. It is a great training aid when used properly.
So how do you take this knowledge and use it to increase your performance?
The best thing you can do to increase your performance is to add carbohydrate intake while you are riding. Many of the common over the counter drinks and supplements such as Honey Stinger Gels, Hammer Heed and Gu Brew work great. Go to your local bike shop and see what they have. The key is finding a drink or supplement such as gel or gummies, that you like the taste of and work well for you. Ideally you want your energy stores to feel consistent throughout the ride, and, when done properly, you should feel stronger for longer and increase your performance on the mountain bike. Once you find a supplement you like, then match the back nutritional label you are taking in 50-70 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This is the recommended dosage for maximal performance gains both while racing and during hard training rides. If this is way above what you normally take in, then consider small jumps at first but ideally getting those carbohydrates to their maximal intake will help reduce the reliance on your stores and preserve those stores so you can end your race stronger, and with more power.
Breaking this down a bit more, typically when it comes down to cross country versus 50-100 mile races, this intake can change a bit.
Cross Country Races
You are always going very fast and typically in lots of singletrack for these races. Taking in a solid food such as gummies can be very challenging on some courses. Most of the time it is easiest and most consistent to take in carbohydrates in the form of liquids or gels for these races. This doesn't have to be the case, but you need to be aware of this and experiment prior to the race with your nutritional plan at race pace on trails similar to your race to make sure you can realistically take your nutrition for those conditions.
On top of this, given that cross country racing is much faster paced and the intensity is higher, less blood is going to your stomach because it is needed at your legs to provide power and to help keep your body temperature down in hotter races. So, experiment with your race day nutrition as you might need to bring the carbohydrate intake down by 10-20 grams per hour (or around 40 gram per hour) to avoid it coming back up. Ideally though, the more you can take in without GI issues on race day, the better off you will be as the race progresses and the more riders you will pass!
Marathon, 50, and 100 Mile Races
When the race is aimed to finish in 3-4 or more hours, you can change things up a bit also. Keep in mind your main goal is to spare the glycogen stores you have as much as possible giving you more energy and power at the end of the race. Taking in solid foods is typically easier in these longer races, but is very rider dependent. My typical routine has always been 100% liquid calories for 100 mile races and it has worked great for me helping me win multiple National 100 mile races. However, the rider right next to me might need something a bit different. The key to success is experimenting with this well in advance of your race. For your long rides, start taking in what you think you will like for the race and see how you feel. If you feel strong, energetic, and consistent throughout the ride, then stick with that routine. If you feel spikes in energy followed with a huge drop, then change it up. In addition to this, be careful about taking in large portions at one time. Nibble on a sandwich or constantly sip on a drink every 10-15 minutes rather then ingesting it all at once. This will keep you feeling consistently stronger and faster throughout a longer 4+ hour race.
Overall, your main goal of adding carbohydrates to your diet while riding your bike is to spare your glycogen stores giving you more energy, and helping you reach new goals this coming season. Nail down these nutritional guidelines and you will be on your way to getting faster, faster!
Thanks for reading and enjoy the riding!
Coach Drew Edsall: Professional Mountain biker, Head Coach and Founder of Mtbfitness