Cyclocross season is well underway, and as competitors you likely have adjusted your training for the short, but very high intensity racing. Your workouts are likely characterized by various interval sessions, while endurance and recovery ride volume may drop off relative to your road or mountain bike season.
Running workouts are also included as most of you head into cooler training conditions, with toe numbing cold weather racing marking the finish of the season in many parts of the country. By making a few nutritional adjustments for cyclocross season, you can sustain your training efforts and power your way over the race course.
Keep your balance
With a focus on shorter races and colder training weather, a drop in training volume can dictate some changes in your energy and carbohydrate intake. While it is essential that you maintain your power, fewer calories may be needed to maintain an optimal race weight. At the very least aim to prevent any weight gain.
You are essentially in the off season and with the holidays approaching there are plenty of high calorie temptations just around the corner. As always, your daily energy requirements are largely determined by training time and intensity, and your food intake should match up to that day appropriately.
Immediately after any training ride, have at least half a gram of carbohydrate for every pound of weight (1.2 g/kg wt) to start the muscle glycogen replenishment process. Steady endurance training rides burn a mix of both glycogen and fat, and rides lasting only 2 to 3 hours may not require the high carbohydrate portions you consumed earlier in the season.
Interval rides lasting over 90 minutes can result in significant calorie burning due to the high intensity, with carbohydrate being the predominant fuel burned. Push your carbohydrate intake up to slightly higher levels on these training days and keep your fat intake low. High intensity training can also be a big hunger booster, especially in colder weather- don’t let these conditions result in rapid overeating.
Navigating training nutrition on the bike
On-bike hydration and fueling are still important considerations during cyclocross training sessions. While sweat losses are likely to be lower in cooler weather when compared to the height of hot weather training, don’t be fooled into not rehydrating adequately on the bike. Wearing insulating clothing, and insensible fluid losses (your lungs warm the incoming air you breathe), you may still sweat considerably.
Just like any other time of year, the goal is to minimize your sweat losses. Aim for 4 to 8 ounces of a sports drink every fifteen to twenty minutes, but you can also check on your own sweat rate. Weigh yourself in the buff before and after training. If you are down one pound, that is 16 ounces of sweat losses that you did not replace with drinking on the bike. If you are down two pounds or more, focus on your hydration efforts.
Choose a sports drink for fuel and fluid replacement during both a steady endurance ride the burns through muscle glycogen and also for shorter, but intense interval training sessions that quickly burn through this fuel. You can also warm-up your drink for colder training days.
Pack a few more solid items for your training rides. Cold weather, shivering, and attempts to stay warm mean you need more fuel. Pack along a gel, carbohydrate block, or energy bar for food when hunger sets in on the bike or for the cool-down ride home.
Besides having some extra calories on hand to offset cold training hunger, starting any training ride with a good fuel tank in cooler temperatures is important. Look at your training schedule and determine if it makes sense to have a larger meal 3 to 4 hours beforehand, or a snack 1 to 2 hours prior, or perhaps even both.
A solid meal 3 to 4 hours before training can top off muscle glycogen stores and keep you comfortably full, or not hungry for a ride. Good pre-ride snacks include energy bars, a small bagel, a granola bar or fig cookies 1 to 2 hours beforehand. Just know your tolerances and leave ample digestion time for your pre-ride noshes, particularly before high intensity training. If proper meal timing just isn’t in the cards that training day, take extra care with the foods and fluids you bring on the ride.
Race ready nutrition- eat it early or bite it later
Start preparing for the race nutritionally 24 hours beforehand. With light training and adequate carbohydrates at 4 to 5 g per pound (8-9 g/kg) weight, you can significantly boost your muscle glycogen stores so that you have an ample supply for the race. While cyclocross races are short from a time perspective, lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, they are high in intensity and quickly burn through muscle glycogen stores.
Given the short race times and tricky nature of the courses, you likely will find opportunities to drink on the bike to be very limited. So make sure that you arrive at the cross race hydrated and fueled, with the proper timing locked in so that cross gut doesn’t set in and your pre-race meal doesn’t bite back.
Pre-race meal timing is essential and something that should be ironed out before hard training rides that simulate race intensities. You can also practice meal timings that mimic your race day start time. Ideally, you can consume a breakfast type meal plentiful in carbohydrates. Your favorite cereals, fruit, juice, and even some protein from egg whites or peanut butter can work well. Portions can be fairly generous if enough digestion time is allowed. You can also make smart choices and fuel up about two hours before the start.
Gels, liquid supplements, energy bars can work well. For an afternoon race start, you may even have to plan on downing two pre-race meals. Have a good solid breakfast and then a second lighter meal three hours before your start. Again, this second meal can emphasize reliable breakfast foods. Of course you should hydrate in the hours leading up to the race.
With the comfort of knowing that you are well fueled and hydrated for the race, you can then consume a sports drink during your pre-race warm-up, so that you do not arrive to start with any significantly fluid deficits. Leave enough time for fluid to empty from your stomach to prevent sloshing during the race, so keep with a volume that is comfortable for you. Many seasoned racers and pros also like to pop a carbohydrate gel of a few blocks right before the start to prevent bonking. Practice these suggested strategies during training.
Don’t forget about recovery nutrition after the race, particularly if you will race both weekend days. Have a few recovery foods on hand like a peanut butter and jam sandwich, or a thermos of hot cocoa to have within 30 minutes after racing.
With planning and practice, your race nutrition plan should go down smoothly, allowing you to focus on the challenge of racing itself.
Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally-recognized nutritionist with more than 22 years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutritionprograms for endurance athletes across North America (www.moniqueryan.com).