With cyclists well into their race season, you likely have your favorite pre-race foods and fluids menu planned out, and are refining your on-bike drinking skills to maximize your race performance. But have you thought about your race recovery nutrition?
At this time in the season your nutritional focus should be on nutritional strategies to improve race performance, and proper recovery so that you are prepared for your next race. Your training is likely focused on intensity, with a reduced training volume as you prepare for an upcoming race. Proper recovery is especially important if you are racing weekly or even twice a month.
Recovery starts right after you finish a race, whether a long road race, demanding off-road course, or a fast paced criterium. Keeping up with your fluid and fuel losses is challenging when training, but the pace and dynamics of racing can make on-bike drinking and fueling even more challenging. Chances are that you will finish your race in a dehydrated and depleted state, especially after hard efforts lasting longer than 60 to 90 minutes.
Of course you need to plan ahead so that you can start the recovery process within an hour after the race by packing the proper foods and fluids. Your immediate recovery nutrition plan should include fluid, sodium, carbohydrate, and even some protein if that is convenient and suits your tastes.
Chances are that you cannot complete a weight check after the race. But if you have been monitoring your total fluid losses after hard training sessions you should have a sense of how well you keep up with your sweat losses. Every pound of weight loss represents 20 to 24 ounces of fluid to consume. You can especially focus on re-hydration for several hours after the race. Fluids that contain sodium are your best choice.
Several well-designed studies have demonstrated that consuming sodium containing fluids does a better job of restoring fluid volume than sodium-free fluids. After consuming an adequate volume of a low-sodium drink your can still find yourself dehydrated (by producing large amounts of urine) when compared to consuming the same volume of a higher sodium drink (less urine, more body fluid restored). Plan ahead and pack a recovery drink that contains sodium in a cooler or mixed a powdered product with water after a race.
Of course another benefit of these recovery products is that they also provide easily digested and absorbed carbohydrate. To begin the glycogen restoration process, it is recommended to consume one-half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (or slightly more) within 30 minutes after a race. Protein can also be added to the recovery mix, though it is not as essential if adequate carbohydrate is consumed. Anywhere from 10 to 15 grams is recommended based on current research guidelines. Protein should be high quality, with sources such as whey, soy, or milk protein are recommended, and found in many recovery products.
Real foods and fluids also work just as well for recovery nutrition as convenient supplements. If you rehydrate with water, make sure that you consume some carbohydrate food items that contain sodium, such as crackers or pretzels. While caffeine containing fluids are not the dehydrating products they were once believed to be, they are not the most effective rehydration products available and generally do not contain enough sodium.
Continue your recovery
Continue to re-hydrate with fluid and sodium, and refuel with carbohydrate and protein again in 2 to 3 hours, preferably with a good post-race meal. Longer races, lasting three to four hours also deplete muscle triglyceride or fat stores, so balanced eating later in the day and the next day to replenish these stores with healthy fat choices is also recommended.
How aggressively you need to focus on subsequent recovery nutrition depends upon your upcoming training schedule. A light day of training or complete rest day after the race means that the muscle glycogen resynthesis process can continue. Resting your muscles the next day requires that you consume about 2.5 to 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. For light training, consume 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. The goal is to restore muscle glycogen to full levels so that you are fueled for that weeks training and not beginning any future high intensity efforts with sub-par fuel stores.
During a heavy race cycle your protein requirements are on the higher end so that you can keep up with the wear and tear on your muscles. Carbohydrate intake should also match training: consume 2.5 to 3 grams per pound for training lasting an hour or longer rides at low to moderate intensity. For harder rides lasting at least 90 minutes, aim for 3.4 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight. Long rides lasting over 4 hours demand carbohydrate amounts at 4.5 to 5.5 grams per pound. Round out your carbohydrate intake with a balance of protein and fat, and re-hydrate after training sessions. Focus on daily hydration and post-ride recovery nutrition as you prepare for your next race.