How to Nail Nutrition On Your Next Gravel Bike Race

Written by Kate Thayer, on May 11, 2022

Meet the Saddle Slingers. They are the women of Contender who are heading for the ENVE Grodeo, a 92-mile gravel event in the heart of Utah summer. We'll be following their journey to the event. If you haven't, check out who the Saddle Slingers are! You won't regret it.

The only thing harder than building a gravel race training plan is keeping it. But all the work you put in on the gravel bike can be lost without proper nutrition.  Dialing in your nutrition is just as important as training for a gravel bike race when it comes down to it, and establishing good nutrition habits from the get-go is key. When race day rolls around the last thing you want to think about is what to eat and when to eat.

Last week the Saddle Slingers got the opportunity to talk about all things nutrition with Colette Vartanian, Registered Dietician and Athlete Care Manager at Skratch Labs. The big takeaway is that taking the time to strategize fueling your long gravel rides will make it easy breezy when race day arrives. We got to listen in and take some notes on what to eat for long gravel rides or races, just for you.

NUTRITION TIMELINE

RAMPING UP TO RACE DAY

One of the most important questions to ask is what to eat before a gravel race. The days leading up to your race provide an opportunity to build a strong foundation of fuel for your body to use. 

  • A day or two before the big race, every meal should follow the half-plate rule: half of your plate should be carbs. This ensures glycogen in muscles will be at full capacity. One step to reduce bonking!
  • Check the weather on race day. Gonna be a hot one? Preload sodium. Adding sodium helps increase your body’s reserve of water and maintain hydration throughout the day. Drink the night before or the morning of your gravel bike race or ride.
  • Go with what you know, every step of the way. Ideally, you're eating what is familiar, predictable, and easy to digest.

Skratch labs hydration pack sitting on top of a bike saddle

MORNING OF THE RACE

Morning jitters are very real, not to mention how early some of these races start. All things considered, it's not always easy to get down a big breakfast. Still, what they say is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Some tips for starting right, bright and early:

  • Get in a mix of carbs, fat, and protein two to three hours before the race starts. Having all three will help keep you sustained throughout the day.
  • We will all feel nervous before a big gravel bike ride. If you know you won't be able to stomach solid food the morning of, try getting some extra calories in the night before or opt for a smoothie or a liquid-based fuel in the AM. This can be a smoothie or a shake as long as it has a good mix of carbs, fat, and protein.
  • For those wanting solid food, try something that is simple to eat without a ton of oil. Oatmeal, rice with eggs, or waffles with bananas and peanut butter are great places to start. 
  • Avoid eating too many veggies, as things with high fiber may irritate your gut as well.  
  • Know your carb limit. You need to keep your carb intake up leading up to big rides. But for some, too many carbs can make your body freak out resulting in an upset stomach.

      Skratch labs clear hydration product

       

      AT THE STARTING LINE (30 MINUTES BEFORE)

      Around 30 minutes before the race is prime time for some carbs. If you can stomach it, solid foods are a great option here. You'll want to choose a quick-release carbohydrate snack that doesn't have too much sugar (so you don't crash). This can be applesauce, a banana, trail mix, PB&J sandwich, or whatever you're excited to eat is a good place to start. Save the chews and gels for later in the race when you need the simple carbs and quick sugar hits.two women riding gravel bikes through the mountains

      DURING THE GRAVEL RACE

      Now here comes the part we are asking: how many calories should you be taking in during the gravel ride or race?

      The baseline answer is that you should aim to replenish half the calories you burn each hour. If you burn 400 calories in an hour riding your bike, you should be consuming ~200 calories within that hour. Too many calories and your body may feel a little overloaded; it will be harder to digest and you'll have that extra pressure sitting like a rock on your stomach. Too few calories and you run the risk of depleting your glycogen stores and bonking. Not ideal.

      However, for long endurance events like a gravel bike race, carbs are key. For endurance activities, people burn about 45-90 grams of carbs per hour on average. You'll need to replace these carbs, but how you go about it is up to you. Try starting on the lower end and add more carbs if your body is responding well and isn't causing an upset stomach. Again, depending on how you digest, you may want to start your race with more solid foods and move to liquids as you progress.

      How often should you eat during a gravel race? The best way for your body to digest and burn this fuel is in smaller bits at a time. It's best if you can eat and drink over shorter intervals, like a reminder every 20 to 30 minutes. Some might prefer a longer interval of 45 minutes and will choose to eat and drink more there. We recommend the shorter interval, as you can more easily skip a 20-minute reminder and eat more after without having to overload yourself to compensate.

      Folks usually start to struggle with getting proper nutrition around the 50-mile mark of the ride, especially when riding longer events (8 hours or more). When the body becomes fatigued, it becomes easy to lose your appetite. This is when gels and blocks really start to come in handy as they are easy to digest. Skratch also offers a product called Superfuel, which is specifically formulated to be low-stress to consume while addressing the body's need for complex carbs and calories. 

      Additionally, in a long race, you likely won't be carrying all the food and hydration you need with you. If you are doing a gravel race, it is a good idea to look up aid station locations and plan where you want to either eat, drink, or replenish what you have.

      Two women on gravel bikes, biking on a road through the mountains

      How much do you need to drink during a gravel race? Just like with calorie consumption, the goal is to have sustained and consistent hydration. The biggest risk of dehydration is inhibiting decision-making. Staying hydrated is staying sharp, and staying sharp is staying safe.

      On average we sweat about 1 to 2 liters per hour (30 to 60 oz), and along with it, roughly 800 to 1000 mg of sodium. As a result, the best estimate is to drink 16 to 30 oz and roughly 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium per hour, depending on temperature and sweat levels. Start with this amount and see how you tolerate it.

      The good news is that hydration mixes can help replenish this sodium. Mixing a hydration mix into your bottle and sipping (not chugging) can help keep your sodium levels balanced. It’s important to keep in mind that these mixes can also aid in replenishing carbs during your bike race as well. Account for the carbs in the bottle to adjust your intake accordingly. You may find that if you sweat more you'll have to adjust to accommodate. Just another reason it's important to dial all of this in during your training!

      Skratch labs SuperFuel product sitting on a picnic table, a bike is leaning against the table

      AFTER THE RACE

      So you've finished your gravel race! Congrats! But your nutrition journey isn't over yet. What you consume post-race will have a direct impact on your recovery. Right after your race, you should focus on eating something carb and protein-dense. Carbs are especially important to replenish if you plan on exercising again in the next 8 hours. Ideally, you should consume 1 to 2 grams of carbs per kilogram of your weight every hour for the first 4 hours post-cycling, even if you plan on taking the next day off.

      For proper muscle recovery, a sufficient amount of protein is required immediately after your gravel race. The longer your recovery period, the longer you can wait to consume protein. If you have plans to continue training after your ride you'll want to consume roughly 20 grams of protein within 3 hours for optimal recovery.

      Last but not least, have no fear: that post-race beer isn't off the table. Alcohol can inhibit recovery early on, but grab some good, get a recovery drink, stay hydrated, and your body will recover just as well. Cheers to that.

      Skratch labs recovery drink mix sitting on a tailgate next to a bike wheel

      OTHER TIPS

      ↠ Practice, practice, practice. Practice your fuel strategy on long rides before your big gravel event so you know what works well for your body.
      ↠ Overpack snacks. Pack 10-20% more than you think you need. This is handy if you find yourself needing an extra boost, but also allows you to lend a snack to a fellow cyclist who may need the calories. Sharing is caring!
      ↠ Remember there's no magic food that works for everyone. Try some different combinations on your training rides to figure out what works best for you. 
      ↠ Enjoy the ride. Life happens, and sometimes no amount of calculated calories can fix it. Races are a celebration of all the hard training you've accomplished. At the end of the day, remember to enjoy the ride. 
      Chart breakdown of nutrition information
      Words by Kate Thayer and Alvin Holbrook. Images by Skratch and Contender Bicycles.

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