What a Sports Dietitian and Pro Bike Racer Eats on Race Day

What a Sports Dietitian and Pro Bike Racer Eats on Race Day

By Kristen Arnold

ButcherBox Pro Cycling rider and team nutritionist Kristen Arnold talks about what she does to fuel for a fast and aggressive bike race under the lights.

Setting sun, scorching pavement, sparked nerves, race ready – welcome to the wild world of professional criterium racing. Criteriums (aka crits) are timed bike races run around a short circuit, typically 0.7-1.5 miles long. The courses – often set in downtown areas – include punchy climbs, steep descents, hairpin corners, mixed road surfaces, and shifting road widths. Women’s professional races run 45-90 minutes and men’s races run 60-120 minutes with average speeds ranging from 24-28 mph. Crits also have ‘races within the race’ to raise the speeds even more as riders contest interim sprints to earn series points, prizes, or cash. Many consider crits to be the NASCAR of bike racing.

Crits at the professional level are often held at twilight right before dark or in the evening under lights. Racing at this time can be challenging for riders who are used to training or competing in the morning or afternoon.

As a professional bike racer, I specialize in crits and find racing in the evening to be a familiar and exciting time to race. For years during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I trained in the evening after school and taught my body to compete at this time of day.

Crits require more fast-twitch muscles than other forms of bike racing because of the short duration, numerous corners leading to frequent accelerations, and intermediate sprints. These fast twitch muscles require a higher proportion of glycogen and blood glucose for fuel, which translates to eating carbohydrates. My foods throughout the day leading up to a crit are carbohydrate-focused, while including a balanced amount of protein and fat.

One of the most important aspects of eating is the timing. I intentionally eat a breakfast which includes vegetables (arugula and salsa), knowing that lunch will be replaced by my typical pre-race meal. I only eat foods which are easy on the stomach within 3 hours of competing. Oatmeal with a banana, maple syrup, and peanut butter is a tried-and-true meal to eat pre-race; I can eat this even with a nervous stomach and feel sufficiently full with sustained energy going into a race.

The closer I get to the race start time, the simpler the fuel. Within 1.5 hours of the start, I drink water and sports drink mix and eat dried fruit like dates and figs. If I can get my hands on a shot of espresso (or an 8oz Starbucks Cubano as a backup option), I’ll have that within 45 minutes of the start, unless I’m also racing the next day and want to avoid caffeine to ensure a good night’s sleep. The caffeine helps to keep me mentally focused during these fast-paced races.

During the race, especially if I’m competing for consecutive days, I’ll eat a date or two for fuel in addition to bottles with drink mix. My Eliel team jersey pockets are designed to allow easy access for grabbing snacks even at high speeds, and they also double as a great place to keep ice packs during hot races.

After the race, I immediately cool down with an easy spin while drinking a chocolate milk or kefir to replace fluids, restore glycogen, and repair muscle. It usually takes my stomach around an hour to settle down after the event enough to handle solid food, at which point I eat the dinner I brought either on the drive home or while watching the men’s race. Bringing dinner ensures I don’t ‘bonk’ and instead continue to restore glycogen as efficiently as possible – the best method to restore glycogen is 1.5g carbohydrate/kg body weight per hour for 4 hours. Bringing dinner also ensures I get the right nutrients for optimal recovery and do not need to rely on restaurants. If I’m staying close enough to the event to ride to and from the race, I’ll pack a portable dinner like a sandwich and eat it on the ride home. It can be tough to juggle all of my stuff and a sandwich while riding, but the Eliel jersey pockets make carrying essentials easy and the zippered pocket means my credit card and keys are safe and secure.

Another critical aspect of my nutrition on race day is familiarity. I typically eat the same breakfast, pre-race meal, and variations of dinner every race day. Combining a nervous stomach with hot summer temperatures make it tough to stay interested in eating, but having routine meals and snacks makes it easier to stay fueled. For snacks, I stick with ones I know don’t cause stomach issues, including tortilla chips, salsa, pickles, pretzels, dried or fresh fruits, juices, cheeses, hummus, popcorn, sandwiches, cereal, peanut butter, and trail mix.

My dinners change up the sources of starch, vegetables, and proteins to keep things interesting. I like white rice, white pasta, roasted red potatoes, and roasted sweet potatoes as starches. Canned or pouched fish is an easy and nutrient-rich protein that I don’t have to worry about staying cold (and who doesn’t love fish in the team van?). If the team has a cooler onsite, I’ll bring chicken or pork for dinner after the race. If I’m having a hard time eating solid food, which typically happens during a long series of racing consecutively for up to 10 days, I get calories in the form of smoothies. It’s easy to put the right mix of nutrients and many calories into an easily-drinkable smoothie, ensuring I’m properly fed even when eating is tough.

Fueling for a 1-hour race may not seem complicated on the surface, but improper fueling can make or break my performance. Having enough energy for the last 5 minutes or even 5 seconds of the race is many times all that matters and every step taken to get to that moment counts.

A Typical Day’s Menu for an Evening Crit

20oz water with a splash of grapefruit juice
1 whole wheat bagel
3 scrambled eggs
1 handful arugula
2 tablespoons salsa
1 piece swiss cheese
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 teaspoon fruit jam

20oz water
handful pretzels or salty blue corn tortilla chips
3 baby cucumbers
3 tablespoons hummus
10 figs
3oz ButcherBox chicken thigh or pork loin

20oz water
1 cup cooked oatmeal (1/2 cup dry)
1 large banana
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon natural peanut butter

20oz water with 1 serving drink mix with carbohydrates and electrolytes
3 dates
1 shot of espresso or a Starbucks Cubano (found in gas stations)

5pm Race Start!
20oz water with 1 serving drink mix with carbohydrates and electrolytes

6pm Race Finish!
16oz blueberry kefir or chocolate milk for recovery

20oz fizzy water + as much as I can sip on throughout the rest of the evening
2-3 large sweet potatoes
3oz ButcherBox chicken breast or pork chops
1 handful arugula
2 tablespoons salsa
½ avocado
1 handful sugar snap peas

1 5oz tub flavored nonfat Greek yogurt
8oz tart cherry juice


Kristen Arnold, MS, RDN, CSSD
Nutrition: arnoldrdn.com
Coaching: source-e.net
Pro racing: https://butcherboxcycling.com 
Patrick Daly Photo 

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