Race-Day Diet Can Make or Break a Competitive Cyclist

HealthDay reporter describes nutrition regimen for grueling West Coast bike ride

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By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 3 (HealthDay News) -- I rolled into the St. Helens, Ore., rest stop, 172 miles into my single-day ride of the 204-mile Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic, truly unsure how I was going to make it the rest of the way.

Despite my best efforts, I had hit the wall. I had been eating and drinking the entire long day, focused on replenishing the thousands of calories I'd been burning, and still it hadn't been enough.

"When you're out there for extended periods, your body gets depleted," said Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian in Boston who has written about nutrition for cyclists. "It gets depleted of water, it gets depleted of calories. You want a constant infusion of carbs to fuel your muscles and brain, and liquids to replace the loss of sweat."

Nutrition and hydration had been my two major concerns as I trained. I had only ridden in bicycle "centuries" (100 miles) before, so the STP -- a one- to two-day race held on July 14-15 this year -- would be double any previous exertion.

I tried different sports drinks and supplements during my training rides in the months leading up to the big event, and experimented with snacking at different times during the rides.

This, it turns out, is the right way to go. "Upon starting to train for an endurance event, you should also start to create your fueling strategy," Clark said. "While training, you need to determine what food and fluids you prefer for fuel during exercise."

I stopped training the week before the Seattle-to-Portland ride, to give my legs time to be fully rested.

"It takes 24 to 48 hours for muscles to become completely fueled, after you've tapered off your exercise," Clark said. "You probably didn't need to take that much time off, but it didn't hurt."

In the couple of days just prior to the big day, I began loading up on carbs.

Most of my life I spend counting calories, fighting to achieve my ideal weight. I am 6-foot, 1-inch tall and hover around 205 to 215 pounds, and it is a constant struggle.

That all went out the window the day before the STP. I ate a huge omelet breakfast, fresh macaroni and cheese from a cheese maker at Pike's Place Market, and pasta Bolognese at a wonderful Italian restaurant. Gourmet cupcakes for dessert.

By resting and eating lots of carbs, I gave my legs the chance to build up large stores of glycogen -- the fuel they would burn as my muscles fired all day long, spinning the bike crank and propelling me forward.

The morning of the STP, I got up at 3:45 a.m. and ate a bowl of instant oatmeal and a slice of pumpkin bread, then drank some fruit juice.

I got off the starting line at 5 a.m., and began my trek south with 9,999 other riders. I fell into fast-pace lines and kept up easily. Pace lines are important; drafting behind other riders, your exertion is cut by a third.

It's not easy to remember to take regular swigs of sports drink. I had to remind myself to reach down and pull a water bottle from its cage, lift it up for a quick gulp and then shove it back into place, pedaling all the while.

You should drink about a half-cup to three-quarters of a cup every 15 to 20 minutes, to replenish what you're losing through sweat, said Susan Kleiner, a Seattle registered dietitian who has written about eating for strength. That's a lot harder than it sounds when you're keeping up constant exertion to stay with a pace line.

Snacking was easier. I'd filled a little speed box that sits on my top tube next to the handlebars with jellybeans. Every so often I'd pop a couple in my mouth. They had a triple benefit -- they were tangy and tasty, they were laced with pure carbohydrates, and they provided a brief distraction. Hours on the bike can be monotonous at times.

Regular food stops are one of the best things about event rides. I had ridden the STP last year and knew the food was pretty good -- sandwiches, fruit juice, cookies, pretzels and plenty of gels.

At each official rest spot I loaded up on food. There were peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, but I avoided those in favor of turkey wraps and the like. I had learned during training that peanut butter sits uncomfortably in my stomach.