The multi-day bike race, better known as the stage race, is the pinnacle of bicycle racing. All of the challenges of single-day races are amplified as riders take to the start line day after day with minimal time to relax and recover between stages. Over the years, I've found that nutrition is the single most important variable to stay on top of during these types of events. Managing fatigue, aiding recovery, and maintaining mental strength all depend on how well you fuel your body on and off the bike during a stage race. Let's take a closer look at some of the key areas to focus on:
If you're racing day after day, it's safe to assume you will be burning a lot of calories. For example, at the 6 day mountain bike stage race TransRockies, a typical stage cost me about 3,000 calories in only about 3 hours. Then you have to factor in calories burned throughout the rest of the day, which brings my total up to around 5,000 calories per day.
Using something like a power meter or a heart rate monitor is a great way to keep tabs on energy expenditures. The first step in fueling properly for multi-day racing is understanding how much fuel you need.
Keeping tally on how many calories you are burning throughout each day/stage is only half the battle. Timing your re-fueling is also key. Going back to my race at TransRockies, 3,000 calories in 3 hours is a lot. Trying to consume this amount of energy in this amount of time would lead to nothing more than an upset stomach.
For high intensity, multi-hour stages, 200 calories of easily-digestible carbs per hour is all you need, even if you are burning much more. 200 calories per hour is the limit at which the body is able to utilize carbs by turning them into energy. Some all-day, ultra endurance stage events may merit a higher hourly consumption, but for most events, 200 calories is perfect.
Now as you’ll notice, this still leaves a significant caloric debt after each stage. After you cross the finish line each day until going to bed that night is the time when the majority of the re-fueling should be done. Consuming a steady flow of easily-digestible carbs for the rest of the day is key to replenishing energy and being ready for the next day of racing. You want to avoid binging on a huge meal that physically fills you up, and try to keep the calories coming in slowly and smoothly until turning in for the night.
While caloric needs increase tremendously during stage races, hydration needs aren’t quite as simple. Generally speaking, with more food comes the need for more water as well. However, over-hydration can be an even more serious concern than dehydration when you are pushing yourself to the limit day after day.
The best way to stay on top of hydration is to simply be aware of it at all times. Every time you eat, also drink and ask yourself how you feel. If there is even a small feeling of thirst, you need to drink more. If you find yourself visiting the restroom every hour, you’re drinking too much. Being aware and understanding the feeling of adequate hydration is key and a skill that is acquired over time.
Stage racing is tough, but it’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding forms of bicycle racing. If you have the opportunity to do one, I hope these tips will help you make the most of it.