Special guest Kristen Arnold talks about what she does to fuel and prepare for a fast and aggressive bike race under the lights, the Criterium Race.
Descending sun, scorching pavement, sparked nerves, race ready. I am a professional bike racer who specializes in criterium racing. Criteriums are timed bike racing events around a short circuit, typically 0.7-1.5 miles long. The courses vary in technicality with the inclusion of polarizing climbs, steep descents, numerous fast corners, hairpin corners, a variety of road surfaces, and narrow to wide roads. Women’s professional races vary from 45-90 minutes and men’s races vary from 60-120 minutes. Average speeds vary from 24-28 mph.
Criterium races often also have ‘races within the race’, which increase the speeds even more. These mid-race sprints are called primes, pronounced preems, and will be for points in a series of races or for money. Some consider criteriums to be the NASCAR of bike racing.
Unlike other forms of bike racing, criteriums at the professional level often take place in the evening under the lights or at twilight right before dark. Competing at this time can be challenging for some bike racers who are used to competing in the early morning or in the early afternoon.
I find racing in the evening to be exciting and also a familiar time to race. For years in undergraduate school and graduate school, I trained after school in the evening around 5pm or 6pm and in this way trained my body to compete at this time of day.
Typical day food for an evening criterium race:
20 oz water with a splash of grapefruit juice
1 whole wheat bagel
1 handful arugula
2 scrambled eggs
2 tablespoons salsa
1 piece swiss cheese and 1 teaspoon fruit jam
3 tablespoons hummus
10 figs and 2 slices swiss cheese
1 cup cooked oatmeal (1/2 cup dry)
1 large banana
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 sleeve sport blocks
1 serving drink mix
1 shot of espresso or a Starbuck’s Cubano (found in gas stations)
5pm race starts
1 bottle drink mix
6pm race ends
20 oz water with recovery powder (includes both protein and carbohydrates)
7pm dinner that I take to the race with me, eaten on the way home
2 large sweet potatoes
1 can sardines in tomato sauce
1 handful arugula
2 tablespoons salsa
½ avocado and 4 cherry tomatoes
1 5oz tub flavored nonfat Greek yogurt
8oz tart cherry juice
Criteriums require more fast-twitch muscles than other forms of bike racing because of the short time frame, corners, and intermediate sprints. These fast twitch muscles require a higher proportion of glycogen and blood glucose for fuel. The blood glucose and stored glycogen require these athletes to eat carbohydrates. Consequently, my foods throughout the day are carbohydrate-focused. However, I also make sure to include a balanced amount of protein and fat.
Some of the key features of what I eat are in the timing.
I intentionally eat a breakfast that includes vegetables (arugula and salsa) knowing that my lunch is substituted with my typical pre-race meal. Consequently, I only eat foods that are easy on the tummy within 3 hours of competing. The oatmeal with a banana and maple syrup is a tried and true meal for me to eat pre-race. I can typically eat this meal even with a nervous tummy. Furthermore, I feel sufficiently full with sustained energy going into a race.
Within 1.5 hrs of a race, I only drink water and sports drink mixes and eat sports food such as gels and blocks. Cocoa Elite makes a great endurance drink product, which is based on natural ingredients and meant for consumption during long bouts of exercise. The product has a balance of electrolytes and a good dose of amino acids in additional to natural sugars and cocoa flavanols.
If I can get my hands on a nice shot of espresso, I take this within 45 minutes of starting the race. When I cannot find an espresso, I will drink an 8oz Starbuck’s Cubano, which can be found at most gas stations. If I am racing again the next night, I may not drink coffee, mainly to ensure that I sleep well that night in preparation for the next day’s race. The caffeine helps keep me mentally focused during these fast-paced races.
After the race is over, I immediately cool down either on a trainer or on the road with a recovery shake to replace fluids, restore glycogen, and repair muscle.
I recommend Cocoa Elite’s product.
It usually takes my tummy around 1 hr to settle down after a race and be able to eat solid food. At this time I eat the meal I brought with me either in the car on the drive home or while sitting down spectating the men’s race. Bringing my dinner with me ensures that I continue to restore glycogen as efficiently as possible (best method to restore glycogen is 1.5g carbohydrate/kg body weight per hour for 4 hours) and that I don’t ‘bonk’ on the way home. Bringing my dinner also ensures I get the right nutrients and don’t need to rely on restaurants. Other racers are often jealous of my pre-packed delicious dinners!
Another key feature of how I eat on criterium race day is in the familiarity.
I typically eat the same exact breakfast and pre-race meal and eat the same versions of dinner every race day. With a nervous tummy and hot temperatures, it can be challenging to be interested in eating. I like to vary my snacks in the middle of the day but stick with ones I know do not cause issues. My snacks include tortilla chips, salsa, pickles, pretzels, dried fruits, fresh fruit, juices, cheeses, hummus, popcorn, sandwiches, cereal, peanut butter, and trail mix. My dinners will vary with the source of starch, vegetables, and proteins. I like white rice, white pasta, roasted red potatoes, and roasted sweet potatoes as my starches. Canned or pouched fish is an easy and nutrient-rich protein that I do not have to worry about staying cold.
I often rely on this for my post-race dinner protein.
If I am having a hard time eating solid food, which typically happens during long series of racing back to back days for up to 10 days, I drink calories in the form of smoothies. It is easy for me to include the right nutrients and many calories in a smoothie and get them all down. This ensures I am properly fueled in spite of not wanting to eat when it is hot and my tummy is nervous.
Fueling for a 1 hr race may not seem complicated, but improper fueling can make or break my performance. Having enough energy for the last 1 minute or even 5 seconds of the race is many times all that matters, and every step taken to get to that moment counts.
Kristen Arnold MS, RDN, CSSD . Kristen has a Master’s in Human Nutrition from The Ohio State University. Kristen also owns a private practice nutrition counseling business focusing on performance nutrition for athletes.
In addition, she coaches for Red Kite Coaching. Kristen coaches entry-level to national elite-level cyclists in mountain, road, and cyclocross bike racing. Kristen is also a professional cyclist for Velo Classic p/b Stan’s NoTubes domestic elite women’s cycling team. She competes in national-level races across the USA and Canada.
In 2016, Kristen placed 4th overall in the Intelligentsia Cup powered by SRAM. In addition, Kristen earned a 7th place finish in GC at the Green Mountain Stage Race.
Contact her here: Kristen Arnold.
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