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Fueling for cyclocross success

A winning plan for short-duration, high-intensity competition

By Brian Frank

Whether you are fueling for cyclocross, a 40K time trial, or a 5K or 10K run, calorie timing before a high intensity, short duration event is critical. For most athletes, fueling for these events remains a bit of a mystery. (Hint: Oatmeal 60-90 minutes before the start is not optimal.) Having provided rider support for my son Miles over the last four seasons as he progressed to the CX 1-2 category, I've had the opportunity to create and test a nutritional plan for Miles and other racers that consistently resulted in success. Use this plan for any high-intensity competition that lasts an hour or less, and you'll experience positive results, too.

Heed the 3-hour rule

First, remember that what you do after the starting gun goes off is much less important than what you do prior to the start. The 3-hour rule (consuming no calories during the 3 hours before the event) applies here more so than for any multi-hour effort. Here's why.

For your body to give 100% of its effort and resources throughout the entire 30- 60 minutes, it needs to focus on that singular task. It should not have to digest food simultaneously or deal with "porpoising" (rising/falling/rising) blood sugar levels. At the starting line, you want to be warmed up, stomach empty, and have muscles and liver glycogen stores topped up. When you start pedaling or running, your blood sugar levels should be spiking for the first time, and then should stay high for the duration of your race. The key to achieving this is to strictly observe the 3-hour rule.

Race-day fueling by start times

The start time of your event can affect your fueling strategy. Here's what I recommend:

If you have a mid-morning or afternoon start time, feel free to eat a reasonable breakfast and even to continue snacking lightly, as long as you stop 3 hours before the race start. At that point, switch to water until 10 minutes before the start; continue to drink only water during your warm up as well. Then, 10 minutes before your race starts, consume one serving of Hammer Gel, 2 Endurolytes or 1 Endurolytes Extreme, and 4-8 ounces of water, and you'll be set. If you are racing cat 1 or 2 and will be out there for 60-70 minutes, a second serving of Hammer Gel may be desired at the 30-minute mark. You can do this by tucking a single serving pouch in one of your leg cuffs or by mixing one serving in a flask, diluted with 2-3 ounces of water, and also tucking it in your leg cuff.

If you have an early race start at 7 or 8 a.m., you might not have 3 hours between the time you get up and race start. Never sacrifice sleep for food. Just skip breakfast altogether. After waking, continue to fast, drinking only water until you begin your warm up, or even until 10 minutes before race start. Your body will perform better this way than if it has solid food in transit through your digestive system. It's only 30, 40, or 60 minutes; you can then eat as much as you want.

If you are racing two categories, observe the 3-hour rule between the two. If you have at least 3 hours between them, by all means eat a meal as soon as you can after the finish of the first event. Then, repeat your warm up and take another serving of gel 10 minutes before your second start. If you have much less than 3 hours between races, do not eat between them. Instead, "keep the motor running" by sipping HEED or having another serving of gel shortly after the finish and then again 10 minutes prior to the second start.

Eat light the night before

The night before the race, have a sensible meal with plenty of vegetables, some lean protein, and a starch of your choice - preferably something other than wheat. Eat just enough to feel sated, but not full, and complete this meal 3 hours before bed. A serving of Whey Protein in 4-6 ounces of water just before you go to bed will be beneficial - but avoid juice, milk, or any other carbohydrate that will cause a rise in blood sugar/insulin levels before your body shuts down for the night.

Follow this plan and your races will go better and you will feel stronger . . . if that's possible during 30-60 minutes of gut-busting, lung-searing intensity. HN