Cheaha Challengers! Nutrition can make or break your day on the bike. Whatever distance you have chosen, you need to fuel properly. This article will help you dial in pre-, during-, and post-Cheaha Challenge nutrition so you have a successful ride, avoid bonking, upset stomach, or overloading on tasty snack at the rest stops.
More than a Ferrari
Maybe you’ve heard the analogy that your body is Ferrari and your Ferrari runs best on Premium fuel. While there is some truth to this, you are much more than a fancy, fast, expensive machine and food is much more than fuel for your body.
Food does provide energy or calories. More specifically, food contains chemical bonds that, when broken, are used to produce ATP (energy). Food also supplies your body with essential nutrients that are necessary for muscle contraction, grown and repair, regulating blood pressure, bone integrity, and other cellular processed necessary for health and sustaining life. Quality matters because, as an endurance athlete, you need food with nutrients for performance and recovery along with your other daily activities.
There are 2 sources of fuel in your body for exercise:
Carbohydrates. We will refer to carbs as glycogen, the storage form of carbs in the body. There is approximately 500 grams (or 2000 Calories) of glycogen in the body located in located in blood, liver, and muscle.
Fat Fat, located in muscle cells and fat tissue, is virtually an unlimited source of energy with even lean individuals having 9,000+ grams (or 80,000+ calories).
You have LIMITED energy from glycogen but UNLIMITED energy from fat.
Now that you know you are more than a Ferrari and food is more than fuel, let’s talk about how your body uses food to make energy. This is crucial info for designing your Cheaha Nutrition Plan.
Your body runs on a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP for short. ATP is the currency of energy in the body is. Every movement, from the long stretch when you wake up to climbing Cheaha Mountain, requires ATP. There are 3 systems by which the body make ATP, or energy for movement listed in the table below. All 3 systems are in play at any given time, however the primary system used depends on the intensity and duration of movement.
The table below lists the energy systems. The immediate energy system provides a short burst of explosive energy. The Short-Term Energy System, also known as Glycolysis, is your 1-3 minutes all-out effort. Glycogen is the only fuel source for this system and ATP is produced in the absence of oxygen. Lastly, there is Long-Term Energy System, or aerobic oxidation, which supplies long-term energy using both glycogen and fat. ATP is made in the presence of oxygen.
The primary energy system at play during your Cheaha Challenge ride with be the Long-Term Energy System and you will use a mix of fat and glycogen. You will tap into Glycolysis at times (powering over Oh Shift! or the top of Cheaha Mountain) but your legs will start to burn, heart rate increase, and you might start really gasping for air and must slow down.
Tips for Creating Your Cheaha Challenge Nutrition Plan
Race-day nutrition is personal and something you must figure out based on your likes, digestion, and needs. Below are some recommendations. Most importantly, keep it simple and have a plan before May 19th so you can test and tweak if needed.
Here are the facts to consider: you will be on the bike for 2-8 or more hours and will burn a mix of fat and carbs. You have a limited amount of carbs in your body so you must eat carbs during your ride to prevent bonking. There will be plenty of rest stops along the way stocked with great snacks, but consider bringing a few things you know work for you. Here are a few tips to help you fuel for your Cheaha Challenge!
1. Nothing new on race day
No new foods or eating routines on the day of the event. You don’t want to risk indigestion or eating too much or too little. Dial it in before the big day. If you don’t have a plan yet, come up with a plan for your rides this weekend and try it out. Check out the recommendations below if you need help on where to start.
2. Crafty Carbo-Loading
Carbo-loading is a bit of a myth. There is no need to stuff down pasta, bread, and chocolate cake the night before. The truth is, your body can only store about 500 grams of glycogen (remember the estimated energy stores above).
A quick strategy for topping off your glycogen stores is to do a short “openers” workout on Saturday May 18 then eat a serving of carbs after. This is a 1-1.5 hour workout on the bike where you do a few hard 2-5 minute efforts. This primes the muscle to replenish what you have just depleted. Within an hour of completing the ride, consume a recovery drink or meal with a serving of carbs. This tops off your muscle glycogen as well as opens the legs so you can crush the Cheaha Challenge on Sunday.
Openers might look something like this: 1-1 ½ hour ride (threshold is the maximum intensity you can hold for about 20 minutes)
20 minute easy riding warm up
5 minute tempo – 70-80% threshold
5 minutes easy riding
5 minutes sub threshold – 80-90% threshold
5 minutes easy
2 minutes threshold - 100% threshold
2 minutes easy
2 minutes threshold – 100% threshold
20-30 minutes easy. Do a few all out 20-30 second sprints or spin ups.
3. Pre-Cheaha Dinner
Nothing special or out of ordinary the night before the big day. Have a balanced, healthy meal with high quality protein, fat, vegetables, and starch. For example, 6-8oz salmon, steak, or chicken, 1-2 cups of roasted vegetables, and a side of rice or sweet potato. Women have portions on the lower end and men, have portions on the higher end.
Pay particular attention to hydration, especially on hot and humid days.
Avoid eating too late. Eating late might reduce sleep quality.
No need to “carb load.” Have one serving of carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, fruit, or potatoes.
Avoid heavy and hard to digest red meat. Choose lighter proteins such as chicken or fish. A quality steak even.
Avoid highly spiced food.
A glass of wine or a pint of beer won’t be detrimental to your performance and, if you are nervous, it can help you to relax, but just stick to the one.
Breakfast comes down to personal preference. A meal 2-3 hours before the start of the ride might be ideal for you. If you are planning on a slow pace from the start, you might try eating 1 hour before start. Limit fiber and fat intake for breakfast. Oats, eggs, fruit, and/or rice are great, all-natural options that most people find to be easy on the stomach. Here are a few suggestions:
2 eggs with a slice of avocado and 1 cup fruit
2 eggs with 1 cup of oatmeal and fruit
Avocado toast with a cup of fruit or an egg
Small turkey patty with rice
5. During-Ride Nutrition
For rides longer than 2 hours, you need to eat and drink. Researchers recommend 30-60 grams of carbs each hour. Your body will struggle to process more than 60g per hour because the average person can process only about one gram of carbohydrate per minute, no matter how much is consumed. The limiting factor isn’t your muscles, though, it’s your intestines. Carbs from food can only be transported into your bloodstream from your intestines so fast. Dumping more carbohydrate into your gut will increase the absorption rate, but it can increase your chances of an upset stomach.
Eat real food earlier on in a ride and then switch to gels the last 1-2 hours, when you might not be able to stomach real food and need quick energy (Cheaha 100 and Ultra riders!). Drink water along with any foods you consume which will help with digestion and absorption while preventing bloating or indigestion.
Below are options to consume each hour.
First 1-5+ hours:
1 FastKat Bar = 25g of carbs
2-5 fig bars (12 g of carbs each) = 24-60 g
½ -1 Cliff Bar (40g of carbs) = 20-40g
Nut butter packet
Banana = 25g carbs
Waffle or rice cake = 20g carbs
Last 1-2 hours:
1-2 gels (22 g of carbohydrates each) = 22-44 g – Last 1-2 hours
Blocks (or other gummies)
6. Navigating Rest Stops
There is a rest stop about every 10 miles during the Cheaha Challenge. Though tempting, you don’t need to stop and eat at every one. The volunteer won’t be upset, I promise! Too many cookies or other yummy snacks will overload your system causing stomach issues, fatigue, and an overall bad experience. Be smart, keep it simple, and don’t try anything new.
When thinking nutrition on the bike, separate solid food and fluids. This keeps it simple.
Hydration is another individual aspect of performance to dial in. A sweat test may be helpful in determining how much water and sport drink to have each hour. In general, start with water the first hour then add in sport drink as the ride progresses to replenish electrolytes and add simple sugar. Drinking 500 ml of typical sport drink will give you around 36 g of carbohydrate, as well as essential electrolytes.
A general guideline is to consume 500ml of fluid per hour. Some find it helpful to set a timer as a reminder to drink every 15 minutes or so. On hot and humid days, this might be a great plan. If you are running low, no worries. There are plenty of rest stations with water and sport drink along the way.
Another thing to consider is terrain. Sipping on your water bottle while climbing or descending Cheaha Mountain is tough. Breathing rate is high and you need your hands on the handle bars. Remember to take a few sips before you start ascending or descending.
8. Post-Cheaha Nutrition
After completing your 40, 60, 80, 100, or 124 mi ride, make sure to eat! A recovery shake, for example, is specifically designed to replenish glycogen and provide protein to start the recovery and rebuilding process. A much cheaper and arguably equally effective option is chocolate milk. These options are great for enhancing recovery if you plan to ride Monday or Tuesday after the Cheaha Challenge.
Otherwise, forget about nutrition and CELEBRATE! Have a beer, hang out, and enjoy the food! Your body will absorb what it needs and replenish what you have depleted over the next 24-48 hours.