Mass start, dust up the nose, endless climbs, stretches of desolate scenery, clock ticking. Gravel races are sweeping the hearts of cyclists across the country for the opportunity to complete something epic, try something new, enjoy beautiful scenery, and challenge oneself. As one of the newer disciplines of cycling, racers are figuring out how best to approach these races and prepare for them. Do I want to be a finisher, or do I want to try and win? Should I go for the 200mile or stay with the 100mile?
Proper fueling is arguably the most important factor in performing for gravel racing. The body and mind can be well trained, course features analyzed, race tactics on point, and equipment dialed to the max. But without getting the right type of food, fluid, and sports nutrition products, the body will shut down, the legs will grow weak and the race is over. Set yourself up for success with a race day fueling plan you have practiced in training and are confident will take you all the way to the finish line with a solid performance.
Below is a step by step guide to fueling for gravel races. Want to skip planning and simply pay a professional to make one for you with exactly the right fuel and hydration? Better yet, a plan with time points and a top tube sticker cheat sheet for your specific race? Check out our Race Day Nutrition Plan Service. Make sure to sign up for one at least 14 days in advanced to your event.
A step by step guide to preparing fuel for a gravel race
#1 Make an attainable time goal
Look at the course map (distance, elevation, terrain), look up previous years winning times, and ask racers their previous times to compare. Make sure to also factor in stopping time for aid stations and hike-a-bikes.
Will the race take 2hrs or will it take 24hrs?
Example Athlete: Barry Roubaix Killer gravel road race, 62miles, time goal of 3.5-4.5hrs total (riding time and stop time)
NOTE: Some races can have extreme variability in time it takes to finish the race depending on weather. It can take up to twice as long to finish a race on a wet course due to slow sloppy roads and mechanical issues.
#2 Determine fluid needs during the race
Plan to drink 10-20oz/hr for 0-50°F, 16-30oz/hr for 50-70°F, 20-50oz/hr for 70-120°F. The hotter it is the more fluid lost to sweat and the more fluid needing to be taken in. If an athlete is dressed warm and sweats under many layers in cold temperatures, the upper end of the 20-40oz range will be necessary even in colder temps. Drinking enough fluid is often the deciding factor for many athletes in these long events. It can make or break the fun factor, the safety factor, and the performance factor. When the body is dehydrated muscles start to cramp, the brain becomes foggy, and nausea and vomiting may ensure making for an unnecessarily challenging day.
Plan to include electrolytes in fluid or fuel (sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium) in addition to carbohydrates. Electrolytes are easiest to obtain from sports drinks but can also be found in foods like pretzels, salted potatoes, bananas, and potato chips.
Example Athlete: The temperature in Barry County Michigan will likely be around 40-50°F at that time of year. This athlete will plan to drink 20-30oz per hour, and 70-135oz total.
#3 Determine fuel needs during the race
Plan to consume (either eat or drink) 45-90g of carbohydrate/hr. Consuming enough carbohydrates is right next to fluid for important factors making or breaking a race. When the body is deprived of carbohydrates glycogen stores run out (fuel for the muscles and brain) and that terrible ‘bonking’ feeling begins. Signs of low fuel include fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, muscles not working as efficiently, and muscle pain. Eating can be even more difficult than drinking during these races. Reaching for food out of a jersey pocket, ripping open the wrapper, and eating solid food without choking can be challenging for many racers. For best results take in carbohydrates early in the race and on regular intervals. It may not be intuitive to eat in the first few hours as fuel from the pre-race meal is still doing its job, but it takes time for the body to absorb and metabolize nutrients. If an athlete waits too long to start eating the muscles and brain begin to run low on fuel and there is not enough time to absorb and metabolize the carbohydrates to prevent low energy and performance losses.
Example Athlete: This athlete will plan to take in 45-60g of carbohydrate per hour, 150-270g carbohydrate total, and include electrolytes from a drink mix formula.
#4 Obtain info on support provided at race
Are there aid stations? If so, where are they? What is or is not provided at each aid station? Are drop bags allowed? Information can typically be found on the race website either in a Race Packet or under the information tab at the top of the website. Most gravel races in the USA have neutral support at aid stations along the course with specific products (nutrition companies which sponsor the race). Some races provide a drop bag service for free, some for an extra charge. Some races provide aid stations but require athletes to purchase food and drink if desired (from local organizations as a fundraiser most of the time). Some races, like Unbound Gravel, have no neutral support and require athletes to have their own support meet them at specific points along the course.
Example Athlete: Water, INFINIT Nutrition products, Clif Bar products, and fruit are provided at aid stations along the course at Barry Roubaix. Specific mileage of where or number of aid stations is not provided on the race website. Drop bag service is not provided.
NOTE: A drop bag is a gallon-sized Ziploc bag that athletes can bring to the race. Athletes can put food, drink mix, tools or anything else they want and have it brought to aid stations along the course. These are only permitted at some races. Put more than will likely be needed with an assortment of drink mix packets and other race food. Include 1-2 extra bottles with plain water or empty in case one pops out of the bottle cage.
#5 Decide what to bring on bike and person to start with
Start with at least 2x20-24oz bottles on the bike and enough food in pockets for at least 3hrs if not longer. The more an athlete carries with them at the start, the less time is needed to stop at aid stations. Races like Unbound Gravel, which have minimal aid stations will require athletes to carry even more fluid and fuel with them at the start (a minimum of 3 bottles and fuel for 5hours). Having more than what is estimated to be needed will ensure that if anything bad happens (mechanical, injury, bottle flies out of bottle cage) there will be enough fuel to tide one over until assistance is found. Make sure the pocket food is easy to eat by pre-ripping wrappers or wrapping food in foil to easily eat on the bike.
Example Athlete: This athlete will start with 2 bottles full of a low-calorie drink mix formula on their bike which provides 44oz fluid and 50g of carbohydrates and electrolytes. They will start with enough pocket food for 100-120g of carbohydrate (bars, gels, chomps, trail mix, fruit, potatoes). Specifically they will take 2 gels with 24g of carbohydrates each, 1 bar with 43g of carbohydrates, and 1 packet of chomps with 50g of carbohydrates for a total of 141g of carbohydrates.
#6 Decide what will be acquired on course and when (put in drop bag, buy, take from race-provided nutrition)
When planning, try to create a strategy which requires the least amount of stop time. Plan ahead of time what will be taken from each aid station and at what stations. Questions to ask oneself are: how much fluid, what kind of fluid, how much food, what kind of food?
Example Athlete: This athlete will take 2 water or INFINIT bottle hand ups (a volunteer hands an athlete a bottle or food so they don’t ever have to get off their bike or stop) if possible or stop and refill both bottles with INFINIT (either Speed or Go Far) if necessary at one of the aid stations between mile 30 and mile 50. Only one stop at an aid station will be necessary. If an athlete gets to an aid station and still has fluid left in bottles, they will drink what is left and refill.
#7 Practice in training
Most races provide neutral support of nutrition from specific companies. Make sure to try products from these companies before race day to make sure they sit well and do not cause any tummy issues.
It can be challenging to drink and eat during these races as the terrain constantly changes, technical features require bike handling, and racers are close to one another requiring sharp mental focus. Practice drinking and eating during training rides with groups of people on difficult terrain to become familiar with drinking and eating in adverse conditions.
Example Athlete: This athlete will complete at least 2, 3+hour training rides with their low-calorie drink mix and fuel listed above before the race. This athlete will also complete 2 3+hour training rides with Clif Bars and water for 50% of the ride in case INFINIT is not available at the aid stations or a bottle flies out of one of their cages. This athlete will take sips of fluid and/or bites of food about every 10minutes and become familiar with safe places to take their hands off their handlebars and eat and drink. Safe places are typically near the top of climbs before a descent or flat stretch, on flat smooth terrain, or in the back or off to the side of a group of racers.
#8 Consider potential issues
- Flying bottle: Start with tight bottle cages and know where the aid stations are even if not planning on using them.
- Crash: Same rules apply for flying bottle, know where the aid stations are and pack more fuel than what is needed just in case of stranding and needing to wait for support.
- Bonking friend: If racing with partners or teammates bring more fuel than necessary in case something happens, or they forget to bring enough for themselves. Save a life!
- Flavor fatigue: Bring multiple flavors of drink mix and types of fuel/food in pockets to prevent getting sick of one flavor or type of food.
- Gut rot: Even if planning to drink fluid for all fluid and fuel, bring a bar or another form of solid food in case of uncomfortable gut issues like bloating or diarrhea or belching. Make sure to fuel with the products provided at neutral support in training.
- If preparing a drop bag: DO NOT mix water and drink mix ahead of time. By the time a racer gets to the aid station, it is likely the bottle will go rancid and not be drinkable. Prepare a bottle with plain water (or plan to fill up with water at the aid station) and a packet of drink mix to mix on the spot.
#9 Assemble all supplies at least 1 week ahead of time
Pick up products at the local bike shop, order products online for special orders, or buy food at grocery store and have ready to far ahead of time.
#10 Have fun and race your best race!
About the author: Kristen Arnold MS, RDN, CSSD is a level 2 USA Cycling coach as well as a Registered Dietitian (RD) specializing in sports nutrition and is a board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). With Kristen’s nutrition expertise and diverse experience in the sport of cycling as a racer and a mentor, she provides a comprehensive approach to her coaching. She works with athletes from the beginner to elite ranks in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking disciplines. Kristen is professional road racer racing with Wolfpack Women's Racing, and seasoned mountain bike and cyclocross racer. Learn more about Kristen.