Cycling

How to nail your Red Bull Timelaps nutrition plan

© Leo Francis/Red Bull Content Pool
Physical training counts for nothing come race day without a nutrition strategy. Sports dietician Alexandra Cook shares why priming your gut is key and shares tips for ultra-endurance fuelling.
Written by Alexandra CookPublished on
When training for an event like Red Bull Timelaps, many will be mindful about the need to practise what they eat and drink. But for some, event day nutrition is often a last-minute panic of “how much should I drink” or “when should I take that first gel?”.
Whatever your approach to fuelling for an endurance event, there are two important factors to consider: carbohydrates, as these are the main fuel you use for energy, and fluid consumption, as you can lose one litre or more of water per hour when exercising. Practise doesn't always make perfect, but you should work out the balance between taking enough and not overdoing it.
Putting science and the guidelines aside, it is vital to remember that sports nutrition is very individual. The most important thing is to find out what works for you.
Here, sports dietitian Alexandra Cook shares her tips for how to figure out a nutrition strategy that works for you.

Training your gut is as important as the rest of your body

Kit of food for Vladimir Gusev prior the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme race in Russia on July 23, 2018.
Training your stomach can help to maximise your physical endurance
Professional and amateur athletes train their muscles, heart, lungs and even their brain to make sure they get the best from their sport. But did you know you can also train your gut? In fact, a scientific review suggests that you could even consider your gut an athletic organ.
There are numerous ways you can train your gut so you don't experience exercise-induced GI symptoms (such as cramps, stitches, nausea and diarrhea) but the main one is practise. If you mimic your race-day nutrition during your training rides (both in terms of quantity and sources of carbohydrate), you can actually train your gut to process the maximum amount of carbohydrates per hour to keep you moving forward.
Other methods such as training after a meal and increasing carbohydrate content of your general diet can also help increase absorption and oxidation of ingested carbohydrate when exercising, minimising GI symptoms in the process.

Start fuelling after around 20 minutes

At what point do you need to start taking on carbohydrate during exercise, though? Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate in the muscles and the liver and, if stores are optimal, most have enough to last them approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling. But, by taking on carbohydrate and keeping blood sugar levels up during exercise, you can provide your body with an immediate form of energy, preserving this stored carbohydrate for later in the race. The key is to start early, after about 20-30 minutes.
During endurance events, the body generally uses both carbohydrate and fat to power it forward. If glycogen stores become depleted, it has to utilise other energy sources such as fat and protein. Although it is great to have a back-up supply, these nutrients do not produce energy as effectively as carbohydrate, leading you to work harder, feel fatigued and sometimes stop altogether – aka “hitting the wall”.
Although you won’t necessarily be feeling low in energy, topping up the tank from the word go will only benefit you later on where fuelling may become harder. When we exercise, there is an increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which sends more blood to the working muscles and away from organs in order to provide the increased requirements. The side effect is that it slows the gut down, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients and increases the permeability of the gut, all of which can lead to GI symptoms. The longer or harder we exercise, the more pronounced this can be and therefore can explain why some people will suffer stomach problems later in a race.

Taking on 30-90g of carbohydrate an hour is optimal

At Red Bull Timelaps you will likely be riding for around one-to-two hours, at a high intensity, and resting in between. During stints of this length and nature, aim to take on between 30-90g of carbohydrate per hour to maintain blood glucose levels. Just taking on small amounts of carbohydrate – even via a carbohydrate mouth rinse (literally swilling a carb-containing drink around the inside your mouth before spitting it out) – can positively impact exercise performance. If you plan to ride smaller stints of 30 minutes, there's no need to take on carbohydrates mid-race.
Ryan Sandes' race food for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon in Rotorua, New Zealand on February 4, 2019
Having carbs on hand is recommended if riding for an hour or more

Carb loading doesn't have to mean piles of pasta

Uncooked pasta
Pasta parties aren't an essential pre-ride ritual
A lot of riders are of the mindset that the more food, the better in the days leading up to a long-distance event. While making sure glycogen reserves are full and replenished is a must, overeating is not the way to ensure this happens – it can make you feel uncomfortably full and add to the sluggishness of the taper.
Just drinking a couple of sports drinks during the day will help increase your carbohydrate intake by approximately 100-150g/day without making you feel overly full
Alexandra Cook
In the weeks leading up to the race, your training load will decrease to keep you fresh for race day, so your glycogen stores will naturally start to replenish. Alongside your taper, you should increase your carbohydrate intake slightly in the last few days before the race (aim for 8-10g carbs per kg of bodyweight – so for a 60kg individual that would be approximately 480-600g carbs per day).
Even just drinking a couple of sports drinks during the day will help increase you carbohydrate intake by approximately 100-150g/day without making you feel overly full. Be prepared to put on a little bit of weight, though, as for every gram of glycogen that is stored, you also store 3g of water.

New things are a no-no pre-ride

Bananas can come in handy on race day
Bananas can come in handy on race day
If nothing else, one golden rule to follow is to not try anything new that you haven’t already tried in your training, pre or during the event.
To keep things simple, three hours before you start, make sure you have a good meal (that you're used to eating pre-training) with a healthy portion of carbs (e.g. 50g oats or two slices toast) with a moderate protein and fat content (e.g. milk, eggs or nut butter). You need to keep protein and fat low due to the fact that they take longer to digest than carbohydrate, and if you have too much it can cause discomfort when you start exercising. An hour before you start, eat a high-energy snack, such as a banana, drink a can of Red Bull or take on an energy gel.

Mix up the mid-ride carbs to take on even more

Food during the 11th stage Ulan-Ude - Chita at the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme race in Russia, on August 2, 2017
Mix your carbohydrate sources to maximise your intake
The American College of Sports and Medicine gives a general recommendation to take between 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour during prolonged exercise. These recommendations are based on the fact that the body can't absorb more than 60g of carbohydrate per hour (1g per min) when ingesting a single carbohydrate source such as glucose.
When it comes to solids vs liquids, both provide the same in terms of fuel, but sports drinks and some gels have the added advantage of replacing lost electrolytes lost through sweating
Alex Cook
However, during further prolonged exercise (generally two-and-a-half hours or more), if a “multiple” or “dual” carb source is consumed such as maltodextrin:fructose, you can absorb up to 90g per hour. This is because the two different types of carbs (maltodextrin and fructose) use different intestinal transporters for absorption, therefore increasing carbohydrate delivery and use. In reality though, this is a large amount of carbohydrate and probably not a realistic amount to be able to stomach for many. But, as stated above, you can train your gut, so practise in training to see what you can tolerate.
When it comes to solids vs liquids, both provide the same in terms of fuel, but sports drinks and some gels have the added advantage of replacing lost electrolytes lost through sweating. Their only downside is that they may be less tolerated by the gut. A good approach is to not rely on one but a variety of sources.

Filling up the tank with the right fuel is crucial between stints

Food during the 11th stage Ulan-Ude - Chita at the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme race in Russia, on August 2, 2017
Replenishing glycogen stores between stints is as important as resting
When you have such a short time frame for achieving optimum recovery, you want to be as prepared as possible. When you finish your first riding stint, focus on carbohydrate consumption as this will ensure optimal recovery for your next riding stage. Most of the carbohydrate you consume will first of all enter the liver. As liver glycogen stores become full, more glucose will pass on to the muscles. It is generally said to take up to 24 hours to complete muscle glycogen synthesis but you can still make a huge difference in restoring your levels if you have less time.
Your plan should be to have 1.2g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight per hour for three-to-four hours after each riding stint. Your breaks from riding may well be shorter than this, but if you aim for roughly 1.2g/per kg of bodyweight an hour – in addition to fuelling mid-race – you should be sufficiently topped up. These carbs can be in any form – from a plate of pasta to sports and energy drinks.
While it might seem instinctive to pair your recovery carbs with a healthy portion of protein, it's not going to have a measurable affect on your subsequent performance – although important for training adaptations, it's not essential for acute recovery 3-5 hours after exercise.
If you feel you can’t consume as much carbohydrate as recommended to maximise glycogen stores, then adding some protein (15-20g) to your carbohydrate meal post-race can accelerate glycogen restoration. Don’t forget though, protein is vital for long-term recovery and adaptation to training and it should not be ignored once your riding has completely finished for the day.

A pre-ride caffeine boost can provide more than a pep up

Participant is seen at the Red Bull TimeLaps in Windsor, United Kingdom on October 26, 2019.
Caffeine is shown to help boost physical endurance
Caffeine has proven benefits when it comes to your performance and is shown to improve the length of time you can ride at your limit. Try taking on a caffeine source 45-60 minutes before exercise. Most individuals seem to benefit from a moderate dose of 5mg/kg of bodyweight but intakes as low as 2-3 mg/kg have been found to enhance performance. A 250ml can of Red Bull, standard caffeine-based energy gel and a single espresso all contain approximately 80mg of caffeine.

Don't leave it too late to hydrate

Participant performs at the Red Bull TimeLaps in Windsor, United Kingdom on October 25, 2019.
Sipping fluids little and often is better than drinking to thirst
In order to avoid dehydration, you need to drink sufficient fluid to match sweat loss, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The main goal is to drink during exercise to prevent excessive (less than two percent bodyweight loss from water deficit) dehydration and excessive changes in electrolyte balance to avert compromised performance.
Gauging the exact amount requires you to estimate your sweat rate under different conditions and exercise intensities. Alternatively (and more easily), you can simply listen to your body and sip fluids at regular intervals (rather than drinking to thirst, at which point you might already be dehydrated).

The three Rs of post-ride recovery

Participant is seen at the Red Bull TimeLaps in Windsor, United Kingdom on October 27, 2019.
Make sure to get your nutrition right before hitting the hay
Balance is key when it comes to recovery and it’s not just about focusing on one nutrient. Follow the three Rs rule to ensure you nail your recovery both after the race, and after your training sessions.
Rehydrate with water and/or an electrolyte drink. You need to take on fluid at a rate that you are not peeing it straight out. As soon as you have finished your ride, drink 500ml fluid. After that, drink little and often until your urine is clear or you have reached your pre-ride weight.
Refuel with carbohydrate but there’s no need to overcompensate. If you have 24 hours before your next training ride (which you likely will after Red Bull Timelaps!), your strategy can be a little more relaxed. Follow your daily carb needs appropriate for your level of activity (more info on this here) and ensure a well-balanced meal within an hour of finishing.
If you have less than eight hours between training sessions, or you have done a gruelling fasted session, this is where you need to be more exact. Take approximately 1g of carbs per kg of bodyweight each hour for three-to-four hours to maximise glycogen synthesis. This way you will ensure your glycogen stores are as restored as much as possible for your next session.
Rebuild with protein. Protein is not essential for immediate post-race/post-training recovery but plays a large part in long-term recovery and adaptation to training. Take on approximately 20g of protein post-ride/race, and then regularly at each meal and snack for the remainder of the day, to repair and rebuild muscles and ensure adequate adaptation to the training.
Good luck!
This year, Red Bull Timelaps is taking the one-of-a-kind, 25-hour one-day event virtual. Find out how you can take part in one of 2020's toughest events on two wheels below.