Cyclocross can be quite the party. It’s usually an hour long all out sprint, fueled by adrenaline and the energy of the crowds. The best courses are surrounded with heckling friends and teammates. Everything gets dusty, muddy, dirty and athletes rarely stop to sip water or consider eating during that time. Although it can be tempting to cross the finish and join the festivities by cracking a beer or eating a cookie, eating well is key to recovery.
We asked three top female cyclocross racers how they recover from racing, here is what Caitlin Bernstein, Amanda Schaper and Meredith Miller had to say. Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs also weighs in on some of our questions.
Q: Do I really need to “fuel recovery” from my fun CX race?
Even though cyclocross races are considered “short efforts,” the intensity depletes our bodies’ glycogen stores needed to perform our best. «When we exercise, we become catabolic, breaking down fuel sources like the sugar or glycogen stored in our liver and active muscle, fat stored in muscle and adipose cells, and if the activity is long and hard enough precious protein from tissue.” says Dr. Lim. «We also dehydrate, losing water and salt.” he adds. “From a nutritional perspective, this means that to fast track the recovery process we need to replenish fuel, water, and salt as quickly as possible.” When we don’t replace those stores, muscular endurance and performance suffer, and racing and training feel less like a party and more like a chore.
Amanda Schaper puts this science into practice when she finishes a challenging race in her Northern California backyard. “II usually grab a water bottle right after my race, meetup with other friends, and spend about 20-minutes doing a mellow spin. It’s a good chance to rehydrate, flush out the legs, and swap battle stories. After the cool down, I try to eat something as soon as I can. A PB&J with a banana usually sounds really good, or sometimes just a recovery drink if my stomach is feeling a bit more sensitive.»
Q: Does it matter when I eat? Sometimes, a proper meal is challenging to find on race day.
A: Find some fuel within the hour!
Eating and drinking right after a workout (or race) will help athletes always recover faster than if they didn’t eat a proper meal.” says Dr. Lim.
Humans are prone to breaking down our own bodies (this is called a catabolic state,) and only a hormonal change can encourage them to shift to a state of recovery and rebuilding (this is called an anabolic state). Food instigates this hormonal shift, allowing our bodies to stop breaking down and start building up again. When we eat, our blood sugar increases and regulates, allowing recovery to begin. This process takes roughly an hour and is referred to by physiologists as the “glycogen window.” When athletes consume calories in this window, the calories are stored in the body as energy ready for that next challenging effort or race (instead of in the body as fat). For best recovery results, eat a snack within this hour-long “glycogen window,” then eat a solid meal within the next hour or two.
This isn’t always as straightforward as the science makes it sound. Meredith Miller can attest, «While racing with Noosa CX, I always had to stick around at the venue until my teammate was done racing. That meant being at the race another two or more hours post-race, which made it much more difficult to do the things I needed to do to maximize my recovery. So, my biggest recovery challenge has always been eating something solid and nutritious within that hour window after a race.”
Caitlin Bernstein has a backup plan for just this sort of situation, «After a night race when a lot of restaurants are closed, it can be really hard to find something nutritious late at night. When I have time I make a meal ahead and bring it with me. We recently had a Saturday night race, followed by a mid-day Sunday race. I cooked up some rice, beans and vegetables to bring for after the night race.”
Q: What if I’m not hungry?
A: Eat anyway! Find an easily digestible solution.
«That’s my challenge,” Amanda says, «making myself eat something when I don’t have an appetite. Meredith agrees, “after a CX race because usually my stomach is so upset (“gut rot”) from the effort that it takes a long time for my appetite to come back. However, throwing back a recovery drink that has the right mix of carbs and protein is the first thing I try to do if I can’t actually get anything solid down for a couple hours. If my stomach isn’t all tied up in knots, I’ll try to eat some solid food like rice and eggs, or oatmeal with peanut butter, banana and maple syrup right away.”
Q: What should I eat after my race?
A: Eat what you crave. Especially carbohydrates, sugars and some fat.
Eat what you’re craving because those cravings contain important clues to what your body needs. «The physiology of digestion begins when we smell and see beautiful food. When that happens, there are a host of physiological changes that ensue, which range from the release of various hormones and enzymes to changes in blood flow and the up-regulation of transporters that prepare us for the absorption and use of nutrients,” says Dr. Lim.
So what if your brain and body are craving “bad” foods, you may ask? Typically, foods that are high in carbohydrates, fats and sugars fall under this stereotypically “bad” category. But it just so happens that these are precisely the foods your body needs to recover from a short, challenging effort. Sugar, in particular — a simple carbohydrate your body craves directly after a race where your glycogen stores have been diminished — gets a bad rap. «The moderate to high glycemic index of these simple sugars, which can cause large spikes in the hormone insulin and which may predispose inactive people to metabolic disease, are also the same attributes that enhance glycogen re-synthesis in someone that has just finished a really hard or really long endurance workout,” says Dr. Lim. «The advantage of eating immediately after exercise is that more of those calories end up getting stored in muscle where they can be easily accessed, not in fat cells where they are not.” So, the same simple sugars and carbohydrates that may be detrimental to your health when you’re sitting on the couch are exactly what your depleted muscles are asking for after a difficult race. And the cravings of our cyclocross racers confirm this fact.
Caitlin says, «Peanut butter filled pretzels are a good salty snack that I love after a race. And, Vive La Tarte, the bakery that sponsors our team, gives us pastries for races. Their croissants are the perfect treat after a hard race during the day. I try not to eat them all the time, but I love having one after a race when we go earlier in the day.”
The first thing Amanda craves? «You mean besides beer?” she half jokes. Alcohol aside, the simple sugars, carbohydrates and liquid in beer aren’t the optimal recovery drink, but they will get calories into your body and some glycogen on its way into your muscles.
Q: What’s the ULTIMATE recipe for CX recovery?
A: A quick easy snack immediately, and a healthy, hearty meal later.
Simple: eat a delicious, carbohydrate-heavy snack immediately after your race and preferably within the one-hour “glycogen window.” Then, eat a solid meal within the next two hours.
Our cyclocross racers favorite meals? Caitlin’s recovery meal plan is pretty free-form. «Meals are often on the road or with the team, so that definitely dictates what I eat,” she says. «I’d say basics like pasta and burritos are some of the top choices. If I’m racing the next day, I’m a little more careful and avoid anything too spicy or hard to digest. If I’m not racing the next day, I’m not as picky and would be more likely to eat something a little less healthy — like a burger.”
Meredith’s go-to-recovery meal is similar, but more driven by how she’s feeling. «I have to admit salty french fries go down pretty easy after a race,” she says. “Mexican food or burritos, or a pretty simple pasta with veggies and chicken (light on the sauce) tastes good too. And heck, sometimes even a burger (but probably not if I’m racing again the next day) hits the spot.»
Amanda, on the other hand, has her recovery meal plan on lock. “Chili with rice and eggs is something that’s become a staple in my diet,” she says. «I’m a vegetarian, and this satisfies my craving for protein after a hard effort. Plus it’s just such good comfort food. When I’m keeping it simple, I just get a can of Amy’s Black Bean Chili, add it to some white rice, and top it all with a couple fried eggs, Sriracha, salt, and pepper. When I put in the effort, I make an amazing chili in my slow cooker—smashed tomatoes, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black beans, corn, yams, mushrooms, quinoa, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, veggie bullion. So, so, so good!” She rounds out this great recovery meal with a big kale salad.
«I either get a super yummy pre-made one from our local market, or I make my own with a homemade dressing,” she shares. «This dressing is amazing — equal parts fresh lemon juice and olive oil, add a bunch of chopped garlic, stir in salt and pepper, and voila! It’s tangy and so yummy. I actually learned this recipe from Mitch Hoke a few years ago while he was escaping Colorado’s cold winter on a training vacation in California, and it’s become a staple ever since. Add the dressing to shredded dinosaur kale with fresh parmesan, whatever chopped veggies you like, and you’ve got yourself a delicious salad!»