Stage racing—whether you’re shredding in the backcountry on your mountain bike, swapping your TT bike for a road bike in a road stage race, or sleeping on the side of a road in a 2,000-mile bikepacking race across an entire country—comes with a specific set of challenges.
The ability to recover and prepare for subsequent days of racing is among the most crucial. This is true whether you are aiming to win or merely hoping to finish—maximizing recovery after one big effort to prepare for the next one is critical for every level of athlete in a multi-day event.
Of the many factors that aid in recovery, three—nutrition, sleep, and organization—offer the most significant benefits.
How nutrition impacts recovery
Good nutrition and planning are key to stage-race performance. So many of the repair processes within our bodies are driven by nutrients in our food. Preparing the body to take on the demands of multi-day events, prior to the start of the race, helps with the recovery process.
Before you get to the opening stage, your pre-race nutrition routine matters. Start to focus on the five to seven days before stage 1. During this time, carbohydrates should make up most of your fuel.
Why? Two important points need to be emphasized.
Carbohydrate does not only mean starchy foods.
Just because you should focus on consuming additional carbs to enhance and maintain your glycogen stores does not mean you should sustain yourself on pasta and cereal all week. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of carbs, and should become a regular part of your diet. (Plus, they contain valuable antioxidants, the importance of which I’ll address in a moment.)
There are starchy vegetables (e.g., beans, squash, potatoes, yams, peas) and non-starchy vegetables (e.g., asparagus, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach, and tomato). Include these foods to maximize your nutrient density as you boost your intake of carbs.
Again, just because you’ll burn a lot of carbs during race week doesn’t mean you need to eat low-nutrient sources to achieve an adequate energy intake. Also, under normal training, you want some of that oxidative stress to help produce adaptations. However, when you’re racing, certain foods can provide oxidative protection to stay at your best day after day.
Increasing carbohydrate intake is relative
You might have heard about pro athletes who consume upwards of 70 percent or more of their energy from carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean amateurs should try to match that level. If your usual intake is 55 percent, for example, boosting intake to 60-65 percent should be more than adequate to enhance your performance, nutritionally. If you already have a high carbohydrate intake (e.g., 60 percent), then increasing that to 65-70 percent, for a short stint, could be enough to find that additional performance benefit.
The bottom line: Carbohydrates are what will get you to the finish; don’t worry about some magical percentage. Instead, do a quick assessment (check out our workshop on How to Monitor your Nutrition) and see what your usual habits reveal. From that starting point, you can safely increase intake to come to the start line prepared. Be sure to give yourself enough time before the event to find your baseline and make adjustments—this usually takes months of work, if not more, to dial in.
During the five to seven days before the race, as you enhance your energy intake from carbohydrates, you should be shifting to a performance mindset, which means ignoring as many extraneous lifestyle choices that distract you from your overall goal. Once the stage race begins, the focus generally narrows to: “perform, eat, recover, and repeat.” Anything that distracts you from that trajectory will introduce sources of error that could hamper your overall performance.
Factors that influence nutritional demands
Once you’ve arrived at the start line and your attention shifts to daily recovery needs, it’s helpful to remember that your in-race fueling not only supports your needs for the race effort, but also serves a broader purpose—that fuel helps you maintain your energy stores, which supports both post-race recovery and subsequent performances.
There are several factors that should be considered when trying to maximize fueling during a race.
Where is your event taking place? Will you be racing at sea level or 10,000 feet? If you’re competing at higher elevations, know that your carbohydrate needs will increase. Also, performing at high elevations can sometimes bring about a suppression of appetite—just what you don’t need since your body is demanding more fuel to perform. So, take every opportunity during the event to fuel, and find a routine after the race that allows you to maximize your intake during the hours before you go to bed.
This might mean eating and drinking immediately after the race for 30-40 minutes, then snacking within an hour after that, having dinner one to two hours after that, and finishing the day with a healthy snack before bed.
How hot will it be during your event? If you’re competing in the summer and dealing with heat, this will change your in-race nutrition and fueling plan. When we start exercise, approximately 80 percent of the blood flow to the gut is redistributed to the working muscles within the first few minutes.
Not only that, but when we are sweating more heavily and stressing our blood plasma volume in the heat, that only adds to the strain on the body. To alleviate the potential for GI distress, you may need to rely less on concentrated carbohydrate sources (e.g., gels) and focus more on your fluid intake with a lower carbohydrate solution (e.g., 2-3 percent) to avoid the fullness and/or nausea associated with consuming too much concentrated energy in an already dehydrated gut.
Distance and duration
How long are the stages? Depending on the length of the stages, your fueling strategy can vary in complexity. For example, when planning my nutrition for a three-day mountain bike stage race, I took into consideration that one of the stages was a shorter XC race of multiple laps on the first day. This allowed me to travel lighter and ride harder knowing I would have access to new bottles every lap. The metabolic demands were more geared toward burning carbohydrates and hitting the top-end more frequently.
Stage 2 was one long loop, so fueling looked more like it would for a big ride in the heat: I would be out there longer, have to pace differently, and be more aware of the potential for GI distress. In this case, I was able to take in more solid fuels while focusing on hydration, knowing that multiple hours of gels would leave me curled up on the side of the trail with no desire to eat anything sweet for the rest of the week.
Sleep is critical for recovery
When we talk recovery, we must talk sleep. Sleep plays a pivotal role in allowing us to bounce back day after day—during sleep, much of the restoration that drives recovery takes place. When I discuss sleep, I refer to both your post-stage naps and your overnight sleep. Both will enhance recovery.
Let’s be realistic: Because of the excitement and anxiety of stage racing, it can be hard to get a lot of quality sleep at night. A study from 2018 showed that runners who got less than seven hours of sleep per night but were able to take a nap were able to improve endurance performance through a reduced perception of effort. 
So, if you’re a sound sleeper, consider yourself fortunate, particularly when it comes to recovery. If you’re a lighter sleeper or have a hard time getting seven or more hours, a post-stage nap can play a role in helping your subsequent performance.
Stage racing requires both physical and mental readiness—if you’re foggy going into an event, that becomes a safety issue not only for you, but for the competitors around you as well. A study from 2019 examined alertness, cognitive performance, and physical outcomes of napping. They found that a 30-minute nap improved certain aspects of cognitive performance and further enhanced physical performances. 
Though napping seems to work, there’s still the question of how long you need. Is a 15-minute power nap sufficient, or should you aim to go longer? Supported by continued research, it seems like there is a dose-response with longer naps—longer is better. But you need to consider the amount of time necessary to balance napping, fueling, and preparation for the next day.
Research conducted in 2019 compared 90-minute and 40-minute daytime naps. The results suggested that while both naps were beneficial for improving the perception of effort, reducing muscle soreness, and improving mood state, the 90-minute nap seemed to further enhance these positive results.  So, if you have the time, a longer nap could work in your favor. Crunched for time after your stage? Try to get in at least 30-40 minutes.
The importance of routine
While a routine might not directly influence performance or recovery, it can provide important indirect benefits for your readiness day to day. Establishing some kind of routine is crucial to maximizing the time you have between the finish line of one stage and the start line of the next stage. Creating a checklist that you go through every day will make you feel more organized, less stressed, and allow for more relaxed conversations with your competitors—and, crucially, leave time for hanging out with supportive family and friends that have come to cheer you on.
This routine starts by writing it out. Many years ago, I ran in support of an ultrarunner at the Wasatch 100. We met over 24 hours before the start of the race, and over the course of hours, laid out his shoes, socks, nutrition, and extra gear before sitting down and writing out the plan for race day. We talked about the various aid stations and determined what our plan was, as well as our backup plan. In essence, we were ready for plan “A” but prepared for anything else that might come our way. The goal was to not get thrown off our game and to be able to respond to as many scenarios as possible while allowing him to make constant forward progress.
Once you have a plan in place, it’s time to start practicing it. That means developing training sessions or races to simulate the experience. If you’re doing a six-day stage race for the first time, you don’t have to do a six-day race to practice your plan. You could do a two-day heavy training block over a weekend or a one-day race followed by a second training day. IN either case, the point would be to put your plan into action.
The goal here is to punch holes in your plan. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Look for the failure points—if you easily find them, great! You’ve identified some easy fixes that could have impacted your race. As you’re practicing and, then, using this plan during races, you will inevitably find gaps in your planning that tank your event. That is okay, too! It’s all part of the learning process. Your plan should be continually evolving. Ultimately, you will find a routine that becomes habit.
Initially you may find that your mind is on high alert and always thinking about the checklist. Eventually, as it becomes a habit, you will start to look for the missing pieces as you transition to executing this organizational process more efficiently. This is when you realize that you’re onto something good.
As you gain confidence in your process, you will feel less of that “I must be missing something” feeling as it gets replaced with, “Ok, I’m ready to go.” This allows the mind to quiet; if you can achieve that relaxed mindset between stages, you’re free to focus on other things that will boost performance and mood.
Below is a sample routine. It stems from a plan I used during a three-day mountain bike stage race. Now, I employ a similar routine at all my events.
During the race
I used every opportunity to consume some form of nutrition. Because the stages were challenging—this was an old-school MTB course—it was hard to take my hands off the bars for long periods of time, which meant that frequency was the key determinant of overall intake. Whether it was five seconds or two minutes at a time, I would put something in my mouth knowing that it was contributing to my performance and adding to my overall intake for the day.
After the race
Immediately after I finished the race, I rode back to my car (I was camping) at the top of the hill to cool-down and start the recovery process. I would sit in my camp chair and kick my feet up while eating a couple pieces of fruit and downing a bottle of chocolate milk, along with any remaining sports drink from the stage. During that crucial 30-40 minute window of time after an effort, the body is most ready to replenish glycogen stores; so, give it as much fuel as possible.
Shortly after that, I changed out of the dirty kit, showered, and headed into the tent for a nap for 30-60 minutes, during which I slept quite soundly. Upon waking up, it was back to hydrating and snacking while preparing for dinner. This is also the time I would take to check the bike and make sure everything was in working order for the next day. As part of this routine, I mixed my drinks, prepared any gear or nutritional needs that would be available on-course, and finished feeling like anyone could grab the cooler and bike and start the race, fully prepared.
Finally, at dinner, I allowed more time to sit and enjoy the process. Since this was the last opportunity of the day to consume a massive amount of energy, I didn’t rush to finish dinner.
Once my checklist was completed, it was time for bed. Camping is a great way to minimize access to electronics and distractions between stages, so when the sun went down the headlamp went on as I got comfortable for an evening of reading and stargazing.
If you are staying in a hotel or house, I recommend putting down any electronic devices at least two hours before bed. I’ve used this advice with my junior athletes over the years, and it works well to have them start winding down early while allowing for other recovery practices (e.g., breathing, stretching, rolling) that enhance their recovery and performance potential the next day.
The three keys
Nutrition, sleep, and routine: These are three of the many possible ways to feel more prepared for stage racing, and they are among the most critical. Consider your individual needs, the demands of your event, relevant travel, and other specifics when organizing your plan. There are some key concepts that apply to everyone, and there are specific strategies that may only apply to your event. Start with your own plan and allow it to flex to the needs of each event. Eventually you will have a plan that is highly efficient, seemingly automatic, and flexible enough to allow you to perform at your best no matter the number of days or circumstances.
- Blanchfield AW, Lewis-Jones TM, Wignall JR, Roberts JB, Oliver SJ. The influence of an afternoon nap on the endurance performance of trained runners. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Oct;18(9):1177-1184. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1477180. Epub 2018 May 31. PMID: 29851569.
- Daaloul H, Souissi N, Davenne D. Effects of Napping on Alertness, Cognitive, and Physical Outcomes of Karate Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Feb;51(2):338-345. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001786. PMID: 30239491.
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