What does a racer need?
by Thunder Jalili, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Nutrition
Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Science
There are really two issues at hand when one considers nutrition to support or improve ski performance. First, eating to support training days, second, eating to maximize performance on race day. In general, the rules of good nutritional habits to either prevent disease, promote health, or sustain exercise are fundamentally similar; eat fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and plant sources of protein and plant based fat. However, nutrition specific to a particular sport will have some variations concerning the amount of those foods, as well as possible use of supplements.
Proper nutrition to support training for ski racing should support interval type of exercise. Training in slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill is an interval type of exercise in that there are 30-90 second bursts of intense physical exertion, followed by a 10 minutes or so until the next run. Training sessions often last 1-2 hours so it is important to be well fed and hydrated before, and to maintain hydration during training. The following are some specific strategies you can use to maximize your training performance.
The pre-training meal: This is an important issue because the reality of ski racing is that nutrition is more important before and during training than a race. During training you are typically getting 6-12 runs in a 1-2 hour period. This will require energy and hydration. During a race you may spend most of you time hanging about the course, inspecting, taking a couple of warm-up runs, fiddling with skis and overlays, and waiting for your race runs to come up.
What is it? A meal rich in complex carbohydrates and protein, but low in fat.
Why? To provide your body with quick burning fuel and protein for building muscle and repairing tissues. The low amount of fat will make it easy to digest.
When? Eat this meal 2 hours before you hit the slopes for your training session.
How much of each? Shoot for about 0.5 g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Consume about 2 g of protein for every 10 pounds of your weight. For example if you weight 180 pounds, you shoot aim for 36g of protein and 90 g of carbohydrates. This would provide about 500 calories just from the protein and carbohydrates. In reality, Since all foods we eat have some fat, the actually number of calories you eat with this meal would be greater than 500.
What about fluid? Drink at least 16 – 24 ounces of water 1 hour before you start training. Also make sure to take at least 24 ounces of water with you. After every run, take gulp (2-4 ounces). Make sure that the container you use won’t freeze in cold weather. If you are training on a sunny day in warm weather you may need more water so plan accordingly. Skip the sports drinks such as Gatorade, the electrolytes and glucose they contain are more useful for endurance sports such as running and cycling rather than gate training.
After training drink at least 16 – 24 ounces of water as well, especially if you were training on a warm, sunny day. One of the signs of dehydration is feeling tired. By maintaining your hydration during training you will ensure that you can ski at a peak level and be physically ready to deal with the demands of gate training. Another important aspect of avoiding dehydration induced fatigue during training is that you will reduce your chance of injuring yourself in the course due to physical limitation.
Snack? Maybe. Its doubtful you will get hungry during your training session, but it’s a good idea to have a banana or energy bar with you jus in case. Alternatively, you may want a snack after training is done. Remember though, if you are not hungry then don’t eat your snack. Many adult “weekend warriors” who ski race should be more concerned about keeping their fat mass and weight in check throughout the season. Since most of us tend to focus on skiing and skip the other exercises we would otherwise normally engage in, winter weight gain is common. It is a myth that we all need a snack or meal immediately after we train or ski. Let your hunger be your guide, not some misconceived notion that “I need to replace what I just lost.” More important is hydration after you’re done gate training.
Pre-race meal: The major physical exertion on this day will be the 2 race runs. Otherwise race day is mostly a waiting game. Sure there are course inspections, warm-up runs, stretches, etc., but these are much lower intensity that a 2 hour training session. Furthermore, all this is spread throughout the day from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. This amounts to a big difference in calories burned per hour compared to training. The only exception to this are the Masters racers who serve triple duty as course setters, race helpers, and are still racing that day (such as yours truly). Their caloric needs will be greater than those who just race and should have a couple of well timed snacks during the day.
Pre-race meal: This is just like the pre-training meal (see above) and is your most important of the day. As we’ll discuss later, lunch will typically be light so your pre-race meal is critical.
When: Eat this meal about 3 hours before your first race run (7-8 AM).
After the first run: Time for your light lunch, don’t waste time, eat it now so you have plenty of time to digest. Typically there is a 2-hour turn around time between your first run and when you are in the start gate for your second run. Avoid eating too much, or eating a meal too high in fat or protein meal. The meal should have readily available carbohydrates and easily digestible. Here are some examples; a) peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread, b) power bar and a banana, c) Fruit of your choice with nuts and raisins. Use your own imagination and common sense to figure out something you like, just remember the main points – light and with carbohydrate (40-60 g per pound of body weight) and moderate protein (1-2 grams protein for every 10 pounds you weigh). Other important things to keep in mind are that whatever lunch you choose should be something you have eaten before. Race day is not the time to try something new, you should be choosing foods that are familiar and won’t give you an upset stomach. Finally, don’t worry that you won’t be getting enough food and may be hungry before your second run. If you follow the lunch recommendations above you will be fine. I’ve been racing since I was 14 years old and never once have I ever heard of anyone complaining of hunger before the start of the second run. The reality is that you will be nervous (I still am) and food will be the last thing on your mind.
Hydration: The most important aspect of race day, bar none. Especially for those who race in the western US where the altitude is high and the air is quite dry. Drink 16-24 ounces of water 2 hours before your first run, that way you are starting the day off being hydrated. Keep a water bottle that hold at least 32 ounces of water (more is better, just in case) with your pack and take sips throughout the day. Remember that dehydration will make you feel fatigued, which is not how you want to feel before your second run. If you have to use the “facilities” then it means you are hydrated. My opinion is to avoid caffeine throughout the day (morning is OK), unless you are a habitual coffee or tea drinker and need your dose of caffeine throughout the day. The reason I recommend this is because you may be more nervous if you are over caffeinated. After the first run when you are eating your light lunch, make sure you are also drinking plenty of water; this is the best drink. Avoid soda pop since the sugar may make you feel lethargic by the time the second run roles around.
If you use the recommendations discussed here you will get more out of your training days, and feel better on race days as well. It will mean some extra planning and supplies on your part, but you will perform better for it. Chad Fleisher (former US Ski team member) once said that “confidence is king in ski racing.” You can be confident that you will have covered your nutrition and hydration needs and that your body will be ready to train hard and race hard. I hope that this confidence translates into some fast skiing. See you at the start!