Similar to what NASCAR is to Formula 1. Criteriums, or crits, are spectator friendly, fast and furious bike races. Very popular in the U.S., individuals of all levels can partake. They typically take place on a short circuit of less than 3 miles in length, where riders complete laps for a given length of time, usually between 30 and 60 minutes. The physical demands of crits can be characterized as “intermittent” in nature, where racers are required to perform short periods of high intensity (anaerobic) efforts while still being able to maintain a high pace (high aerobic endurance) throughout the race. It is not uncommon for riders to compete in multiple crits in one day where the break between events could be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours.
Given this description one can see that crits are unique and unlike other bike races, such as long one-day road races, stage races, and time trials. There is a significant amount of research and other reading material regarding nutritional strategies for road races, stage races, and time trials, but not so much for crits. This may be due to several factors, but one explanation may be that the research and science that is carried out is geared towards the pro peloton. And we rarely see the pros partake in crits, let alone several in one day.
So, may be there is a lack of research specific to crits. But let’s again consider the physical demands of a crit. Riders need to hold a high pace throughout and also require the ability to perform repeated high intensity sprints. What other sports hold these same characteristics? The answer. Intermittent team sports. Sports such as football, rugby, and hockey. There is a plethora of research surrounding these sports. And when you consider that it is not uncommon for individuals to partake in 2 or 3 crits in succession with short breaks in between, crits begin to look more like a soccer game than they do a Tour de France stage. Think about it. A soccer game is composed of 2 halves lasting 45 minutes each with a 15 minute break in-between, and may also include a period of extra time lasting a further 30 minutes. Take a look at your next race day schedule at your local crits and it may not look so dissimilar from a soccer match!
What strategies employed by professional intermittent sport teams can be applied to crits? Other than the obvious recommendations of healthy eating, high carbohydrate meals prior to the event, and protein to promote recovery, there are some interesting interventions surrounding half-time (or whatever the period of rest in between bouts may be named). It is all about sparing muscle glycogen so you can delay the onset of fatigue and perform those repeated sprints again and again, race after race. So when you head out to your next day of criterium racing and are doing multiple races with short breaks in-between consider these “half-time” strategies to help you sprint for the win in that second or third race of the day.
- Take in some carbohydrates. Leatt & Jacobs (1989) found that soccer players who drank a carbohydrate solution 10 mins prior to a practice match and during half-time used 39% less glycogen than the players who consumed the placebo. Drinking may be preferable if the break between your crits is short (i.e. less than 30 minutes). A carbohydrate or electrolyte drink of 6-10% concentration will help maintain blood glucose levels. If you have longer than 30 minutes solid food might be ok, like an energy bar or some chews. Experiment and find what works for you.
- Stay warm. In professional soccer leagues around the world injury rates are highest at the very beginning of the second half. When you stop activity there a subsequent reductions in core and muscle temperatures, and studies have shown that this drop in temperature can lead to reductions in sprint performances of about 3%. Considering that the majority of crits are won via group sprint finishes, every inch counts, so that 3% is invaluable. You can use both passive and active techniques to stay warm during your “half-time”. Passive strategies include garments, jackets, battery operated heating elements, or how about the heaters in your car! An active strategy could be a short re warm up of 3-5 mins on your trainer or rollers before the start of your next race.
- Perk up with caffeine. It is not only physical performance that wins a crit, there is also a huge mental component. Research has shown caffeine to not only improve physical performance, but also cognitive function. Consider caffeine pills or gum, they are likely more convenient between races than a hot cup of coffee.
- Stay hydrated. This really depends on the individual and the conditions, but pay close attention to how much you sweat and how much you were actually able to drink during that first race. It is not uncommon for a crit to be very hard and technical causing one to forget or simply not be able to take on fluid. You could lose anywhere from 1 -2 kg of body mass from sweat, and it is essential to offset this loss with hydration. Another reason why drinking your carbohydrates at “half-time” may be a preferential strategy vs. solid foods.