Jess’s First Ski Race
As a former professional bike racer, I spend a lot of time thinking about nutrition. Doing the Birkie as my first-ever cross country ski race was a huge undertaking. As it turns out, 55 km on classic skis takes a very long time.
My plan was to approach my nutrition strategy as I would if I were on the bike. Guess what I found? It’s a lot harder to eat and drink on skis and it takes some effort and practice!
Bike Race vs. Ski Race Observations
On race day, I noticed I was one of only two or three skiers (out of THOUSANDS) that took the time to eat on the course. All the skiers relied solely on aid-station nutrition. This is a complete contrast from what you would see in a bike race. Cyclists carry their own nutrition, or in road racing, rely on visits back to the team car to get what they need. During a bike race, riders eat and drink any chance they get.
To train for the Birkie, I completed six long ski sessions (5-6 hours) and massively under-fueled on all of them. I would then make up for this later by eating my weight in pizza, Häagen-Dazs bars, popcorn, and wine! I tried. I planned. I packed JoJé bars, SaltStick FastChews, and Bonk Breaker bars, but eating them while skiing proved challenging, to say the least.
I’m trying to think of a scenario in bike racing where it would make sense to velcro your hands to your handlebars – this seems comical and dangerous, but I found out that you velcro your hands to your ski poles! I watched some YouTube videos and realized even the pro-est of pros can’t make this not look awkward when they try to do anything with their poles attached. So that was a relief – at least I could totally blend in with my awkwardness.
I learned quickly not to store food in my hydration pack on my back and started wearing my winter cycling jerseys while skiing because it was easier to retrieve bars from my pockets. The Bonk Breaker Peanut Butter & Jelly bar was one of my favorites and would always stay soft during long skis.
I tried keeping my SaltStick FastChews in various places but never could find a solution to the best way to get at these while skiing. They are absolutely crucial for not cramping as you can only carry so much water in a small hydration pack. (Speaking of, in skiing, hydration packs seem way less common than the fanny pack style water bottle holders. I learned at Birkie that these fanny packs can also be made to be a hydration pack with a hose! Anyway, I digress.)
Race Day and My Nutrition Plan
Accumulating all of this knowledge and applying it on race day was an interesting process for me. I learned from my training that I needed to eat an entire JoJé or Bonk Breaker bar at least every 90 minutes. The only way to do that was to stop and eat. Skiers were looking at me like I had 13 heads. A few people commented, “Oh bold move to stop to eat” but then I would pass the 100 people who had passed me while I was eating. Certainly I was benefitting from taking the time to fuel.
I ended up keeping my FastChews in the front of my CamelBak. Once I asked an aid station volunteer to get them for me. I also asked for help getting to my maple syrup packs – I just couldn’t fathom eating the cold gels that other skiers were slamming.
Overall, I stayed on course with my nutrition plan, finished feeling good, and jumped in to help my team who was giving out JoJé bars, warmed in ovens, at the finish. As the skiers came in, I was surprised to see that everyone was bonking to the highest extreme. Of course this happens in bike racing, but not to this extent.
What I lack in ski technique, I make up for in experience racing bikes and practicing nutrition. And that is the lesson that I want to impart. Nutrition takes training and practice, just as fitness and executing your plan on race day takes discipline. The payoff is crossing the line without wanting to cry, achieving a most-likely better performance, and improving recovery time.
And for future reference, warm JoJé bars at the finish of a ski race are absolute perfection! I’ve never seen a crowd of people more enthusiastic about eating an energy bar.