On race morning, with all its accompanying nerves, it’s hard enough for cross-country skiers to choke down a single meal. But for sprinters, that’s a scenario that sometimes must be repeated three more times before the day is over.
With races sometimes stretching over several hours, from a qualifying round through three heats, sprinters know that a steady intake of food and drink is crucial to maintaining high energy levels—though that’s easier said than done, between pre-race butterflies and post-race nausea.
To get a sense of just how they meet their nutritional demands, FasterSkier caught up with Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall—two Americans who also happen to be two of the best sprinters in the world.
For Newell, preparation for a weekend of racing actually begins two nights prior to his first event, when he begins a carbo-loading regime. According to Newell, that’s because the human body burns more carbohydrates in sprints than in any other race format.
To meet his needs, he said that he doesn’t adjust portion sizes—just ratios.
“I might skip out on a bunch of vegetables or salad, and try to eat more carbohydrates two nights and the night before,” he said. “Usually, we do a pretty hard workout the day before a race, so you want to be pretty loaded up with carbohydrates in order to make it through that…You don’t want to be already in carbohydrate-deficit before going in.”
Randall said that she’ll also have some kind of snack before bed time the night prior, like cereal. Race morning brings a standard breakfast, though she said that she is always sure to finish hers at least three hours before her start. She’ll also sip sports drink until heading out on course.
Post-qualifier is when the work really begins—and it’s also when the feeding gets tougher.
“The last thing you want to do is eat. I just try to grab my drink belt and stumble out,” Newell said.
But between the prelims and the start of the heats, sprinters usually have at least an hour off, and during that time, they force themselves to down some kind of food.
Randall said that she’ll usually eat a small sandwich, with honey or jam on bread, while Newell said that he’ll eat a banana or an energy bar. He said that he also will sip some type of sports drink continually—as much as three liters over the course of the day, if he goes all the way through to the finals.
Both athletes also caffeinate before the rounds, which can give an extra edge. Many Europeans opt for good old Coca-Cola; Newell said he tried that, but ended up with an upset stomach. Instead, he takes the drug in pill form, while Randall said that she prefers “gel blasts” made by PowerBar, one of her sponsors, which she’ll eat through the semifinals and finals.
Sometimes, there’s good food provided by organizers in the athletes’ tent, but Randall said that it’s usually too rich, so she doesn’t depend on it. She brings key nutrition products to Europe from the U.S., while things like sandwiches she plays by ear.
“It’s definitely a challenge over here,” she said. “Some of the guys get whatever sports drink they can find…sometimes it’s hard to come by, and it’s different every time.”
When the heats are over, it’s time to replenish energy stores as quickly as possible, even though all the racing doesn’t exactly work up an appetite.
“After a sprint race, most of the time, you feel like crap,” Newell said. “You’re usually not hungry.”
Still, he said, he’ll force something down—some kind of recovery shake or drink within 20 minutes, and then a big dinner. More carbohydrates are in order if there’s another race the next day, as well as some protein to repair torn muscle fibers.
Newell and Randall have both developed their own regimes, but the World Cup travels to many different venues—and timetables for sprint races are rarely are the same week-to-week. That means that their systems aren’t set in stone.
“It’s definitely been a long process—I can remember going to Junior Nationals, doing my first few sprints, and having no idea you needed to eat during the race,” Randall said. “I’m still figuring [it] out a little bit.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.