The Birkebeiner Nutrition Guide

Pick the right fuels so you don't skid to a halt during America's biggest cross-country ski race

Oct 28, 2011
Outside Magazine

Birkebeiner recovery shake   

Cross-country skiing and running burn a similar amount of calories—500 to 1,000 per hour, depending on intensity. The average person finishes the Birkie, classic or skate, in about four hours—unless the Hayward ski patrol hauls them off the course early. Adam Korzun, high-performance dietician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, outlines a race-week nutrition strategy that will keep you strong through the finish line.

“It’s an old-school approach to eat a huge meal the night before, but it takes 24 to 48 hours to process all of that glycogen,” Korzun says. Instead, focus on getting enough carbs during the week leading up to the event. “You’ll be tapering, so you’re not going to be doing the same volume of training.” Continue to eat as if you were still training hard and your glycogen stores will be toped off for race day, without the bloat or water retention that can accompany car loading. While training, focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and lean meats.

As for that last supper, eat something you’re comfortable with and know you tolerate well. For some people, that might be pasta with meat sauce, a salad, and bread. For others, a chicken-and-rice burrito or chicken stir-fry will do the trick. “At that point, at least half of the meal should be carbohydrates,” Korzun said. And if you want dessert, go for it, as long as its something you know your stomach can handle.

Again, stick with the familiar. “Eat whatever you do on training days on race day,” Korzun says. “It’s one less thing to worry about.” If you’re a bacon-and-eggs person, practice eating a breakfast with carbs during your training days, Korzun said. Korzun’s skiers like to eat oatmeal or granola with fruit and Greek yogurt. Eat a carb-rich breakfast on race day one to two hours before you start.  If you have a nervous stomach, eat three hours before starting—just be sure to have a small snack like a gel or half a sports bar 15 to 30 minutes before the gun.

“Don’t let yourself run out of fuel, then play catch-up,” Korzun says. Plan your nutrition ahead so you’re eating or drinking something every 20 to 30 minutes. Korzun recommends between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour—that’s 120 to 240 calories—depending on how hard you are skiing. The harder you ski, the more carbs you need to keep you going. Try drinking a sports drink like Gatorade and eating gels, blocks, or Korzun’s favorite, Clif Kid Twisted Fruit. “They’re delicious and they don’t freeze into a block or get super sticky, either,” he says.

Elite skiers staple gel packets to their jerseys so they can rip one off and slam it without breaking stride. If you don’t mind a short break, stop at one of nine aid stations, located about every 5K. They’re stocked with water, sports drinks, gels, fruit,  and any other goodies. Don’t want to stop? Consider wearing a fuel belt. Just be warned that the liquids racers carry have been known to freeze at this event.

As soon as possible after crossing the finish line, eat. You need carbs to replenish your glycogen stores, protein to aid muscle recovery, and fluid to avoid dehydration. Eat a sports bar, if that’s most convenient. A piece of fruit and string cheese, a turkey sandwich, or peanut butter on an English muffin will work. Most likely, you’ll head straight for the Birkie celebration tent, where a Wisconsin victory buffet of pilsner, ale, and porter will be available from Eau Claire’s Northwoods Brew Pub. “The maltose in beer is actually the most quickly absorbed sugar on the planet,” Korzun says. “There’s also water in beer and B vitamins.” So drink the beer. Just realize that man cannot properly recover on beer alone. To that end, the tent also houses soup, burgers, and, of course, brats.