Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 132 - Jess Cerra - Eat Cake, Race Hard, Be Merry

But people ask me a lot, how how do you eat so much and one I love food and I enjoy food, and I'm always thinking about lunch when I'm eating my pancakes for breakfast. So I think there's some sort of like mental component to it also.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 132 - Jess Cerra  - Eat Cake, Race Hard, Be Merry

Jess: But people ask me a lot, how how do you eat so much and one I love food and I enjoy food, and I'm always thinking about lunch when I'm eating my pancakes for breakfast. So I think there's some sort of like mental component to it also. But it is because I have been willing to fuel myself, and I've also fallen out of the trap of thinking that you can train yourself to be lean.

Jesse: This episode of the Smart Athlete Podcast is brought to you by Solpri skincare for athletes. Whether you're in the gym, on the mats, on the road or in the pool, we protect your skin so you're more comfortable in your own body. To learn more, go to

Jesse: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I'm your host. Jesse Funk. My guest today has been a pro in a lot of different sports. She is a former Pro Xterra triathlete and raises a number of years being a pro road cyclist. Currently, she's racing gravel cycling professionally. She has her master's degree in exercise physiology. She's the founder and current VP of product and community development at JoJé Bar, and she tells me she's known for consuming a lot of pancakes, so we're going to have to ask about that. Welcome to the show, Jess Cerra.

Jess: Hi, Jesse. Thanks for having me.

Jesse: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for joining me. So we got to you were telling me briefly about the pancake thing before we got going. But so so the listeners, don't miss out. Why? Why? Pancakes, I guess. And then and then I guess you become somewhat of a pancake connoisseur or pancake consuming legend. Like what happened?

Jess: Great question. So if you really want to nerd out on the nutrition component of pancakes, I just think they're far superior to other breakfast foods. They pack a punch. I've never eaten a pancake and gone out on a ride and thought, "Wow, I don't have enough energy". And they also taste really good. So why not? I decided to make this fun recipe a few years ago called QM Cakes, which is queen of the mountain cakes and film the recipe, and then went out and took a popular gravel QM down in San Diego County. So the proof is in the Strava QM.

Jesse: So I'll have to take up the I don't know if it's an antithesis, but I prefer waffles. So whenever somebody likes pancakes, I'm like, Clearly, it's it's not the superior breakfast than waffles are. They've got divots. They can hold more condiments than pancakes or pancakes. Let things slide off the sides.

Jess: Ok, I know where your head's at there, but pancake sandwiches are so much easier to spread things on, like a cream cheese, for example.

Jesse: I guess that's fair. You know, although I guess at the same time, I really like crepes and crepes are, you know, there's like nothing there, but you can stuff all of the stuff inside of it. So maybe it maybe I'm less interested in the delivery mechanism as I am the filling. So maybe that's my issue.

Jess: I'm with you on that because I'm also known for my fillings and cream cheese tops. Cream cheese and maple sirup tops all fillings in my book.

Jesse: Is that so? We'll dive straight into JoJé. We'll come back to the racing because I've got questions about racing. But is that where I think one of the flavors, if I remember right, is pancakes and bacon is that is that accurate?

Jess: I was just going to bring that up that I love pancakes so much that I made one of my energy bars into a flavor called pancakes and bacon. And there's no real bacon in it, because that would be weird to have bacon in a bar that it's wrapped in on a shelf. But we use a vegetarian liquid smoke and real maple syrup, so it creates the illusion of the smokey bacon and the maple from the pancakes, and it's really good.

Jesse: I have to ask about the origin of why it is so I I just actually just ordered one of the sample packs before we got on because. We're going to got to take the show way back back episode two. I used to work or had a registered dietitian work with us over in because you came on the podcast, like I said, way back episode two and she made recipes for us at Solpri and including some like call my breakfast bars and that kind of stuff. I love them. I still make them. But my problem is time, right? Like I, I eat so many of them. I have to make them constantly.

Jesse: So it's always a struggle to try to find. Like a good just off the shelf item, which is why I ordered them, because it looks like they might fit the bill. So is it that time component that kind of made you go to that where you're like, I need to know in your case, maybe make something ahead of time to have or like, where did where did things get started?

Jess: You bring up a good point because I think everyone tries to make bars in their home kitchen and then at some point it, it is the time you have to buy the ingredients, you make the bars, wrap the bars and then it's like, We have so many good options now, and I think I was a little bit ahead of the curve for the real food revolution and the real ingredient revolution.

Jess: But I was still a home kitchen brand when I started it, and it was exactly what you're saying. I there wasn't anything on the market that was delicious. I love cookies. I love baked goods. And so I just wanted to create something that felt homemade. And in doing so, I sort of reinvented how bars are made and we actually do bake them in a convection oven.

Jess: So rather than just like extruding or pressing them, and that's what gives them that unique texture. But with that said, I hardly ever bake in my home kitchen anymore because, yeah, it is. It's time consuming. And then you have to wrap them and keep them fresh, and they kind of satisfy that need. We've actually been practicing reheating them in the toaster oven because we are sponsoring a huge ski event called the Great American Birkie Beaner, and we want to serve them warm out of a toaster oven at the finish.

Jess: And I was thinking, you can't do that to a lot of bars and have it taste good, but they're coming out in their melty and almost with like a little bit of toast on them, like a little bit of crunch. It's really good.

Jesse: And as a shameless plug here, if you, the listener, would want to know about more about Birkies and you're not in that area or in that life. Check out Episode 101 with Paul Thompson and he has he done the Birkie 40 years over the last 42 years? So we do a deep dive on that, and that was my introduction to it.

So when Jess mentioned it before we got going, we kind of started talking about Paul a little bit in the Birkie and just the kind of challenges that's such a long race presents and the uniqueness of somebody who's done it for so many years. Just I think you were saying, this is the first one that you're going to do is, is that was that accurate or have I already forgotten that you've already done more?

Jess: No, you are correct. This is the first. So with our partnership, we received entries and I thought, why not? How how long can 55k on classic skis take me? And it turns out it's probably going to be seven hours. So definitely think of my nutrition strategy. It's my first ever cross-country ski race.

Jess: I did do some Nordic team stuff when I was little, but it was the way they present it to kids. It's more fun. So this will be an experience and it is so much harder to eat and drink skiing and practicing. That has been a learning experience you don't remember to drink out of your Camel back every three minutes it freezes. Yeah, if you don't close your bottle right in your fanny pack, it leaks all over the place. Like, I've learned so many things in the past few months practicing what I'm going to do, so I'm hoping that it's like bike racing, where there's volunteers at the aid stations who are handing you things and helping. But I'll find out in February.

Jesse: I mean, I would if I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I would bet on there being volunteers at eight stations. I mean, for a race of that magnitude, it's got to be it's got to be something somebody. So, yeah, I hope they will ask Paul is, is there any help? I would think there's got to be there's got to be some help along the way. But yeah, there's the the fueling component is always huge, especially the longer you go. Ah, because like, you're you're you know, whatever you're drinking has the tendency to freeze. Are you are you trying to heat that before you start? Like, how are you keeping it from freezing?

Jess: Yeah, I have been practicing that and I use bottles from a company called Bevo, and they're made from stainless steel and they do keep if I start with hot water in my bottle, it will last for probably about two and a half hours if it's really cold here, which is around zero -5 five to 5 degrees somewhere in that range. So that really helps. Otherwise it just freezes right away.

Jess: And it seems like if you add a little bit of drink mix or other items to it, it slows it down a little or no, how if it's the sugar, what's in it, but it motivates you to drink, which is a good thing because it's not like you're sweating. And if you get behind on nutrition, I've learned that it's like bonking at altitude almost, and then it takes you days to come out of that hole like I'll spend days dehydrated and not feeling well. Really interesting.

Jess: I grew up in Whitefish, Montana, and I moved away and I lived in Southern California for 17 years and coming back this winter and we're having an epic winter. I'm not no complaints about our snow, but it has been really interesting to just like feel the reaction to doing three hours and really cold temperatures feels like I've done an eight-hour huge gravel ride.

Jesse: So are you like you're saying, you know, it's it's hard to remember to drink like I know when I was raised in 70.3, yes, I would. Basically, I didn't have timers, but I would basically just look, what is my bike's time say? And just whenever I saw the five minute roll over 5, 10, 15, whatever it was, that's a reminder to drink. And then maybe if I'm going up like a hard hill or something, right? When it rolls over, OK, then get up to the top and would take a breath and then drink. But just what I'm imagining since I had no idea about skiing. I'm imagining you don't have a nice little computer telling your wattage you can stare at. So like, how are you getting the reminder? Like, Oh, I need to drink. Otherwise, it's going to be a terrible next five hours.

Jess: I'm trying to. I'm really bad at those reminders. I have a Wahoo rival watch which you can set like a Wahoo computer on your bike to tell you when to drink. So that would be a good strategy. What's so interesting is that when I coach nutrition elements and training for cycling, a lot of the times the barrier is riders are thinking about other things because cycling is a little scary or more foreign to them and they're still learning what gear am I in and focusing and trying not to crash or whatever it is, or just reaching down to get a bottle?

Jess: And I think that skiing has helped me understand that a little bit more, because the technical element of it, the skill element I'm so focused on, what am I doing trying to be efficient? Watching YouTube videos, trying to mimic what I'm seeing? And then before you know it, I'm like, Oh yeah, I was supposed to drink 30 minutes ago. And so it's it's a good cue of how to sort of adjust when I help people on the cycling side.

Jess: So if anyone out there has tips for skiing and remembering, I would be all ears, I've noticed that I'm the only person I've seen around here ever wearing a camelback. So I don't think that is like a popular thing in cross-country ski racing. But everyone wears those little hydration packs around their waist with their bottle caps. Yeah, exactly.

Jesse: Uh-huh. Do you think it's because of the freezing?

Jess: I think it's just so much easier, because the other thing is that the polls, you're locked in your hands, so you velcro in and you're kind of like, I've watched them on again on YouTube. There's nothing not awkward about it. You just kind of like like, you don't have opposable thumbs all of a sudden and you're trying to figure out how to grab things and taking your gloves off. I don't know. I I am so used to carrying camelback for massively long gravel races. It doesn't bother me. I don't think about it on my back, so I might just go with my own strategy.

Jess: Maybe I'll start a new trend, but I also use the company that now owns JoJé Bar that I work for. They, we, own Salt Stick, which is an electrolyte brand. And they make a dissolvable, chewable tablet called Fast Chews, and you just suck on it like a sweet tart. And that has saved me from being dehydrated because you just get a couple of those in every 30 minutes. And if you can't drink enough or carry enough, you know, it's again, like riding. You're riding around, you're stopping at gas stations or water spigots. When you're out ski trails, there's no gas stations to grab a coke at, so you have to carry everything with you.

Jesse: Yeah, and that's that's I've looked because I'm working on a new sports drink, I've actually looked at all the products they make and they make some really novel solutions. That that's the thing they're like. And it doesn't bother me that I'm fortunate I'm not doing the same thing that they're doing. But just like people. In general, people fuel differently. So it's like it's cool to see people making different products instead of just making like a Gatorade clone or whatever. It's like Gatorade is already being Gatorade, like, let them do that thing and figure out what other people need like that.

Jesse: One thing I thought about, I'm sure you've had gels at some point in your life. I imagine a massive number of them. I just I just like the texture of them. I'm always like, Why aren't they just like more liquidy? So like, I love to make something that's like more drinkable instead of, you have to also drink with it. I think there's a few companies starting to do that to get on that kind of train. But again, it's just like. People feel differently.

So like. Like, maybe I like gels, but then somebody is going to be like, I want actual food, so they're going to take the JoJé bars with them, especially for the long stuff. I know when I talk to ultra runners, they seem more prone to say I want like actual food or like solid food versus I want gels for a whole 10, 12, 15 hour trek. Is that, you know, is that your fueling strategy? Do you use a mix like what? What is your your take on it?

Jess: Well, it's really interesting that you bring that up because JoJé our roots are in cycling and triathlon, and we recently attended the running event in Austin, and I was a little nervous that runners wouldn't be interested or retailers in the running world wouldn't be interested in a bar. And it was completely the opposite. It was fun because to them, we are a new brand that that aspect was really fun and hearing that that just what you were saying is the trend was really interesting to learn that and it's sticking around. It's not just a face in the running world.

Jess: So and I'm very similar. I I don't know if I've trained myself well enough to be able to digest and handle a lot of real food on the bike. But also, I've learned enough about racing where in a short, really hard race, I'm not going to be eating a JoJé bar or like, right, not happening or in a longer race. You eat your solid food earlier on and then later in the day when you're struggling, you, you go for those more like liquid calories. So my strategy is that as much real food as possible pancakes, sandwiches, JoJé bars I really like the untapped maple packets for fuel. I'm sort of the opposite of you that I'm like classic.

Jess: I prefer do over something that has water in it, and I've tried both. And then I hydrate with drink mix in my bottles and a variety of different drink mix. And then I add salt stick as an example, the unbound two hundred gravel race in Kansas, which is a really popular one that took me 13 hours and nine minutes. And on the bike that day, I had fifty five salt stick, fast juice. My mouth was raw, but it was so worth it because I didn't cramp. I never felt crappy. My stomach was never bloated from trying to drink that many electrolytes down.

Jess: I had drink mix. I had eight untapped maple syrup packets and I had six JoJé bars. And then I also had like Brazilian cheese bites at my aid station, waiting for me in like some savory things. And I think that's just a testament to so many years of training myself to be able to eat that amount of calories. That's a lot of calories to get in, and it's I think it's really hard to do, especially if you have a day where you start off not feeling great or the heat is affecting you, which sometimes you just can't prevent. But yeah, I think my strategy is is much real food as possible at all times.

Jesse: It you said, you know, talking about training yourself to eat that much. It made me think about a couple of weeks ago now, but when this comes out, I think it's just the previous episode I was speaking with Ironman great Mark Allen, and we were talking about kind of the race with, like the top guys right now trying to go sub eight hours or sub seven hours or whatever it is. And Mark mentioned that he believes the limiting factor is basically going to be fuel. Like, you know, the guys all have to train themselves to maximize their ability to take in fuel, but then like there's ultimately going to be a like a biological barrier that just can't, can't be crossed, that you can't keep your body just won't process anymore. And. But you mentioning that? You know, you train yourself to eat that much.

Jesse: I think is part of the process and those guys obviously have gone through that. But for know people new to all say long course, whatever the discipline is, may not necessarily know that there is some training component to it, as I always say, like. You know, fuel and training like you're going to fuel in the race, so you're used to whatever it is because there is some getting used to like taking in that much fuel and going hard for that long. Do you remember, I mean, you've been at this for a number of years now, but do you remember like that, that time of adaptation where maybe you couldn't stomach quite as much and then how things kind of changed over?

Jess: For sure. And I've always thought that would be a really interesting, peer-reviewed study. What you just said, looking at that biological line because we we know we have it with other adaptations heat, altitude, cold and how we all handle it differently. And I've always been so curious what that is and why I can eat so much. But to your point, my limiting factor when I was racing Xterra was always when I would get on the run. I would have horrible stomach irritation to the point that I would be walking or in the bushes.

Jess: And that was one of the reasons I created JoJé Bar to have the macronutrient profile that it has because I wanted to add in more fat. And we all know that now that endurance athletes use fat as fuel at lower levels. And that was really helpful. So that was sort of like a learning experience to the other calories that I was taking in. But people ask me a lot how how do you eat so much? And one, I love food and I enjoy food, and I'm always thinking about lunch when I'm eating my pancakes for breakfast. So I think there's some sort of like mental component to it also.

Jess: But it is because I have been willing to fuel myself, and I've also fallen out of the trap of thinking that like, you can train yourself to be lean, like training during training, not eating that aspect that, you know, if I eat less when I'm training, I'm getting leaner and I've always maximized my calories for pre during and post training. And and I've noticed over the years how my body has adapted become stronger and healthier because the timing of it is also so important.

Jesse: Mm hmm. It is that does that come all along with, I assume I guess I should ask, are you self coach? Do you have a coach that works with you?

Jess: Now I'm I've worked with several coaches when I raced on the road and my boyfriend, Sam actually coached me my last year, and that was cool because we we learn that I do better when I go into a race really, really rested and I lose some fitness, and I had never been able to kind of tap into that prior to. It's easier when it could either be a disaster having your significant other coach you or it could be really good. And for us, it worked.

Jess: I don't have a coach now. And the reason being is I'm so focused on JoJé and community and helping others experience getting into cycling. But my goal is not to be on the podium. I know that I'm not training at that level. I know I can't compete with the awesome women who are racing now and are just crushing it. And it would be unfair to think that the way that I train now would I would be able to compete with them. So for me, I've never really liked the numbers in the data in the coaching behind racing. I've always liked the feeling and the connection of being outside and in a really hard person to coach, because if you gave me a workout, it's kind of 50 50. How it goes.

Jess: If you tell me to go on a hard group ride with a bunch of pro men, you're going to see power numbers off the chart because that's that's where I thrive. Like efficiency and scrappiness. And I'm just I'm not super strong by the numbers. So yeah, I don't like having to put stuff on training peaks and report to a coach, which is probably why I'm not setting my Wahoo watch to tell me to drink.

Jesse: And you know, that's fair. You know, I would think you and maybe I'm misreading between the lines. I would think you could find a coach that would be fine. I know everybody wants to quantify the hell out of everything nowadays. But I would think you'd find somebody who could. Understand and be cool with the like qualitative side of like just this is how I feel. This is the environment that I thrive in, like adapting to you as an athlete versus being like, This is my program and you'll follow just, you know what I mean. Like, there are different styles and I know I often preach like.

Jesse: Yeah, we've got all these watches and gadgets and everything, but like. And, you know, knowing my power numbers helped me become a better cyclist. That was my weakest discipline in triathlon. But despite all that, like, it still comes back to like rate of perceived exertion to me and being comfortable with how you feel. So I think you could finally be able to find somebody that would that would jive with you on that that front.

Jess: To be fair, when you have athletes like me, the issue always becomes, are you getting enough recovery? And if I tell you that I am, sometimes I know that I'm not because I think what it comes down to is gravel is a great spot for me because I have an engine and I can go all day long. It's a lot harder to coach someone when you're trying to tap into those high end zones, because if you don't see where they're at or how rested they are, how do you get them there?

But I agree with you a little bit, and I think that sometimes that like just like the art of feeling things and the art of racing and in learning outside of the numbers is lost a little bit. And I know there's other pro athletes that work that way and think that way. And then there's some that it's like, Sam loves the numbers and he puts out massive numbers, so of course he loves them. Maybe that's why I don't like them, because I see them and I'm like, Hey, I don't really like that. So let's let's do it the other way.

Jesse: Yeah, well, I know, like another person on the podcast, Marco Nicoli, he's a huge, huge numbers guy, and he's written some stuff for us, like first person data, like he's collecting data from his athletes and basically wrote these articles about like ground contact time and running and the correlation between him and stuff. It's like he's deep into the numbers. But despite all that, even he who's like the biggest numbers geek I've ever met in knows they're like, you've got to be able to feel it too.

So I I just, I don't know. I have this sense that. It. It seems easier for me running to feel it than like on cycling, I think because the cycling portions are longer. I think it's easier to get that wrong. Um, but it definitely plays a big part. Like when I was swimming or what I do swims, I mean, I stared at the bottom of the pool like, what else do you have to focus on? How do I how do I feel? You know, but. So I don't know.

Jesse: But but that doesn't make me want to ask. I have this on my list to ask you is like. How do you how do you juggle everything? You know, there's everybody talks about like hustle culture and you've got to be busy all the time and it seems like you probably are busy. But I also there's also kind of like some pushback now against that. So how do you keep it all together, I guess.

Jess: But I get this question a lot, and I think I'm evolving how I deal with all of it. One thing that I learned last year is that quality over quantity is OK, and to allow myself the ability to start setting boundaries and saying no sometimes. And people understand I'm really hard on myself and I hate saying no, and I want to say yes. But when it starts to affect like your mental and emotional health, you sometimes just have to say no to things.

So I've learned that, and I've also learned that I can't do everything in a given week and some weeks that are really, really heavy on the work side. Like this week, my flights were canceled to go to the production kitchen for JoJé Bar, and we had to send someone else who could get there. And we were up overnight on the phone overseeing the graveyard shift the last two nights. And so obviously I'm not sleeping. I'm not going to focus on Birkie training this week.

Jesse: Right.

Jess: And I'm not going to feel bad about it. So I've learned that you carve out that time to allow yourself to kind of teeter totter back the other way. And so next week, I'm taking two PTO days and I'm riding my bike down the coast of California for four days. So I'll get that time next week to kind of swing back.

Jess: And it's it's the same with, I think, something we don't talk about a lot with athlete and work balance is the aspect of social and family components and how important that is. And as athletes, you get in that mode where it's like you're so selfish and you think about your food, you're sleeping, you're training. And like anybody that gets in the way of like you going to bed at eight 30, you're just not accepting that. And then you hang out with friends one night and you're like, Whoa, OK, I really need this. It's healthy and it feels good and it's fun.

Jess: So my point is, is that I said on another podcast, this year, I have a whiteboard. I'm actually staring at it right now. I like to divide up the board and make sure that in the quadrants of work, running, I also run a cycling event here in Montana, my own training that I include other things like, you know, remember to send thank you cards for Christmas presents just like something that small of like a connection to your friends and family. So I think that is my best advice is to allow yourself to be totally crazy and skewed one way as long as you have a plan to bring it back.

Jess: Jess I know you get another appointment coming up. So I'll wrap things up for you, so for you, the listener, and you know, every season I've got a question, I ask all my guests. So you could be the second person to ask this after Mark Allen, who kicked us off for the year this this year. And you're a good guy. I think you're a good. Maybe you don't have six six Ironman championships, but I'm sure you've done plenty of this. It's something I don't think enough people do. And that's why it's my question this year is how do you celebrate your wins?

Jess: Oh. That is a good question. I wish I had some profound celebration other than the fact that I really enjoy wine. So I like to have a nice glass of wine at the end of the day. But honestly, I feel like I. I roll my windows into my energy to keep going, and I celebrate that by continuing to to grow my business and to focus on this privilege that I have of being an athlete and really kind of bringing that back into the community around me.

I think that the biggest win in my life is that I've had so much support from sponsors and friends and family and brands and people that were willing to help me race on the road and grow this event. And so. What feels really good and celebratory to me is sharing it, and this year we mentored four high school girls who did our event, the last best ride and watching them get bikes and equipment for my sponsors. And as 15 year olds complete this amazing event, that to me is a huge, a huge celebration. So I think I'm really focused on, yeah, sharing all of the good things that have been shared with me.

Jesse: I'm glad that's the question this year. I know I'm terrible at celebrating my wins, which is why a friend suggested that question for me, so I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot this year and I appreciate you sharing that. Jess if people want to see what you're up to, you're racing, JoJé Bar, all that kind of stuff. Where can they do that?

Jess: So my Instagram is @jesscerra J-E-S-S-C-E-R-R-A. On Facebook @jesscerra JoJé Bar Instagram is @jojebar. Our website is the same, We'll have a code in the show notes for 20 percent off if you want to head over to

Jesse: Yeah, if you're on YouTube, it'll be in the description. If you're on SoundCloud, iTunes, etc. It'll be down general that text is that talks about Jess and what she's up to and all that kind of stuff.

Jess: Exactly. And if you're interested in learning about our gravel event up in Whitefish, something I didn't really talk about, we are becoming a 501 C 3. We have a scholarship that we give out for women with academic merit and financial need. And it's a really awesome event up in Whitefish. That's the last best ride, and you can see more on Instagram as well.

Jesse: That's awesome. Jess, thanks for hanging out with me today.

Jess: Thank you. I appreciate it.

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