People often ask me how much they should eat on the bike when on a long ride. When I tell them they usually then say – ‘HOW MUCH!!?? I can’t possibly eat or drink that.’
So here is a guide to fuelling on the bike – all I can provide is some basic guidelines and then you have to work it out for yourself through trial and error. Nutrition is complex and very individual; what works for one person will make someone else feel ill.
Practice is crucial. Your body needs to practice being able to absorb nutrition and it needs to work out what it likes and doesn’t like. It is not fun discovering what it doesn’t like on the day of an event. So long training rides are about practicing nutrition as well as developing your aerobic base. If you constantly get it wrong in training you reduce your body’s ability to recover, compromise your immune system, potentially lose too much weight, lose power production, feel cold, lose your mojo, get sick. In an event you may vomit or just bonk – that means run out of energy and feel like the guy in the photo – not the feeling you have trained for months to attain.
Back to the question of HOW MUCH? Ingest between 40g and 90g of carbohydrate an hour along with small quantities of fat and carbohydrate. the actual amount you will tolerate depends on factors such as practice, or lack of it, your weight, your tolerance, the length of ride and the intensity of your session. To put that amount into perspective a medium sized banana is about 20g, jelly babies are 5g each of pure carbohydrate and chewy bars are usually between 20g and 40g. There are now many apps which help you to discover nutritional values, for some examples see those listed in this link. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/top-iphone-android-apps Most of these talk about diet but this article is nothing about dieting – it is purely about fuelling for performance. Your weight should stay stable if you are fuelling correctly throughout the day.
WHEN? Eat little and often, every twenty minutes to half an hour if your ride will last longer than an hour. This includes the first hour unless you have just eaten a meal. If you wait until you are hungry it’s too late. Little and often – it’s a discipline – it takes practice and it is hard work.
WHAT? Generally the lower the intensity of the ride the more real food one can tolerate. Real food is good! Attempt to ride for six hours on gels and you probably won’t feel great. Real food is also heavy to carry but on longer rides there are often either shops or food stations. To supplement the space in your pockets you can get bento boxes – little bags that attach to your top tube. These boxes can be very useful in winter as I find thick gloves and back pockets a difficult combination. Experiment with food packaging to find what you can open easily and pre-open chewy bars before you leave. Don’t overlook the humble banana which is not only a great source of carbohydrate but contains some protein, magnesium and potassium. To eat a banana bite the bottom end off and peel with your teeth.
As intensity increases the body’s ability to digest real food drops so gels and easy to digest snacks, such as jelly babies, come into their own – in moderation. If riding hard, such as a 25 mile time trial, I take in two to three gels an hour. I tuck the empty packets up the leg of my shorts which stops sticky goo covering everything. If riding at low intensity cheese savoury sandwiches and kettle crisps are more my things. When the going gets tough one can always resort to caffiene for an extra pick up – like the caffiene shot in the middle photo which kept me awake beautifully during the 24 hour Strathpuffer Mountain bike team event. This is individual choice. Yes it is a stimulant which many people respond to but that means you are placing additional stress on your heart when it is already under duress. My consumption of caffiene has shrunk drastically since my husband has been diagnosed with Atrial fibrillation, a heart condition, which has severely restricted his ability to exercise. Two triggers for this condition are caffiene and alcohol. Personally I’d rather go fractions slower than not be able to take part at all. Salt supplementation is another very individual choice. Testing for salt lose during exercise is becoming quite popular currently to predict with some accuracy one’s need for sodium. It also obviously varies with intensity of exercise and temperature. Most of the time adequate salt in the diet negates the need for salt supplementation but there are many individual considerations around this.
WHAT ABOUT FLUID? The same thing – taking in enough fluid is a dicipline and takes practice. A general guide is 500 ml per hour, that is one small bottle. Even in winter. If it is warm you will need more. If all you drink is water it creates the wrong osmotic pressure in the gut. At best one feels as if fluid is just sloshing around in your stomach; which it is. At worst your sodium levels become too low as sodium is lost through sweat and the kidneys cannot proces sufficient excess fluid. This fluid becomes stored in your cells leading to swelling and further dilution of sodium levels. This is hyponatremia and can lead to death. No one has died of dehydration on an event. They have died from hyponatremia. OK, so on that cheerful note some water is fine but take in at least some liquid with a supplement added. This can increase your carbohydrate intake without having to eat, it can also help ensure your electrolyte levels remain stable. Electrolytes are essential for your body to function correctly. There are a wide range of drink supplements available and if you would like to make your own there are many recipies on the internet. Just like food you need to practice to find out what works for you. I favour Skratch which I find really easy to digest and if I wish electrolytes without the carbs I go for the SiS tablets. Beta fuel is awesome for long distance events if you can stomach it – it contains 120g of carb in one water bottle so you don’t need to eat for three hours – winner! Not everyone likes it and it is quite expensive.
Good fuelling is hard work. Good fuelling will feel like way too much food to start with. Good fuelling will not make you put on weight. It will help your recovery, reduce your fatigue, help you balance your diet and support your immune system. Good fuelling will also stop you eating the contents of the fridge when you get home.