In Part 1, I talked about how becoming a stronger rider requires us to stress our various energy systems. Then in Part 2 I discussed the other important side of the equation, recovery. In this installment, let’s get into how we fuel our bodies for our rides. And before we get started, let me say that carbohydrates (sugars) are the predominant energy source here. Yes, as mentioned in a previous article, we want to train our bodies to rely on fat for energy higher up the intensity scale, but even burning fat for fuel cannot happen without some sugar involved. At lower intensities in trained athletes, carbs are simply the pilot light to burn fat during exercise. Up the intensity scale, the more carbs come into play as primary fuel.
How the Body Creates Fuel From Food
When your body digests food, enzymes break down proteins into amino acids, carbohydrates into glucose and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. When carbs are digested, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which enables them to be absorbed at the cellular level. They’re then transported to the liver and stored or used as glucose. Studies have shown that we can store about 120 minutes of glucose for high-intensity exercise.
How to Fuel Sensibly
This is a massive topic and is highly individual. As usual, I’m going to talk about what works for a lot of people, sprinkled with what works for me. If you’re new to endurance sports, you can start here and adjust as you gain more experience.
Start your ride with a full tank. Not a full belly; I’m referring to having your glycogen stores topped off. The best way to do this is to have a good breakfast (or any other meal) 2-3 hours before your ride. This gives your body time to digest the food. We’re looking for low to moderate on the Glycemic Index and avoid anything heavy or hard to digest. Foods that are lower on the GI turn to glycogen more slowly and give more sustained energy. For us Phoenicians, we ride super early in the summer which makes eating 2-3 hours prior impossible. In this case, don’t eat a big breakfast 30 minutes prior to a ride, particularly if it’s a fast one! You’ll be right in the middle of your glycemic low during digestion and it’s the best way I know, besides bonking, to feel horrible on the bike. What I do is start my ride quickly, get my warmup done and after about 30 minutes on the bike, I start eating. Dates, bananas, P,B&J squares are good. Packaged food options are fine on the bike and very convenient. The point is, your body is now up to temp and is doing work and I’ve found that I can have good rides this way. Not as good as a healthy breakfast, but way better than rolling while digesting a bowl of oatmeal but hey, sometimes the schedule rules the day.
Now that you’ve topped off your stores and you’re under way, you’ll need food at some point on your ride. Please don’t eat 5 gels on an hour ride. We have enough glycogen stores for 120 minutes….2 hours! Here’s an easy formula for fueling after the first hour: take in 40-60 grams of carbs each hour. 1 gram a minute to be on the high side and you’ll be safe from bonking. I usually don’t eat anything for rides up to 2 hours if I had a good meal beforehand. There are downsides to taking on too much fuel during your ride. First, it can make you feel bloated and nauseous. If it’s in the form of energy gels, many athletes suffer from “gut rot” from taking on too much sugar. Eating real food on the bike can help tremendously with this. Second is the fact that if you’re constantly slamming simple sugar into your body, it never has to go to fat for energy. Sugar is way easier to synthesize, so your body will use it first, every time. Third, the more carbs you eat, the more you have to digest. This requires the body to pull water from your blood, potentially dehydrating you.
Since I can remember, I’ve been told to eat and drink before I feel hungry or thirsty. Some say that if you listen to your body closely enough, you’ll know when to eat and drink. I’ve never consistently achieved this level of oneness, and usually find myself dehydrated and in caloric debt when I hope to operate this way. If you can, great. For the rest of us, and certainly while learning and experimenting, eat and drink on a schedule that works for you, before the sensations of hunger and thirst overcome you.
Drinking vs. Eating Your Calories
For years now, I’ve subscribed to the Allen Lim (and probably many smart people before him) model of drinking my hydration and eating my calories. That means drinking a hydration mix like Carbo Rocket or Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix and eating real or packaged foods. These drink mixes have electrolytes and a modest amount of carbs, requiring food for fuel. My stomach feels better doing this but just as important, for me, is that I don’t get that super-sugary goo mouth (it’s a thing) that hits me with calorie-laden drinks, especially if I’m riding hard.
But sometimes, I feel alone in this belief, and more and more I’m running into people who love to get their calories from the bottle. Because I have little recent experience with this method, and because this post is not intended to be an infomercial, I’ll just leave one mix that I know people love, Carbo Rocket.
Temperature has an effect on how many electrolytes we lose. I like to alternate a bottle of water and a bottle of mix if it’s below 75 degrees and above that, use mix on every bottle. Experiment and see what works for you; just know you’ll need to ramp up the electrolytes as the temp rises. When it gets really hot, getting sodium in capsule form is a Godsend. CarboRocket and Hammer Nutrition make great ones.
Enough About Fueling, Let’s Talk About Me
Here’s an anecdotal story from last year. I had not been riding as much as normal, but had signed up for the Belgian Waffle Ride, a 143 mile race with 13,000 feet of climbing, if memory serves. I got within 1 month of the event and had not trained at all. My wife was pregnant and I was working a ton at my regular job, and life was changing fast. I told Jenn that I wanted to enjoy the event and not be miserable, so I got the nod to build a 3-week buildup plan with one week taper. This was all volume and almost no intensity. I just wanted to finish without nearly dying.
I built my volume steadily for three weeks and then kept the legs fresh for the taper week. During that month, I rode 5 centuries and many other long rides. Since it was all endurance riding and I wanted to train my body to burn fat at that level, I experimented with how much I really needed to eat for long rides. I found that eating 2-3 medjool dates per hour was all I needed and I felt great. They kept the pilot light lit, so I could rely on fat for energy all day. (The only catch with these dates is that they have a fair amount of fiber, so, yeah. But somehow they work for me.) Now, if I had upped the intensity much beyond endurance pace, or zone 2, I would have had to up the caloric intake. As it was, those dates and a small bottle of water or hydration mix each hour kept me feeling great for over 6 hours at a crack. The bottom line is, you may not need as much food as you think, but listen to your body and definitely keep some extra on hand in case you feel the bonk approaching. Ride intensity, temperature and how well-trained an athlete is are all variables that can dramatically affect one’s needs on the bike. Experiment and adjust and listen to that body!
The bonk that endurance athletes refer to is caused by running out of glycogen stores. Plain and simple, your car just ran out of gas, and it’s not a great feeling at all. They say it got its name from the term “bonking your head”, because it feels like hitting a wall, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. Without fuel, your body is increasingly unable to contract its muscles, and can be accompanied by all of the sensations of low blood sugar, except that you’re usually nowhere near the pantry, which adds a bit of panic to the whole mess. Most bonks are caught before a total depletion occurs and one can salvage their ride or event with a quick refuel with high Glycemic Index foods/drinks. A Coke goes a long way here! But sometimes, a bonk is so deep that throwing in the towel is the only way. Avoid it by fueling on schedule.
Bringing It All Together
To wrap up, the basics of fueling our rides starts with a good low-to-moderate GI meal 2-3 hours beforehand. Once on the ride, start fueling 40-60 grams of carbs per hour after the first hour. Drink a small bottle (500mL) per hour. Experiment with drinking your hydration and eating your calories or try getting calories from a drink mix, as well. You may love it! After your ride, remember to get some calories back into your system right away. Refer to Getting Stronger on the Bike Part 2 for more on that.
Finally, here are a few useful links to suggested pre-ride meals and on-the-bike food:
When you’re talking real food, you’ve got to start with the guys at Skratch Labs. They know their stuff and have tons of great recipes here. Plus, they’ve got killer cookbooks and here’s a direct shot to Allen Lim’s famous rice cakes. Great ride food.
How about a pre ride meal? Here’s a good article in Bicycling about breakfast. Scroll down for good meal suggestions based on different ride types.
Ok for now… go fuel up and stay fueled for the best rides of your life as we get stronger on the bike this year. Thanks for reading.