What you eat and drink during your long bike rides, races and events makes a huge difference to how fast you can go and how long you can ride for without having to stop or slow down. I have done some research and combined with my personal experience as a cyclist and a professional coach, here are some ideas that might help you.
So, what should you eat and drink during your long bike rides, races and events?
You should concentrate on two things:
- Drink enough fluids to make sure you stay hydrated, because your performance will significantly suffer if your hydration/fluid levels drop by more than 2% to 3% of your body weight;
- Take on carbohydrates in the form of drinks, gels, energy bars or other easily digestible foods. Research suggests that the more you take on, up to around 60g to 80g, the better you will perform.
In my experience, most people don’t eat or drink anywhere near enough to perform at their best and in some cases, getting the right nutrition during a ride can make the difference needed to get you to the finish line.
1. Before you ride
You should aim to be fully hydrated before your ride, so gradually building your hydration levels over several hours, including the day before your ride is important. The condition called hyponatraemia isn’t common but it is a good idea to take in electrolytes with your drinks and don’t go mad with pre-ride hydration. If your urine is light coloured and you aren’t drinking diuretics such as alcohol, you can be confident that you are hydrated.
If you are unsure of the colour that your urine should be, you can look at one of the many available colour charts, such as the one here to get an idea (the chart is taken from the UK NHS website www.nhs.uk).
You should aim to have a carbohydrate rich diet to make sure that your stores of energy are topped up and you are ready to go. However, having as much carbohydrate energy stored in your muscles and liver isn’t necessarily going to be the main factor that influences your performance on the day if your event is longer than around 90 minutes.
If you ride too hard, or don’t supply energy to your body during longer rides, you will have to slow down until you can recover. For this reason, taking in carbohydrates during your ride is essential for good performance.
As mentioned earlier, getting enough liquids is essential to a good performance, whether that is for a fun social ride, a training ride or in an event or competition.
How much do you need?
The aim is to replace all the fluid that you lose through sweat, which can be difficult but will pay off in the long term. As a minimum, you want to drink enough so that you don’t lose more than 2% to 3% of your bodyweight through sweat.
You can check how much you sweat by getting weight before and after a workout where you will be riding at around the pace you will be going during your planned event or long ride, wearing similar clothing and in similar weather conditions. Make sure that you get weight without your clothes on to avoid any contribution due to moisture in your clothing.
It is best to do this on a relatively short ride where you don’t eat anything and don’t need to go to the toilet, so that any reduction in weight represents what you have lost by sweat, combined with any drinks you have had during the ride. The calculation is relatively easy if you get weight in kilograms, your sweat loss is how much weight you lost in kg minus the volume of drinks you have had in litres.
As a guide, in typical conditions, aiming to drink about 500ml per hour with some carbohydrates and electrolytes is a good starting point.
Drinking according to thirst has also been found to work very effectively, but to do this you need to make sure that you have a ready supply of liquids on hand and it can also be easy to get distracted and forget to drink, so having a routine that encourages you to drink it often a better strategy.
Most people don’t drink enough and this can be for various reasons.
Doing a quick calculation based on 500ml/hour shows that for a 4 hour ride you would need 2 litres of liquids, which is both heavy and difficult to carry. If you are using the larger, 750ml, drinks bottles, you can only carry 1.5 litres with two bottle cages, so you would need a refuelling strategy of some sort.
Carrying a rucksack with a bladder allows you to carry more but interferes with cooling, adds weight higher up, raising your centre of gravity and can also be uncomfortable. However, this is a great solution if you don’t mind carrying a backpack and allows you to carry other essentials that may be hard to fit on your bike.
Two litres of water weighs 2kg, so you are adding significantly to your weight at the start of your ride and if the ride starts uphill, there is clearly a penalty. For this reason, it can be advantageous to carry a bit less liquid and fill up at feed stations if these are available.
As you can see, getting the optimum amount of hydration can be difficult in long events if there aren’t many options to replenish supplies. However, it is worth making the effort because the consequences of even a small amount of dehydration can be significant.
3. Nutrition during the event
Eating enough of the right things also makes a big difference to performance and the right thing is carbohydrate rich snacks or drinks.
Unlike liquids, carrying enough food is relatively easy but eating it and digesting it can be more difficult.
It is therefore important to test anything that you are going to eat during your event, in shorter training and then longer training rides before your event, to make sure that it doesn’t upset your stomach, or worse, induce vomiting, which would increase your risk of dehydration.
In general, problems appear to be more likely to occur if you go for foods that have more fibre, fat, or protein. High concentrations of carbohydrates can also cause problems, so be sure to mixing stronger drinks in an attempt to get more carbohydrates from liquids, or taking gels without drinking enough liquids, can cause problems.
As with most things, some people are more susceptible than others but with practice it is possible to increase your tolerance to different foods. This is another reason to practice good nutrition and hydration strategies during your training rides as well as during events.
How much do you need?
Depending on the intensity of your activity, you should be aiming to take in between 30g and 80g of carbohydrates per hour. This value seems to be independent of your bodyweight and research indicates that the more you have the better your performance, up to the limit of what your body can absorb.
It used to be thought that our bodies could only absorb a maximum of 60g of carbohydrate per hour but more recently it has been found that by using a combination of carbohydrate sources, glucose and fructose, up to 80g can be absorbed. For this reason, you should use a combination of glucose and fructose sources of carbohydrates if you are going to take in more than 60g of carbohydrate per hour.
If your ride or event is quite short, you can get enough carbohydrates from liquids and particularly if it is less than 90 minutes, you don’t need to worry about how much you take in because the benefits appear to be more psychological than physiological. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use carbohydrates in your drinks for rides of less than 90 minutes because the benefits have been shown to be real, even swilling a sugary drink in your mouth can boost your performance.
For rides of longer than 90 minutes, you need to be taking in carbohydrates at a rate of 30g to 80g in order to perform at your best.
A combination of liquid and solid sources is likely to be the most practical and for events longer than a few hours, having something other than gels and energy bars can be more tolerable on your digestive system. As with everything, make sure you test things out in lower key rides so that you know everything works.
Most commercial drink mixes recommend a concentration of around 30g or carbohydrates per 500ml bottle, so that is a good starting point and drinking 500ml/hour will give you the minimum you need. If you are using a commercial sports drink, make sure you read the label and mix it according to the instructions.
In addition to drinks you can use gels, energy bars or more ‘real’ food. I have found fig rolls work really well, although they can make a mess of your pockets if you carry them loose.
With a little time and calculating, you can work out how much you need to eat per hour to meet your goal intake and then practice on shorter rides.
It often takes a few rides to get used to taking in the required amount but once you are used to it you will get the benefits..
Is it better to use commercial or home made products?
It is quite easy to prepare your own hydration and nutrition products, you just need to follow the guidelines of getting enough carbohydrates and adding some electrolytes to your drinks.
The benefit of commercial products is that they are easy to prepare and often packaged conveniently.
I like products such as the Torq nutrition system that have similar amounts of carbohydrates in each serving. Each 500ml of drink, each bar and each gel have 30g of carbohydrates each, so it is easy to swap around different types of fuelling without having to do a lot of calcutions to meet your nutrition needs. That means that if it is a hot day you can take more fuel from drinks and less from bars and the other way round for colder days. Unfortunately, Torq products aren’t available everywhere so the convenience of the doses is offset a bit by availability. However, if you are in the UK, or can find other similarly designed products this is a great system.
Priotising ‘Available’ Systems
My current favourite approach is to use products from the sportsware chain, Decathlon. Their products aren’t perfect and some of the bars are quite difficult to open while riding but I know that they work for me and that I will almost certainly be able to find a Decathlon shop in most parts of Europe, where I do most of my events. This means that if I run out of a given product, or forget to pack properly for a long trip, I can get something that I am used to at short notice. Decathlon products are also very reasonably priced, which is another bonus.
Of course, if you make your own products and have a fall back of a commercial product line, you have the best of both worlds.
For longer bike rides, races and events you should focus on drinking enough liquids and eating enough carbohydrates to meet your fuelling needs and perform at your best.
You should aim to avoid loss of weight due to sweating of more than 2% to 3% of your bodyweight to avoid significant drops in performance. The best way to do this is to work out how much you sweat by getting weighed before and after a representative ride but you can work with a starting point of 500ml/hour and adjust as necessary.
You should aim to consume between 30g and 80g of carbohydrates per hour and if you are consuming more than 60g per hour you should take this from a combination of glucose and fructose.
Test everything before you use it a big event to avoid disappointment.
Note that if you are doing very long, multi-day events you also need to take in more normal foods including good sources of protein to help your body rebuild and regenerate during as you work over several days or even weeks. It wouldn’t be a good idea to try doing a multi-day event based solely on the guidelines outlined in this article.
Have fun and enjoy your riding.
Note: for more details and scientific background you can refer to an excellent review paper by Asker E. Jeukendrup, which also includes references to a number of more details supporting papers (Nutrition for endurance sports: Marathon, triathlon, and road cycling). For more reader friendly material, I like to refer to the books by Anita Bean and Nigel Mitchell. I was lucky enough to work with Nigel during my time at British Cycling and always found his advice to be practical and useful.
Isn’t it easier to use the nutrition provided by the event organisation at feed stations? It can be easier to use the products supplied at feed stations but if you have a delicate stomach, you may want to check that the supplied products aren’t going to cause problems for you. There are also concerns such as whether the products are mixed to the correct concentration for your needs, since feed stations aren’t always staffed by experts. Using crowded feed stations can also take time, which is okay if you need a break but if you don’t and can push through with your own supplies you can save some time and get a jump on your competitors. Finally, the feed stations are unpredictable in how much supplies they may have left and can run out, so in my experience it is best to be as self sufficient as possible and only rely on feed stations for emergencies and to top up hydration systems with water.
Can I get a boost of energy from a gel? Gels can be a great way to give yourself a boost of energy before a hill or as you get near the finish. It has been shown that putting something sweet in your mouth sends a signal to your brain that releases more energy. Obviously, this isn’t something you can do often but test it in training and see if it works for you.