RBR Newsletter

On-the-Bike Nutrition Can’t Be Overlooked

Editor’s Note:  A good bit of what we report and write on occurs “organically.” A reader will ask us a question, we will ask for some additional information, and before you know it, we realize we have something worth sharing with all our readers.

Such is the case with the following, which includes the original email from reader Tim K., followed by Coach John Hughes’ detailed response (after a couple of rounds of back-and-forth with Tim to gather additional details and information).

Tim K. wrote: “I finished my first 400k this weekend in Boston. I'm happy except for the stomach issues I had. I started off with a combination of bars and gels, with some cookies and fruit at controls. And just water. At mile 118 I ate real food at the control and felt awful after that. I couldn't tolerate anything but gel, and that just barely. I felt pretty awful. I managed to eat at the next control and gels after. Anyway, I'm concerned I'm not getting enough calories and I think that will not bode well for the 600k I’m doing next month. I'm thinking I may need to drink a much bigger percentage of my calories by using perpetuem or something. Any suggestions?”

After getting more information from Tim, Coach Hughes responded:

Thank you very much for all the information. This is a long response [which will be of value to all riders doing “endurance” rides, not just those doing long brevets]. I’ve broken it down into a number of important areas to consider.

Experiment of One

Here's what I know about the science of sports nutrition, but you need to determine what works for you. One friend swears by a commercial sports drink. Another eats minimart burritos. I like breakfast bars, cookies, crackers, etc. All three of us have ridden multiple 1200Ks.

Energy Sources while Riding

On endurance rides, your energy is coming from 2 sources: glycogen (from carbs) and fat, in roughly equal proportions. We all -- even the skinniest rider -- have enough body fat to fuel a 1200K. However, glycogen stores are limited, so carbs are the key food type. Protein only provides about 3-5% of the energy while riding. Protein is useful for rebuilding muscles, but you don't do that during an event.

When you run out of glycogen, you bonk -- your brain can only burn glycogen -- and you hit the wall (dead legs, etc.).


Most types of carbohydrates are much easier to digest than different forms of protein and fat. The exception is carbohydrates that contain a lot of fiber.


Sodium is the only electrolyte lost in significant quantities in sweat. [See today’s Cadence column, below, by Dr. Gabe Mirkin, titled The One Mineral to Replace During Exercise.]The concentration in sweat varies, depending on how acclimated you are, but is roughly 800 mg / liter. On a hot day you could easily sweat a liter or more / hour. If you are taking a supplement, figure out how many you would need to take to provide 800 mg.

Electrolytes per se don't help keep water moving through your system and may contribute to bloating.


You should drink enough that you aren't thirsty, but shouldn't try to drink to a pre-determined schedule. Drinking too much water or sports drink can dilute your blood sodium to a dangerous level. I have more info on this on my site at:

Gastric Overload

Your body moves fluid between the digestive system and the blood to maintain osmotic equilibrium. Put simply, when you consume stuff there are a bunch of particles (food molecules and electrolyte ions) in your gut. If the concentration of these particles in your gut is greater than the concentration in your blood, water will flow into your stomach to achieve equilibrium.

Calories per Hour

Despite claims to the contrary, you can consume 400 or more calories / hour while riding hard if they are the right kinds of calories. I was chatting with Lon Haldeman not long ago. He consumed 400 cal / hr while racing over 400 miles in the National 24-Hour.

Research shows that you can digest 360 cal / hr of carbs if they are of different types (glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltodextrin, etc). And more per hour if you include some fat and protein.

Susan Barr, who has a Ph.D. in nutrition and is an experienced randonneuse, recommends consuming all the calories you burn over a 24-hour cycle:

Tim's specifics

You were riding at a reasonable pace and drank enough, so those weren't factors. You ate less than or up to about 300 cal / hr for the first 118 miles. You ate a banana and fig newtons at the first control. Fructose may cause digestive upset in some people.

“The real food I ate at 118 was: 1/2 slice of watermelon, a serving of potato chips, a pickle, one slice of wheat bread with salami and cheese, and maybe a couple of fig newtons (but I'm not sure), and about 6 ounces of iced coffee (black)”

Let's take a look at these:

  • Watermelon - good source of fluid and some carbs
  • Potato chips - 1 oz. contains 56% fat, 37% carbs 170 mg sodium. Pretzels are a better choice (lower fat), or low-fat crackers.
  • Pickle - 1 spear (1 oz.), negligible calories, about 300 mg of sodium
  • Bread - 1 slice 90% carbs, 151 mg of sodium
  • Salami - 1 slice (1 oz.) 54% fat, 17% protein, only 29% carbs, 131 mg of sodium
  • Cheese - 1 slice (1 oz.) 74% fat, 25% protein, 1% carbs 174 mg of sodium
  • Fig newtons (may have eaten) - 1 is 85% carbs & only 55 mg of sodium
  • Iced coffee - probably somewhat acidic

The bottom line is this: You ate a lot of fat and protein that you didn't need, and not enough carbs. You consumed at least 900 mg of sodium, probably more depending on serving sizes. The combination is what caused the bloating, as your body was trying to get back into osmotic equilibrium, with water moving from your blood to your gut.

All the sodium is what caused the thirst. But you were so far out of equilibrium that drinking water just added to the volume in your gut rather than the water moving through to your blood.

Note that sodium per se wasn't the problem. If you only ate three spears of dill pickle, that would be about 900 mg of sodium -- the same amount as all the food you ate. You'd be thirsty, you would drink, and your body would then be in equilibrium -- you wouldn't bloat.

If you had eaten mostly carbs, they would have digested faster and provided the glycogen you needed.

A lot of carbs and sodium probably still would have caused bloating, just not as badly.

“At Peter's house I had some pasta with a meatball, and 1/2 link of sausage, some potato chips and a pickle.”

The same factors apply. The pasta was 100% carbs, the meatball, sausage and chips were high in fat and protein, and, along with the pickle, high in sodium.

Sports Nutrition is a Business

Selling bars, gels, drinks and pills is a multi-billion dollar business. Their primary goal is to sell you stuff. All the scientific literature I've read makes the same point: regular, healthy food is always as good as, and often better than, so-called sports nutrition.

Bars, gels, drinks and pills are more convenient, yes. But they are rarely as tasty, and always more expensive than real food.

Among the more than 20 eArticles I have written for RBR are a couple on these specific topics. Using the info in these articles, you'll save enough by not buying expensive sports products to cover the costs of the articles many times over.

I encourage you to check out Nutrition for 100K and Beyond, and Eating & Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink. The pros eat a lot of real food, including some fat and protein, to keep fueled. The eArticle contains a number of recipes, which I've tested with clients, for both drinks and food.

Finally, I never met a calorie I didn't like -- anything in moderation is okay!


Coach John Hughes


Upcoming eArticles and eBooks

We’ve got a few new eArticles and eBooks on the way soon from the prolific – and terrific! – Coach John Hughes, and other authors.

First, here’s what’s on tap from Coach Hughes:

  • In early November, look for a new edition in his Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond series on cross-training, just in time for the off-season.
  • Next up will be another Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond installment, in early January tentatively titled Your Best Year Ever. It will utilize the concept of periodization – from the off-season into base training, build (spring) training, and peaking – to show you how to achieve your best year ever on the bike.
  • And then, starting in February, we’ll bring you a new Touring series of eArticles that will provide loads of useful information on how best to plan, train for, and ride multi-day tours. It’s something that will benefit both old touring hands and touring neophytes alike.

New Fit Book Shows You How to Best Work with a Fitter

Also coming soon is a terrific new eBook from Rick Schultz, who in addition to being one of our regular product reviewers runs his own bike fitting business.

What sets Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit apart from other fitting articles and books is this: It is packed with details that you can use to do a complete self-fitBUT it is also designed to give you the “tools” and knowledge to help ensure you can find and work with a professional fitter to get the best possible fit for you.

Like most of us, Rick has heard legion horror stories about “professional” fittings that left riders less comfortable, in more pain, etc., AFTER the fitting. That should never happen. And Rick’s eBook was written as a response to ensure that it doesn’t happen for you. Look for it later this month or early November.

New Shoulder Injury Treatment and Prevention eArticle

Dr. Alan Bragmanhas a new title, as well, Shoulder Injuries and Cycling:

A Guide to Treatment and Prevention, coming soon.

Shoulder injuries are extremely common with cyclists, Dr. Bragman points out. In fact, both he and I have had one.

Understanding the shoulder’s anatomy, and the various exercises used to address the different types of shoulder injuries or problems, can benefit cyclists – whether you’re trying on your own to overcome a less-serious shoulder problem or working with a physical therapist or other medical professional to rehabilitate a traumatic injury.

This knowledge, and the various strengthening exercises, may also help you avoid some of the typical shoulder problems as well. They are recommended for overall strengthening and stability of the upper extremities, with the goal of increasing your riding comfort and avoiding injury.


Resistance Training Poll Results

By Coach Harvey Newton

As cyclists, we all know that we should mix in resistance training as part of our overall workout and fitness routine, in part for the high-impact benefit on bone strength that cycling lacks.

And most of us know that resistance training becomes even more important as we reach age 50 or so – to help stave off the loss of muscle mass that comes with aging.

So, to gauge our readers’ use of resistance training in their workouts, in our reader poll of a couple weeks ago, we asked: Do You Do Weight or Resistance Training? Seasonally, or Year-Round?

Here’s how you answered:

34% replied: Yes. Year-round.

11% replied: Yes. In the off-season.

12% replied: Yes. Off and on throughout the year.

14% replied: Every once in a while, but not at all regularly.

12% replied: No. I know I need to, but I do not do it.

5% replied: I used to, but I quit doing it.

12% replied: No. Period.

So, more than a third of readers resistance train year-round. Another 23% do resistance work either in the off-season or on occasion throughout the year. That makes 57% who utilize resistance training in a fairly regular way.

Of course, that leaves 43% of you who not. And that’s not good.

As routinely mentioned in RBR, there are two primary reasons for cyclists to engage in a sensible weight training program:

1. The overall health benefit of maintaining and/or improving one’s muscular fitness should be obvious. A related health benefit is that of improved skeletal health, a hot topic in cycling media for some years now. Cyclists are not unique in this way; everyone needs to be concerned with muscular fitness, especially as we age.

2. Plenty of solid scientific research supports the ergogenic benefit of lifting weights on performance, even for cyclists.

As USA Cycling’s President and CEO, Steve Johnson, Ph.D., said in Bicycling 17 years ago (and remains just as true today) “Cyclists need strength, but cycling doesn’t develop it.”

While lifting weights may not be as much fun as riding, this is simply a must-do form of training for cyclists, if they’re interested in optimizing performance (and, more importantly, staying healthy).

This is especially true for the average RBR reader, who tends to be in the master (40+) age range. Let’s hope this off-season provides the impetus to get many of those that responded “no” to change their ways – and for those of you already using resistance training to keep up the good work(outs)!


Harvey Newton

If you’re either looking for a program to get you started with resistance training, or you’re in the market for something specific to cyclists, look no further than Coach Harvey Newton’s Strength Training for Cyclists SYSTEM, which includes the 132-page electronic Strength Training for Cyclists Manual, plus a 42-minute DVD Training Program and 28-page hard copy Quick Start Guide.

Coach Newton, a veteran roadie and former coach of the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Team, is unequaled in his understanding of how cyclists benefit from strength training. And his Strength Training for Cyclists system has benefitted hundreds of RBR readers over the years.


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