RBR Newsletter

On-Bike Nutrition Tips

It happened on a long ride in Colorado—the dreaded bonk. I’d neglected to carry enough food to fuel an endurance-building spin in sparsely populated ranch country. An hour after my last energy bar, I succumbed. One minute I felt great and the next I was pedaling “squares,” seeing black spots in front of my eyes, and hallucinating bagels. The cows by the side of the road didn’t know it, but they were in dire danger. Cheeseburgers on the hoof, anyone?

Once the bonk hits, you won’t forget it. This word is, of course, cycling slang for weakness and sudden fatigue resulting from failure to eat enough during extended hours in the saddle. Not only recreational riders fall victim. Bonked pro racers have been known to lose several minutes to the leaders on a single climb.

So what’s the solution? Eat and drink enough, of course. But you also have to eat and drink smart. It’s not just the amount of food and fluids you put down. Timing is crucial, too. This week and next, we’ll look at five nutritional strategies to help you feel great on the bike—and so you can stop casting carnivorous glances at ol’ Bessie on the roadside. We’ll begin with three pre- and during-ride tips and finish up next week with some post-ride nutrition advice.

Eat Before the Ride. If you do much running, you know how hard it is to run on a full stomach. The jarring associated with each foot strike makes any food in your stomach supremely uncomfortable. Not so with cycling. The smooth pedaling motion means you can eat shortly before and during rides, unless you’re going flat-out.

You’ll need to start off with a full tank if the ride stretches over 90 minutes, because cycling at a brisk pace consumes about 40 calories per mile. About one hour before you get on the bike, eat around 60 grams of carbohydrate if you’re an average-size woman, 80-100 if you’re a man. How much is that? Most energy bars contain about 40 grams of carbs, and a banana packs about 30. Or try a bagel with jam and a handful of raisins or a fruit bar.

Prehydrate. You need food before the ride, but you also need to be sufficiently hydrated. Most people are chronically dehydrated because they drink coffee, a mild diuretic, and they don’t drink enough water during the workday. If this sounds like you, you may be starting rides dehydrated—and it only gets worse from there.

Additionally, research shows that it’s difficult to rehydrate with water alone. So drink copiously all day. Keep a water bottle on your desk at work and sip and refill all day long. An hour before you ride, drink about 16 ounces of a sports drink. Urinate just before the start to avoid unwanted pit stops.

How do you know if you’re drinking a sufficient amount daily? Two rules: If you aren’t getting up at least once in the night to urinate (unless you have an iron bladder), you aren’t drinking enough. Also, your urine should be pale yellow as well as plentiful.

Eat and Drink During the Ride. Eating and drinking on the fly isn’t easy. We associate food and fluids with sitting down at a table with white napkins and soft music, not with flying down the road astride a bike. That doesn’t qualify as fine dining.

But getting enough calories and fluids while riding is surprisingly easy. It just takes a little planning and awareness.

Get in the habit of drinking to satisfy your thirst. This is advice that has changed is the past few years. We used to think you should drink before you felt thirsty, that when you realized you’re thirsty it was already too late. But no more. Now we know that your body does a fine job of alerting you as to when it requires hydration. Heed the call, and you’ll be fine.

But if you need a reminder to drink, set the alarm on your wristwatch to sound every 15 minutes or so.

That beeping alarm is also a signal to eat. About every 30 minutes, down the equivalent of half an energy bar—about 20 grams of carbohydrate. Several fig bars, half a banana, or a piece of bagel work well, too.


Adapted from Coach Fred Matheny’s Basic Training for RoadiesCoach Fred Matheny has decades of experience as a competitive racer and cycling coach. He is the author of 13 RBR eBooks and eArticles.
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