Reader Steve Fenn Asked a Series of Nutrition Questions:
The broad question might be: when and what should I eat before an event of 6-12 hours? More specifically, how much time before the start of the event should I eat, and what should I eat? The events I participate in start at 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. For example, on August 12 the Leadville 100 MTB race at 10,000 feet elevation starts at 6:30 a.m.
I’ve heard that you should eat 2 hours before the ride. Some people say one, but 2 hours is a common recommendation. That’s great if you have the time, or inclination. But a 6:30 start means chowing down at 4:30, if you’re eating two before the race.
The Tour de France stages start around noon, so getting up and eating two hours prior doesn’t seem too hard. Plus you can eat more, or have more leeway of food to intake.
Then there’s the quantity question. A big plate of spaghetti and chicken sounds good. But is the limit that the body can process about 200-300 calories per hour? And isn’t that if you are active, riding for instance?
I’ve tried two main methods. Up early (before two hours prior to ride start), my bowl of oat groats, nuts, raisins, protein powder, yogurt. And a cup of coffee. Since oat groats take some time to cook I preheat, do a quick boil, turn off heat, so they are partially cooked already.
My other routine, which I am reverting back to, is up in morning, have a cup of coffee and a PowerBar a good hour before ride start. The PowerBar is the Performance Energy Bar, 230 calories, 4 grams of fat, 200mg Sodium, 140mg Potassium, 44g carbohydrate (2g fiber, 26g sugars), 10g protein.
Another point – the earlier you get up, earlier you eat, the more time your body has to process foods (dinner the night before, breakfast morning of), and to eliminate waste.
The oat groats choice usually means allowing time for at least one, if not two, sit downs at the toilet in the morning. Maybe because of the volume of food, maybe the fiber and type of food. The PowerBar and coffee don’t fill me up as much, and seem to not necessitate an extra go at the toilet, and I feel just as good and powered up.
My food stuff throughout these rides is Tailwind Nutrition, mixed to provide about 250 calories and 24 ounces of water per hour. (See today’s Review of Tailwind Nutrition Fuel.)
Regardless of either choice of morning food, I usually eat more than usual, proportionally, of carbs and protein the day before, or a couple of days before. I was taken aback recently to read that carbo-loading is not in vogue these days because of the limitation of muscles and body to store glycogen, etc.
I look forward to some insight into this.
Coach John Hughes Replies (Part 1 Today; Part 2 Next Week):
Steve, You are asking a lot of great questions that apply to all roadies. The gist, though, is What should you eat before you go for a big ride or event?
The answers to your series of questions lie in the context of your nutrition both before and during a ride. Rather than thinking of a bolus of calories at 0-dark-30, think of a flow of calories starting a week before and continuing through to the end of the event.
You are always burning a mix of carbohydrate and fat for fuel. The proportion depends on your level of activity. Carbs regulate the metabolism of fat and protein, so even at sleep the night before a ride you are burning carbs and depleting a bit of your stores of glycogen, which comes from carbs.
You mentioned the Tour de France and the nutritional needs of its riders. Chris Froome is 6’1” tall (1.85m) and weights only 157 lbs. (71kg). Although he’s skinny, he has enough body fat to fuel a monster stage like July 9th’s 181.5 km (112 mi.) stage with 4,600 meters (15,000 ft.) of climbing.
However, glycogen stores are limited to 60 – 90 minutes of hard riding, or two to three hours of moderately paced endurance riding.
Your body metabolizes protein to repair muscle damage after hard rides; however, only about 5% of your energy while riding comes from protein.
The bottom line is that carbs are the key nutrient to fuel your riding.
Rate of digestion
Carbs are the easiest nutrient to digest. Protein is harder to digest and fat is the hardest for your GI system to process. The calories in the potato chips you eat while watching the Tour de France are almost 60% fat calories! Because fat is digested slowly, it creates a feeling of fullness, which hopefully slows your rate of consumption of those chips.
Your GI system can process 60 grams (240 calories) of a single type of carbs per hour whether you’re riding or sitting watching the Tour de France. An ounce of chips has about 15g (60 calories) of carbs, so you can digest about four ounces per hour.
Research by sports nutritionist Asker Jeukendrup shows that you can digest about 90g (360 calories) per hour if you consume two different types of carbs, for example, sucrose, glucose, fructose or maltodextrin. This is because each type of carb uses a different metabolic pathway. In addition to those four ounces of potato chips you could eat and digest a healthy medium banana.
Pro riders consume 300 calories or more each hour that they race.
The week before
Your components of your daily nutrition should be:
|Macronutrient||% of Total Calories||Calories / gram||Healthy examples|
|Carbohydrate||60 – 65%||4||Vegetables, fruits, grains, pasta, bread, rice and potatoes; and limit sweets|
|Protein||10 – 15%||4||Low-fat dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and lean meat|
|Fat||25%||9||Olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocado and fish|
The week before a big ride, increase your calories from carbs to about 70 – 75%, and decrease your calories from protein to about 10% and from fat to about 15- 20%
Instead of what to eat for breakfast, and when, think about fuel and water intake for the 24 hours leading up to the event.
You don’t need to calculate the exact calories. Just consciously eat more carbs and less protein and fat. Note that carbs includevegetables, fruits and grains as well as pasta, bread, rice and potatoes. Glycogen storage requires water, so as you top off your glycogen stores, you’ll gain some water weight. Don’t worry about the weight gain — it’ll help prevent serious dehydration during the event.
At the same time, reduce your activity so that you are burning less glycogen.
The year I raced the Leadville 100, a rider checked into the same motel and just lay around watching TV. His only rides were into town for meals. Race day he got back the motel about 2 p.m. The proprietress said, “I’m sorry you dropped out.”
“I didn’t drop out,” he replied. “I took third!” He was well-rested and had a full load of fuel!
In the ’70s and ’80s, I practiced the classic carbo-loading routine the week before a big event. The first three days I rode hard and ate only protein and fat to deplete my glycogen stores. Since the brain can only burn glycogen for fuel, I was brain-dead and crabby!
Then for three days I’d eat almost exclusively carbs. The theory was that my body would super compensate from the depletion phase by storing more glycogen than normal. Sports physiologists now recommend skipping the depletion phase and just upping the carbohydrate intake.
Eat the right carbs
Eating more carbs does not mean a big plate of pasta and creamy alfredo sauce. The calories in pasta are almost 80% carbs, which is great! But the alfredo sauce is almost 80% fat! As you increase your carbohydrate intake, be careful that you aren’t also eating more fatty foods; garlic bread with butter is another example.
Next week, I’ll apply these nutrition basics to the pre-ride breakfast and during-ride nutrition.
You can learn more about the science of riding in the heat, and managing your fluids and electrolytes, in my two-eArticle Cycling in the Heat Bundle.
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management is 19 pages and covers how to acclimate to hot conditions, how to train in hot months, what to wear, eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat, and how to deal with heat-related problems.
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: Hydration Management is 21 pages and covers how to determine how much you should drink depending on your physiology and sweat rate, how best to replace your fluids and electrolytes, the contents of different sports drinks, how to make your own electrolyte replacement drinks, how to rehydrate after a ride, and how to deal with hydration-related problems.
Cycling in the Heat Parts 1 and 2 is just $8.98 (a 10% savings) and, as always, just $7.64 for our Premium Members (includes their everyday 15% discount!).
My Summer Riding bundle contains both of the Cycling in the Heat articles as well as articles on handling cramps and learning the nutrition and hydration secrets of the pros:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management, 19 pages
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: Hydration Management, 21 pages
- Preventing and Treating Cramps: The 10 pages give you a detailed look into the causes of cramps so that you can understand and implement prevention techniques. It provides tips (both on-bike and off-bike, including photos) for breaking and flushing cramps.
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: The 14 pages are based on research about what pro riders consume before, during and after a stage. The findings hold lessons and benefits for cyclists at all levels. Eating and drinking like the pros offers recreational riders the same nutritional benefits, which you can customize to your own needs – typically at a fraction of the cost of commercial sports food and drink, if you choose to make your own. I worked with a professor of nutrition and an expert on hydration and electrolytes (both experts are cyclists) in creating recipes for both sports drinks and food.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.