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 2 Today; Part 1 Last Week):
The answers lie in the context of your nutrition both before and during a ride. Rather than thinking of 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.
Although Steve is asking about nutrition before 6- to 12-hour races, the answers apply to any rider regardless of riding distances. Before the start of any ride, when, what and how much should you eat?
In last week’s article, I reviewed nutrition for the week before the ride. The main points are:
- Carbs are key. When riding, your energy comes from both glucose (from carbs) and fat, with only about 5 percent of your energy coming from protein. Every rider, including the skinny guys in the pro peloton, has enough fat for many hours of racing. Your body stores glucose as glycogen, and your glycogen stores are limited to 60 – 90 minutes of hard riding, or two to three hours of moderately paced endurance 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. 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. You can digest about 90 g (360 calories) per hour if you consume two different types of carbs, for example, sucrose, glucose, fructose or maltodextrin.
- Carbo-loading is simple. Just increase the proportion of your calories that come from carbs for three to five days before your big ride. (There’s no need to deplete your glycogen stores, as was recommended in the past before loading up on the carbs.) 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.
- Carbo-loading isn’t fat-loading. As you increase your carbohydrate intake, be careful that you aren’t also eating more fatty foods, for example, a rich pasta sauce or garlic bread with butter.
- Carbs are good, not bad. Carbs include vegetables, fruits and grains as well as pasta bread, rice and potatoes.
- Ride nutrition. Pro riders consume 300 calories or more each hour that they race.
When to Eat Breakfast
This depends on how hard you start riding.
- Endurance riding. The first hour or two will be riding at a conversational pace, so you can eat breakfast shortly before the ride. I often stop for lunch and get back on the bike.
- Tempo pace. You can talk but you can’t whistle, then eat at least an hour before the start of the ride.
- Hammering. Either eat a full meal a couple of hours before the ride or a light meal an hour before the ride.
How Much to Eat
This is linked to when you eat and how hard you’ll start riding. The earlier before the ride that you eat, the more time you have to digest, and the more you can eat.
- Endurance. If you’ll be riding at a conversational pace, then a meal of 500 – 1,000 calories is okay 30 minutes to an hour before you get on the bike. Depending on what you eat, you’ll digest 300 – 400 calories sitting there and can easily digest the rest on the ride.
- Tempo. If you’re starting at a brisk pace, then 300 – 600 calories an hour before the ride are okay. You’ll digest 300 calories in the hour before the ride and another 300 during the first hour of the ride.
- Fast. If you’re going out fast, then you want what you eat to be digested before you put the hammer down: 250 – 300 calories an hour before the ride or 500 – 600 calories two hours before the ride. In addition, eat about 100 calories of carbs within 10 – 15 minutes of the start; for example, a gel or a couple of cookies.
What to Eat
Carbs. Because carbs increase your glycogen stores and are the easiest to digest, carbs should provide most of your breakfast calories. If you’re doing an endurance ride, then including a poached or boiled egg (but not fried or scrambled) or two is fine, but skip the meat. Non-fat yogurt and skim milk are also fine.
- Three pancakes with syrup (no butter) are 500 – 750 calories, depending on their size – with 100 percent of the calories from carbs.
- A bagel with jam (not cream cheese or peanut butter) is about 350 calories – with 100 percent of the calories from carbs.
- A bowl of non-fat yogurt with a banana is about 250 calories – with 80 percent of the calories from carbs.
- Steve’s breakfast of oat groats, nuts, raisins, protein powder and yogurt has about 600 calories – with only 45 percent from carbs.
- For breakfast, if Steve left out the nuts and protein powder and ate non-fat yogurt, he’d eat about 375 calories – with 75 percent of the calories from carbs.
- Steve’s Performance Energy Bar has 230 calories – with 77 percent from carbs.
You may be concerned that eating all those carbs may cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash. This isn’t correct. For more information see my column Eating While Riding: Is Sugar a Bad Thing?
What the Pros Eat for Breakfast
Racers generally eat 2-3 hours before the start of an event. A typical pre-race breakfast is oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, fruit, eggs, toast with peanut butter or Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread) and coffee. Barb Grealish has cooked for Team Garmin for stage races such as the Tour of the Gila and the Tour of California. For breakfast, she prepares the biggest vat possible of oatmeal with blueberries and a station to fix eggs to order. Riders eat 1-2 bowls of oatmeal and 2-4 eggs. Some riders eat corn-based cereal, which is gluten-free.
Eating While Riding
For exercise lasting more than an hour, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends starting to eat 30 grams (120 calories) of carbs per hour in the second hour. For a ride of 2 – 3 hours, that works; however, for longer rides I recommend starting to eat during the first hour and eating every hour. I eat by my watch. At the end of each hour of a ride I ask myself if I’ve eaten enough, and if I haven’t I start eating immediately.
Steve uses Tailwind Nutrition (click to see John Marsh‘s review from last week) mixed to provide about 250 calories per hour, which are all from carbs. His ride fuel meets my recommendations in terms of providing the right nutrients; however, I do not endorse any specific products.
For more information, see my column What Should I Eat During Rides?
We’re All an Experiment of One
The above are based on recommendations from academically trained sports nutritionists. Some of the recommendations may work for you – and some may not.
Experiment with pre-ride and riding nutrition to figure out what works for you. Just lie saddles, what works great for your riding buddy may not work at all for you. Find what does.
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.
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.