You’ve trained hard and you want to do your best. Now your success depends on your nutrition! Your goal could be to finish your first metric or 100-mile century. Or conquer a particularly hard 100. Or set a personal best in your club’s classic century. Or compete against others in a grand fondo. Or have more fun and finish your local century without feeling trashed. Or ride another endurance event ranging from 100 km to a double century. Here are 14 tips to help you ride your best.
Sources of Energy: Carbs and Fat
When you are riding on level ground at moderate pace you burn primarily fat for energy as well as some glycogen. As you start to work harder, for example increasing your pace or climbing a moderate grade, you keep burning fat but also start burning more glycogen, which comes from carbs. As you ride even harder—the hill gets steeper—you burn more and more glycogen and keep burning fat. Protein only provides about five percent of your energy.
Glycogen Stores Are Limited
Even the skinniest rider has enough body fat for a century but not enough glycogen. You can store about 450 grams of glycogen in your muscles, blood stream and liver, which will produce about 1800 calories of energy, enough energy for only a few hours of brisk riding.
To be sure your glycogen stores are full, starting three days before your event eat more carbs. At each meal cover your plate primarily with carbs and think of protein as a condiment. Carbs include fruit and vegetables, whole grain products and legumes, not just white bread and pasta.
More information in my column: Carbo-loading: A Coach’s View
Starting two to three days before a big ride be sure to drink enough fluid so that your urine is an ample pale yellow stream (unless you are taking supplements, which could produce darker yellow urine as you urinate them out of your body.) Primarily drink water and clear unsweetened fluids and avoid alcohol. You’ll probably gain a little water weight, since your body stores water with the glycogen. Don’t worry; you’ll use the water during the event.
Eat a good breakfast — 750-1,000 calories — a couple of hours before the start of the century. Primarily eat complex carbs with a bit of protein and fat. For example, eat whole grain cereal with a banana and skim milk or have multi-grain toast or bagels with low-fat yogurt and berries. Drink a couple of cups or glasses of fluid, for example a glass of juice and a cup or two of coffee or tea. That much caffeine won’t cause you to urinate excessively. By eating several hours in advance you give yourself time to digest the calories and to relieve your bladder before the start. An hour before the ride eat a snack such as a banana or energy bar.
More information in my column: Caffeine and dehydration
Eating During the Ride
Depending on your body size, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends consuming 25 to 60 grams of carbs (100 to 240 calories) per hour after the first hour of exercise. Note that the recommendation is only for calories of carbs. Sports drinks and gels are generally 100% carbs. Most energy bars are a combination of carbs, protein and fat. Remember to eat before you are hungry.
More information in my column: Nutrition for Performance what to eat and drink during rides of different lengths.
Don’t Bonk or Hit the Wall
Your brain needs fuel and unlike your muscles, your brain can only metabolize glycogen for energy. If your muscles burn through all of your glycogen stores, then you bonk, that awful fuzzy-brained feeling when all you want to do is stop. Similarly, when your muscles exhaust all of your glycogen stores suddenly you hit the wall and your muscles feel like lead.
More information in my column: How to Avoid Bonking
To avoid bonking or hitting the wall you must replenish your limited glycogen stores during the ride by eating primarily carbs. Every hour consume the recommended amount of carbs. If you have trouble remembering to eat, set your computer to beep every 10 – 15 minutes.
Eat a Mix of Carbs
Research shows that you can digest more carbs per hour if you eat a variety of carbs, for example, a sports product with sucrose and maltodextrin or a bagel and a banana or fruit newtons. On your training rides experiment with different types of carbohydrates to see what tastes good and agrees with your stomach.
Sports Food or Real Food
Sports drinks, bars and gels are convenient; however, they don’t provide any performance advantage over fruit, pb&j sandwiches, granola bars and cookies.
Drink to Satisfy Thirst
If you start the event fully hydrated, then as long as you drink whenever you are thirsty, you’ll be adequately hydrated. We used to be taught “Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty.” The former is still good advice; however, current research indicates that drinking too much can lead to hyponatremia (low blood sodium), a potentially fatal condition.
More information in my column: 12 Myths About Hydration
Try to find out from the ride organizers what food and drink will be available at the stops. If they don’t provide the particular food and drink that sit well in your stomach, then bring your own. Don’t try anything new during an event. If you’ve just been eating energy bars, then don’t grab a brownie at an aid station. But if your training rides include a stop for coffee and pastry and then lunch, take advantage of these during your event.
Experiment of One
Test your nutrition during your training rides. What tastes good and digests easily varies among riders. Don’t rely on advice from other riders, the media or even me! Experiment to find out what works for you.
Keep It Simple
Is all of the above too confusing? Over the years I’ve experimented and learned that as long as I drink a sports drink to satisfy my thirst, eat something — a banana, granola bar, fruit newtons, pb&j — every hour, and ride without going anaerobic I’m cruising comfortably. You’ll have a better ride and more fun if you develop and follow your own simple nutrition program rather than getting hung up on too many details.
Do You Eat to Ride or Ride to Eat?
If you eat in order to fuel a personal, then view stops as aid stations, not as rest stops. Grab what you need and eat and drink on the bike. A two-time winner of the Race Across AMerica told me, “If you aren’t on the bike, you aren’t going anywhere.” If you ride to so that you can enjoy a variety of foods with others, then for you stops are social opportunities. Enjoy the snacks while talking with others.
Whether you eat to ride or ride to eat — be sure to eat and drink! Is this a great sport, or what?
- What’s the Best Food for Cycling?
- The Important Role of Carbohydrates
- Preventing Bonking with Daily Nutrition
- Avoiding Dead Legs on a Century
- Eat, Race, Win – Lessons from the Tour de France
- Recovery Nutrition
My related eBooks
My eBook Nutrition for 100K and Beyond combines the best current research and my almost 50 years of riding and coaching to teach you proper sports nutrition. I explain the types of fuel, how to estimate how many calories you burn on a ride and what to consume during the ride. I also explain what to eat before and after the ride. My 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is just $4.99.
It is included in my bundle of three eBooks Endurance Training and Riding:
- Beyond the Century describes training principles and different training intensities and how to integrate these into program of long rides. Although written for roadies doing longer events all of the principles also apply to shorter events. I lay out an 8-week plan to build up to a century and then a 200-km ride (about 125 miles), plans which could be easily adapted to shorter rides.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond provides you with the information you need to fuel your engine before, during and after endurance rides.
- Mastering the Long Ride gives you the skills you need to finish your endurance rides. Effective training provides your base, and proper nutrition gives you the fuel. The key to success is to use your smarts to complement your legs.
The 50-page Endurance Training and Riding bundle is $13.50 (a 10% savings).
Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink. I explain in detail what they eat before, during and after a race. I give you a dozen recipes to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food, which are just as effective as the more expensive commercial products. And mine taste better! I evaluate a dozen choices when you’re at the minimart to resupply. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Prosis $4.99.
Cycling in the Heat Bundle You can learn more about the science of riding in the heat, and managing your fluids and electrolytes, in my two-part eBook series:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management is 19 pages and covers how to acclimatize 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.
The cost-saving bundled eBooks totaling 40 pages Cycling in the Heat Parts 1 and 2 are just $8.98 (a 10% savings)
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.