The key to riding long distances is food and drink.
Sure, training is important—but nutrition and hydration are even more vital. According to renowned former ultramarathon rider and Coach John Hughes of Boulder, Colorado, “Nutrition, not necessarily training, is the limiting factor in endurance cycling.”
The reason? Even the best-trained riders pack only enough muscle fuel (glycogen) for a couple of hours of hard cycling. Fluid stores vanisheven faster.
For everything from century rides to multi-day tours, remember these time-tested tips:
- Enjoy the Last Supper. Eat aggressively the night before a long ride so your muscles are crammed with glycogen the next morning. Emphasize carbohydrates such as pasta, vegetables, bread, whole grains, and fruit. Don’t forget dessert!
- Don’t Skip Breakfast. Cycling’s smooth pedaling motion means you can eat just before a long ride without risking stomach upset. You’ll need a full tank. Cycling consumes about 40 calories per mile, or 4,000 calories in a century ride.
Three hours before the start, eat about 60 grams of carbohydrate if you’re an average-sized woman, 80 to 100 if you’re a man. (Cereal, skim milk, a banana, and a bagel with jam equals about 90 grams of carb.) Many riders find that adding some protein and fat, like scrambled eggs or an omelet, keeps their stomach satisfied longer.
- Prehydrate. Fluids are as important as food. Drink at least eight big glasses of water the day before the ride. If you don’t, your performance and comfort may plummet by mile 50. During the hour before the ride, sip 16 ounces of a sports drink.
- Eat and Drink During the Ride. Drink during the ride to satisfy your thirst. About every 30 minutes, eat 20 grams of carbohydrate—the equivalent of half an energy bar, several fig bars or half a banana. Some riders prefer smaller portions more frequently.
On unsupported rides, use a backpack-style hydration system and carry food in your pockets. Stop at convenience stores along the way, if necessary. Most organized rides have aid stations every 20 miles or so, but always carry food and fluid just in case.
- Hydrate After the Ride. No matter how much you drink on a long ride, you’ll finish dehydrated. Weigh yourself before and after, then compare the figures. Lost weight means you’ve failed to replace the fluid you’ve sweated out. Drink 20 ounces of water or sports drink for each lost pound of bodyweight.
How do you know you’ve caught up? Your urine will be pale and plentiful, and your weight will be back to normal. Rehydrating is especially vital during multiday rides. If you get a little behind each day, by the end of the week you’ll be severely dehydrated, feeling lousy, and riding poorly.
- Eat for Tomorrow. Muscles replace glycogen better if you consume carbohydrate immediately after riding. So within minutes of getting off the bike, eat or drink 60 grams of carbohydrate (if you’re an average-sized woman) or 80 to 100 grams if you’re an average male.
The re-fueling process becomes progressively less efficient as time passes. Eat or drink a high-carb snack while chewing the fat with your riding buddies.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.