By Coach John Hughes
Mike W.: Thanks for the column on How Can a Beginning Cyclist Improve? It was very helpful. I have a related question. I see lots of ads for bars, gels and drinks. The guys I ride with each recommend something different. What should I eat? Does it matter?
Mike, this is a great question! You’re right to be confused. There are so many different products on the market with competing claims. Cycling nutrition is really pretty simple. I’ll talk about foods this week and drinks next week.
Experiment of one: The fact that your fellow roadies each prefer something different illustrates this point. What works for Al may not work for Bob.
Lois’ magic elixir: My new client, Lois, wrote me, “On our 45-mile group ride I struggled mightily and was only able to go five mph on steep grades, which wasn’t unusual, but lots of times it was four mph and I got totally dropped. My quads were so sore I couldn’t turn the cranks. I decided to go home, have some lunch (peanut butter/banana sandwich) and then ride one of my local loops. After lunch I still had no strength in my legs and poked along.”
“With an hour to go, when I was so discouraged and thinking of going home, I stopped and drank a Dunkin’ Donuts bottled iced coffee with 44+ grams of sugar. I immediately felt stronger and had a better attitude! I climbed 2-4%+ grades at 8-9+ mph with hardly pushing. Where did that come from?? I guess from now on I need to ingest 40+ grams of straight sugar every hour!! I was tired when got home, but not quite as undone as I thought I would be and actually felt energized.”
Choose carbs: The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends depending on how big you are 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. Lois’ 40 grams of sugar was 160 calories.
Why carbs? When you are riding at a conversational pace you’re burning a combination of glycogen from carbs and fat.
Limited fuel tank: Your body can only store a limited amount of glycogen. Fortunately with endurance training you can increase the size of you fuel tank by 20 to 50%. On the other hand every rider – even the skinniest pro – has enough body fat for a day of racing.
Eat before you’re hungry: So you don’t run out of gas follow the ACSM’s recommendation to eat every hour. If you have trouble remembering to eat, set your computer to beep every 15 minutes.
More information: Eat, Ride, Enjoy
Will I lose fat riding? Just because you’re burning fat doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight. My friend, Chris, a retired pro said, “Losing weight is easy. Ride more, eat less!” Not exactly easy, but his point is correct.
Don’t bonk or hit the wall: Your brain needs fuel and metabolizes primarily 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: How to Avoid Bonking
Which carbs are best? The ACSM’s 24-page position paper Nutrition and Athletic Performance discusses at length the importance of carbs but makes no recommendations about which carbs to eat. Just eat carbs that tastes good and you can digest easily so you’ll keep eating. Carbs include fruit, bagels (I like the with jelly), pb&j sandwiches, pretzels (lower in fat than chips), granola bars (my ride staple) and cookies (I like fig newtons).
More information: Nutrition for Performance what to eat and drink during rides of different lengths.
Solid, gels and liquids: Gels and sports drinks are generally 100% carbs. Most energy bars are a combination of carbs, protein and fat. Because the gels and drinks are 100% carbs you digest them faster so if your energy is fading a gel or drink will fuel you faster.
What about the sugar rush and crash? You may have heard that if you consume something sugary your blood sugar will spike and then really drop. You feel great … and then terrible. What’s actually happening is that you didn’t continue eating — you literally run out of gas. Lois consumed 40 gm of sugar and rode well without her blood sugar crashing.
Eat like the pros: A racer burns 3,500 to 4,000 calories on an average day a stage race and 5,000 to 5,500 on a big day. They eat the brand of sports bars and gels provided by the team sponsors. Since they are racing nearly 21 days in a row, they also eat real food to provide variety and additional calories. During a stage they’ll eat boiled potatoes, rice cakes, little sandwiches and cut-up fruit to provide an assortment of flavors. Providing a lot of variety is the key to getting through three weeks of racing without bonking.
More information: Learning from the Pros: Cycling Nutrition
Sports food or real food: Follow the example of the pros. Sports drinks, bars and gels are convenient; however, they don’t provide any performance advantage over fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars and cookies. Real food is cheaper and tastier!
Experiment: As I said at the beginning we’re each an experiment of one. These are my general recommendations; however, some of the above may not work for you. Experiment to figure out what does.
Other columns on nutrition
- Eat, Race, Win: Lessons from a team chef in the Tour de France
- Ask the Coach: Best Recovery Food and Drink
My eArticles on Nutrition:
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros I talked with racers, coaches and cooks to learn what the pros eat and translated this into information every roadie can use. I also give you 12 recipes to make your own sports nutrition. 15 pages for $4.99.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond I explain good endurance nutrition for all roadies. I show how to estimate how many calories per hour you are burning and discuss the different types of fuel and the training implications. I compare the nutritional value of different sports foods and real foods. I discuss hydration and electrolytes. I conclude by explaining what to eat before and after events. 17 pages for $4.99
- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 By eating a healthy diet you’ll have more energy and vitality and slow the normal processes of aging. Through your choices of food you can also reduce the risk of many diseases associated with aging. I describe how your nutritional requirements change over time. I discuss the roles of carbohydrates, protein and fat in both your daily diet and your ride nutrition. I explain the importance of vitamins and minerals and whether you really need supplements. I conclude with recommendations on how to manage your weight. 31 pages for $4.99
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.