Question: There are so many bars and gels and drinks out there for energy and endurance. What should you look for in a bar or gel? What about the composition of complex versus simple sugars? When should you intake them before and during the bike ride? How much is too much? – David
Coach John Hughes Replies: You are asking excellent questions, David! Over 40 years of riding and 20 years of coaching I’ve learned that far more riders have trouble on rides because of poor nutrition, not because of inadequate training!
Fuel Sources While Cycling
Your muscles are burning a mix of glucose and fat as you spin the pedals. The harder you ride, the higher the proportion is from glucose. The glucose is stored as glycogen, which comes from carbs. Every rider, even the skinniest in your club, has enough body fat to fuel a multi-hour ride; however, the body can store only enough glycogen for a few hours of hard riding. Protein provides only about 5% of your energy for moving the bike down the road. You should eat primarily carbs on a ride.
Eating Before Bicycle Riding
Dan Benardot, Ph.D., is a registered dietician and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In Advanced Sports Nutrition he recommends eating six times a day to stay in energy balance. You should eat so that at any time during the day there are no large differences between calories consumed and calories burned, i.e., you need to eat enough before, during and after a workout to equal the calories burned during the ride.
At a minimum, eat a snack of 100 – 200 calories of carbs about an hour before you ride.
Eating During Cycling
For exercise lasting more than an hour, the ACSM recommends starting to eat in the second hour. For a ride of 2 – 3 hours, that works fine. 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.
How Much to Eat While Cycling on a Ride?
The ACSM recommends 30 grams (120 calories) of carbs per hour. I’m emphasizing carbs because that’s the fuel source that’s in limited supply. I recommend eating one-half your burn rate every hour. For example, a roadie is burning roughly 500 calories / hour if the rider weighs about 150 pounds (68 kg) and rides at 15 mph (24 km/h) on a flat road with no wind and isn’t drafting. That roadie should eat about 250 calories of carbs every hour.
My eArticle Nutrition for 100K and Beyond has a table to estimate the calories you burn per hour depending on how much you weigh and how fast you are riding. Although written for endurance riders, all the same principles apply to roadies riding shorter distances.
How Much is Too Much While Riding?
A rider can digest about 60 grams (240 calories) of one type of carb per hour. For example, some sports nutrition products use just sucrose as the carb — you could digest up to 240 calories / hour. However, a rider can digest up to 90 grams (360 calories) per hour of a mixture of carbs. For example, you could digest 360 calories / hour of a combination of sucrose and fructose.
Complex Versus Simple Sugars?
Companies that produce sports foods often advertise that their products are better because they contain complex carbs (i.e. starches). They claim that because complex carbs are digested more slowly, you get an even flow of energy rather than a spike in your blood sugar followed by a crash.
It’s not that simple.
The glycemic index (GI) of a food is based on its effect on blood-sugar level. The higher the GI, the faster the blood sugar rises. Glucose has a GI of 100, the reference level by which other foods are ranked. A baked potato (a starch), for example, has a GI of 85. Premium ice cream (sugars) has a GI of 38. This is why I often stop for ice cream on my rides!
Seriously, this shows why the distinction between simple and complex carbs doesn’t matter. For example, many gels are made with maltodextrin (a GI of 105) because it is digested quickly. If you eat something with a high GI like a gel and then you run low on energy, the problem isn’t that your blood sugar rose and then crashed. What’s really happened is that you’ve bonked from not continuing to eat.
What Should You Look For?
This part is pretty simple. Pick foods that have a high percentage of calories from carbs and that you like to eat. Also, look at the amounts of sodium and potassium, the two important electrolytes.
Real Food vs. Sports Products
Fortunately, this too is simple. The biochemistry is the same whether you eat sports products or real food! Your body is going to convert carbs to glucose, and your body is going to convert carbs with a high GI faster than carbs with a low GI. Here are four examples ranked by proportion of carbs:
Food / % Carbs / % Fat / % Protein / Mg Sodium / Mg Potassium / Cost per oz.
- Banana, 1 medium (without skin 4.2 oz. / 119g) / 95% / 0% / 5% / 1 mg / 422 mg / $0.05
- Pretzels (1 oz. / 28 g) / 84% / 6% / 10% / 392 mg / 41 mg / $0.16
- Fig Newtons, 2 (1.1 oz. / 34g) / 80% / 16% / 4% / 110 mg / 95 mg / $0.11
- Sports bar, 1 (2.4 oz. / 68g) / 70% / 16% / 14% / 120 mg / 250 mg / $0.41
Look closely at that! A sports bar has the lowest percentage of carbs and costs, by far, the most per ounce! And I’d rather eat a banana, pretzels or newtons than any sports bar I’ve tried. I like real food because it tastes better – and it’s easy to resupply at just about any minimart or gas station.
During a multi-hour race the pros eat a mix of real food and sports food for the variety. Eating just bars and gels gets pretty old (not just for the pros, but for all of us).
You can learn much more in my eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food and Drink. It compares the nutritional values of many more different foods, as well as provides 3 recipes for homemade solid food, 3 recipes for homemade sports drinks and 2 recipes for homemade gels.
My eArticle Healthy Nutrition Past 50 also applies to younger roadies who have similar nutrition requirements both on and off the road as we older riders.
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.