We’re each an experiment of one. Here’s what I’ve learned from almost 50 years of research and experimentation.
When I started riding in the 1970s sports drinks, bars and gels hadn’t been invented yet so I experimented. I’d used the very dense, caloric Logan bread backpacking and it worked for cycling. A slice had 250 calories, 200 from carbs. If I’d thought of packaging it and selling it then I could have made money with the first sports bar!
I continued to experiment to find foods I liked. I diluted orange juice 1:1, which provided about 100 calories, all carbs, in a 16 oz. bottle (24 oz. bottles hadn’t been invented yet.) A medium banana is about 100 calories, all carbs. A half-bagel with jelly is about 200 calories, 175 from carbs. Two cookies are about 130 calories, half from carbs. I tried carbo-loading, which seemed to improve my performance on longer rides. I knew from backpacking to carry high-fat foods because fat provides 9 calories / gm and carbs and protein each provide only 4 calories / gm so I tried a high-fat low-carb diet, which didn’t seem to help.
Some of my experiments were failures. One year I drank only fruit and vegetable juice before and during the first half of the Davis Double Century. By then I was nauseous and bonking, so I switched to real food. The Davis DC served bananas and at lunch sandwiches so for my first 1200 km (750 mile) Paris-Brest-Paris in 1979 I ate just bananas, baguettes and ham and cheese sandwiches for the first two days after which I couldn’t stomach them so I stopped eating – big mistake!
As they came out I tried all the different sports nutrition products. When I was racing ultra distance, I was sponsored by different sports nutrition products. I liked some of them, but none of them were as tasty as real food and I couldn’t tell any difference in performance.
I learned three important lessons in these early years:
- Eat carbs. Carbs kept me going. Ham and cheese sandwiches, while tasty, didn’t do much.
- Eat regularly. As long as I drank a bottle of my dilute juice (100 calories) and ate solid food (200 calories) every hour I was fine.
- Eat real food. It tastes better, costs less and is just as effective as the sports products.
When I started coaching professionally I earned certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. I read books by the sports nutritionists Nancy Clark, MS, RD and Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD and collaborated with Susan Barr, PhD a long-distance cyclist. I interviewed pro racers and coaches, which are described in Eating and Drinking Like the Pros. All these sources stressed the importance of eating carbs, which I’d learned through experimentation. None of them recommended sports products as performance enhancing.
The position paper Nutrition and Athletic Performance Academy of Nutrition was published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Dieticians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine published in 2016. “There is significant evidence that the performance of prolonged sustained or intermittent high-intensity exercise is enhanced by strategies that maintain high carbohydrate availability (i.e., match glycogen stores and blood glucose to the fuel demands of exercise), while depletion of these stores is associated with fatigue in the form of reduced work rates, impaired skill and concentration, and increased perception of effort.”
Your body stores glucose as glycogen and glycogen stores are limited to a few hours of hard riding. Glucose comes from carbs and because availability of glucose is critical to performance eating primarily carbs is very important.
Some roadies have migrated to a high-fat low-carb diet, which can sustain endurance riding but offers no performance advantage.
Research on Regular Food vs. Sports Nutrition
Three different studies have evaluated the effectiveness of regular food compared to sports nutrition
Potatoes: Several weeks ago Lars wrote a column Potatoes Just as Effective as Energy Gels for Cyclists. “The study compared the results of 12 cyclists who used either a potato purée, a commercial energy gel, or water only during a two hour cycling challenge, followed by a time trial. Both the potato puree and the carbohydrate gel allowed cyclists to complete the time trial faster, compared to drinking water only, with almost identical results between the potatoes and the gels.” A 2” red potato has 100 – 120 calories, similar to gels. The pros eat potatoes during a race. There’s a recipe for the way potatoes are prepared for the pros in Eating and Drinking Like the Pros.
McDonald’s: An article in Runner’s World explains that Fast Food May Help You Recover Similar to Sports Products. Eleven recreational athletes performed two separate 90-minute tests on a stationary bicycle including some tough intervals. Right after the test muscle biopsies measured their depleted level of glycogen. Then for the next four hours they rested while consuming two modest meals of either fast foods or sport foods:
- Fast foods were 1,330 total calories from McDonald’s hotcakes, hash browns, small orange juice, a hamburger, a medium Coke, and a small fries.
- Sports foods were 1,303 total calories from a 20 oz. Gatorade, a Kit’s Organic Bar, one Clif Shot Blok, 10 oz. of Cytomax, a PowerBar and one Power Bar Chews.
All of the meals were roughly 70 percent carbohydrate and 10 percent protein. For each of the two tests what the riders ate was randomized.
After four hours and another leg biopsy, the subjects completed a 20K time trial as a test to confirm their glycogen resynthesis.
Researchers found that both the fast food and the sports for protocols produced similar levels of glycogen resynthesis, glucose response, insulin response, and cholesterol response. The fast foods group’s 20-minute time trial averaged 34.3 minutes.
Chocolate milk: A third study indicates that chocolate milk may be effective for recovery. Nine male, endurance-trained cyclists performed an interval workout recovered for four hours and then rode an endurance trial to exhaustion at 70% VO2max, on three separate days. Immediately following the first exercise bout and two hours of recovery, subjects drank isovolumic amounts of chocolate milk, fluid replacement drink or carbohydrate replacement drink in a single-blind, randomized design.
The carbohydrate content was equivalent for the chocolate milk and carbohydrate drink. The time to exhaustion and total work were compared between trials. The researchers found that the time to exhaustion and total work were significantly greater for both the chocolate milk and the fluid replacement drink trials compared to carbohydrate drink. “The results of this study suggest that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting exercise bouts.”
Part of my coaching is teaching my clients what to eat and drink during rides. I have developed 14 nutrition tips for endurance riders. As I said at the beginning of this column each of us is an experiment of one. Here are some possible ride foods and drinks for you to consider. The commercial products are examples, not recommendations. The foods are listed by the percentage of carbs that each contains. (The calories and percent from carbs varies depending on the exact item.)
- Apple or banana (1 medium) 100 calories, 100 % carbs
- GU, Hammer Gel, etc. (1 packet) 100 calories, 100% carbs
- Raisins (small box) 130 calories, 96% carbs
- Cookie (2 Oreos), 160 calories, 90% carbs
- Peppermint Patty (1) 140 calories, 89% carbs
- Red potato, (1 small 2” diameter) 122 calories, 89% carbs
- Fruit Newtons (2 Fig Newtons)110 calories, 80% carbs
- Bagel, plain, (1 med.) 250 calories, 75% carbs
- Clif Bar (1 chocolate chip) 240 calories, 75% carbs
- Pop Tart, (1 S’Mores) 200 calories, 71% carbs
- PowerBar (1 chocolate) 240 calories, 70% carbs
- Three Musketeers, (1 bar) 260 calories, 70% carbs
- Nature Valley granola bar (1 oats & honey) 95 calories, 62% carbs
- Luna Bar, (1 dark chocolate) 180 calories, 60% carbs
- Hammer Bar (1 chocolate chip) 220 calories, 47% carbs
- Coke, 8 oz. (240 ml) 195 calories, 100% carbs
- Gatorade, 8 oz. (240 ml) 60 calories, 100% carbs
- Orange juice, 8 oz. (240 ml) 110 calories, 95% carbs
- V-8, 8 oz. (240 ml), 45 calories, 90% carbs
- Carnation Instant breakfast, (1 packet) 130 calories, 83% carbs
- Accelerade, 8 oz. (240 ml) 80 calories, 75% carbs
- Chocolate low-fat milk, 8 oz. (240 ml), 155 calories, 67% carbs
For more information see Eating While Riding: Is Sugar a Bad Thing?
My ride Nutrition
Here’s what I might consume before and on a 7 – 8 hour ride.
- Breakfast of pancakes (no syrup) and a poached egg. It has 670 total calories from carbs (370 cal.), protein (75 cal.) and fat (225 cal.). A little low on carbs and a little high on fat but I love pancakes!
- During the ride three different breakfast bars, a couple of bananas, about 10 Fig Newtons, a sandwich with low-fat cheddar, a couple of gels for the big climb, two diet Pepsis for the caffeine and fluid, two bottles of my homemade sports drink and a bottle of water. I replenish the water en route. My riding food has plenty of variety so I don’t get bored, almost all real food. Except for the gels all of the food (or something similar) is available in a mini-mart! 2100 total calories from carbs (1,600 cal.), protein (200 cal.)and fat (300 cal.)
- My homemade sports drink meets the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine and costs just $0.11 / 100 calories compared to $0.75 / 100 calories for commercial products.
Other Columns on Nutrition
- Winter Riding Presents Different Nutritional Requirements
- Nutrition for Performance
- How to Avoid Bonking While Cycling
- Eat, Race, Win: Lessons from the Tour de France
- Learning from the Pros: Cycling Nutrition
- Ask the Coach: Best Recovery Food and Drink
My eArticles on Nutrition:
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros describes what the pros eat, what to buy at a minimart and has 12 recipes. 15 pages for $4.99.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond applies to all roadies. 17 pages for $4.99
- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 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.