Fuelling on Long Bike Rides

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Guest blog by Helen Russell, cyclist 

How to Fuel on Bike Rides

Anyone not used to cyclists’ conversations may be a bit shocked when they hear them talking about bonking! “Have you ever bonked?” or “Where was your first bonk?” are common questions in the cycling community but raise a few eyebrows in mixed company!

The questions aren’t referring to the riders’ sex life but rather energy depletion due to a lack of fuel, causing the body to shut down, making it hard, if not impossible, to continue cycling.

Bonking!

Bonking, or to give it its official title, hypoglycaemia, occurs when athletes fail to eat or drink enough carbohydrates resulting in depleted glycogen, causing low levels of blood glucose. In running circles it’s called ‘hitting the wall’.

The body can only store sufficient glucose for about 90 minutes of exercise so if you are exercising for longer periods then you will need to take on board glucose for the body to keep going.

Frozen Yoghurt and Raspberries
Frozen Yoghurt and Raspberries

Last year I rode the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the professionals for Cure Leukaemia and it was estimated that over the course of the three weeks I burned about 95,000 calories. In order to cycle an average of 110 miles a day for three weeks I had to ensure that my fuelling strategy was sufficient to avoid bonking or waking up the next day feeling depleted.

Now, you might not be riding 110 miles a day but even for rides of 60-90 minutes or over you will need to plan what you eat and drink.

I should warn you that I am not a nutritionist but I have learnt what works for me. Everybody is different and of course some people have specific dietary requirements or have to avoid certain foods. Also there are a number of debates amongst nutritionists about an over reliance on carbohydrates or the value of manufactured sports drinks. With that caveat, hopefully this blog might give you some ideas as to how to fuel on the bike.

Fuel Your Body Before a Bike Ride

Fuelling for a long ride doesn’t start on the bike.

If you are doing a long ride or sportive then you should think about your diet from a few days out.  You often hear people talk about ‘carb-loading’ which is important but you don’t want to overload by eating too much!

Vongole, Lucy Bee Style
Vongole, Lucy Bee Style

Keep to your normal diet but just add a few snacks that contain carbs or some rice or pasta to your meals. Make sure you keep hydrated by drinking throughout the day. Before a race or long ride my dinner will be a meal that is high in carbohydrates and it’s usually the endurance athletes’ old favourite – pasta!

For breakfast I have porridge with a banana and if I’m doing an endurance ride I might also have a croissant or bagel. This helps ensure that when I start my ride, my glycogen stores are full. I might also have some beetroot juice or a beetroot shot, especially if I am racing.

Coffee is a huge part of cycling society but as I don’t like it I get my caffeine hit from an energy drink containing some carbohydrate and caffeine, which I’ll drink ninety minutes before a race or sportive.

Fuelling During a Bike Ride

Ideally you should aim to have 60g of carbs every hour when riding. This can be made up of a drink, gels, and solids, or usually for me, a mixture of them all!

The most obvious way to survive a long ride, especially in the heat is to drink. It may be a bit obvious, but not being sufficiently hydrated can not only ruin a ride but can also cause sickness.

It’s not just about drinking on the bike either – make sure you take on fluids before and after your ride. If you feel thirsty then you are already dehydrated so, take regular sips throughout your ride rather than downing your bottle all at once.

Despite lots of debates on the value of sports drinks it’s generally accepted that it’s not enough to just drink water. Some people stick to the old school method of diluting sugar in water but I use a powder containing carbohydrates.

Fuelling in Hot Weather

In hot weather it’s important to replenish sodium, which is lost when we sweat so I also have a drink which contains electrolytes.

Electrolytes are salts which contain not just sodium but also magnesium, potassium and calcium. On long rides I will take some energy drink powder and electrolyte tabs that I can mix with water en route. You can buy a lot of powders in sachets – perfect for your cycling jersey pocket.

There are only two occasions when I will drink coke: after open water swimming to kill any bacteria I have swallowed, or on long bike rides. Lots of pros drink flat coke during races or coke mixed with water to get their sugar hit (more carbs and energy).  I have caught a few drinks bottles that the pros have thrown away during their races and all of them contained coke!

Last year, on my Tour de France challenge ride, temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius. I kept my sodium levels topped up by also taking Salt Sticks – small tablets that you take about every hour or 30 minutes depending on temperatures.

Eat Little and Often

If you feel hungry whilst riding, then your energy levels are already depleted, so, as with drinking, eat little but often. Bear in mind that what you are eating or drinking isn’t to fuel that point in your ride but the next 30 minutes. Think ahead to avoid getting hungry.

What I eat will depend on the length and location of the ride.  Already in the first hour I will eat a cereal bar or banana along with the endurance athletes’ old favourite – a couple of jelly babies.

 

Energy Balls
Energy Balls

I also consume gels, usually about 2 per 50miles, fig rolls, energy bars and flapjacks. I love to make my own snacks and get lots of great ideas from the Lucy Bee recipes. My favourite is the refined sugar-free flapjack with cranberries or the Lucy Bee energy balls.

Café Culture en Route

Café culture is a big part of cycling with most club rides stopping for coffee and cake en route. If you have been fuelling sufficiently en route you probably don’t need a cake but sometimes you just want to enjoy or reward yourself and of course you will work some of it off on the ride back home!

If I am doing a 100 mile ride I will make sure that there are some supermarkets or cafes along the way where I can buy a baguette or sandwich. Sometimes if I know I will be out over lunchtime then I will make some pizza the night before and take it with me to enjoy at a nice lunch spot!

Occasionally I will break the 100 miles into two parts, making sure that the route will pass my home at about the half-way point for lunch before heading back out.

Fuelling After a Bike Ride

In order to help you recover from a ride you need to continue to replace muscle glycogen when you finish.

There is about a thirty minute optimal slot for taking in food after training as this is best time for your muscles to absorb nutrients assisting with muscle repair and promoting muscle growth. Your body’s metabolism is working at a higher rate to recover, refuel and adapt to the training.

I usually have a shake containing protein and carbohydrates, as it takes seconds to make and is quickly absorbed by the body. Other options include apples and natural yoghurt, cottage cheese on crispbread or even the old favourite chocolate milkshake. You should also have a meal within two hours of training.

Cacao milkshake with nut milk
Cacao milkshake with nut milk

If I have been cycling in the heat, then I will also have an electrolyte drink after my shake.

How to Carry Your Food and Drinks

By now you may well be asking how on earth you will carry all this food and powders!

Firstly, make sure you have a cycling jersey and gilet with lots of back pockets. I once made the mistake of buying a gilet that fitted perfectly in the shop but once I had jersey pockets full of food I couldn’t zip the gilet up! Bear this in mind when buying clothing!

I also use a small tri-bag that fits onto your top tube and even sometimes stuff sachets of powder in my mount seat pack that is supposed to store bike tools! Other options include a bike specific rucksack or paniers but bear in mind these will slow you down.

Find What Works for You

Finding the right fuelling strategy will take trial and error but don’t leave it until the day of your sportive, bike challenge or race to try it out.

Experiment on your training rides to find out what works best for you but remember you are more likely to eat and drink, and therefore maintain your energy levels, if what you take tastes nice! Try out some of the delicious Lucy Bee recipes – there are lots of solid snacks, such as cookies, flapjacks or energy balls that can be wrapped up and taken in your jersey pocket!

Helen,

Helen has also written articles on Six Steps to Recovery from Your Workout, Triathlete Transition Training and Winter Training for Summer Results.

Helen is a Great Britain age group triathlete. She is a former age group World and European Duathlon champion and European Triathlon champion. Last year Helen was part of the One Day Ahead team which raised £1million for Cure Leukaemia by riding the entire route of this year’s Tour de France one day ahead of the pros.  You can follow Helen on Twitter via @helengoth

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