Here is some information to help you get your nutrition and hydration right so that you aren’t left exhausted on longer rides.

In this article, I’ll be discussing how much energy is burned up every hour on the bike and what kinds of things you should be eating and drinking before, during and after that big ride to help your body prepare, endure and recover. I’ll also be covering off what food and drink I advise people to avoid.

Fat and carbohydrate are the primary fuels that you use to exercise. The blend ratio of fat to carbohydrate that you use varies depending on the intensity which you are riding at. In this case, we’ll measure the intensity in watts. When you ride at an easy pace (low power output) you generally burn a higher percentage of fat to carbohydrate. As you increase your intensity and ride faster, you produce more power on the bike. When you do this the ratio of fat to carbohydrate changes and you start burning a higher percentage of carbohydrate to fat.  Please see figure one below.

Figure 1 – Fat and carbohydrate combustion rates based on cycling intensity (in watts)

A seasoned cyclist will have enough carbohydrate stored in their bodies to provide them with around one to two hours of high intensity cycling. Once the carbohydrate stores are depleted the cyclist then “bonks” or hits the wall. If you are riding at a more leisurely pace, then you’ll find that your carbohydrate stores will last longer than if you are riding at race pace.

The onset of bonking comes on very fast. It only takes around 2 to 3 minutes to go from riding very well at high intensities to not being able to ride faster than around 12 km/h.  The reason for this is that fat is not able to be metabolised fast enough to provide the muscles with enough energy to drive them back up to ride at these high intensities.

There are two standard protocols for endurance sports nutrition. The 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour and the 1 gram per kg of body weight per hour. I recommend that you adopt the 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour nutritional protocol if you plan to ride at a leisurely but steady pace.  If you plan to ride at a race pace, then the 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour is a more suitable nutritional protocol to follow.

These carbohydrate requirements can be met by consuming a variety of combinations of sports drinks, sports bars and gels and normal food like fruit, ANZAC biscuits, fruit cake and sandwiches. I also recommend that the faster you go the more you’ll want to rely on products that are able to be consumed and digested quickly like sports drinks, gels and sports bars.

If you are ride more leisurely then you will have more time so you can choose “real” food to fuel you. Most products now have their carbohydrate content listed on the outside of the packet.  This makes it relatively easy to work out how many of them you’ll need to eat per hour. Most gels and sports bars contain around 20-30 grams of carbohydrate so consuming two to three of these products per hour will generally meet the majority of most people needs.

Remember that these are guidelines only! As everyone has their own preference for the type of food they prefer to consume, I strongly recommend that you experiment to work out your nutritional requirements during your riding. Also, people with larger builds (heavier) consume more carbohydrate per hour than smaller (lighter) built people.  Please take this into consideration when working out your nutrition plan.

After a long ride, ensure that you consume a good quality low GI carbohydrate meal that contains either pasta, rice or potatoes. In the evening, I recommend you eat a meal that has a good source of protein either from lean red meat or from chicken or fish combined with a good serving of a mix of lightly steamed vegetables.

As for hydration, I’ll briefly touch on this. The fluid you drink while riding is to replace water and electrolytes lost through perspiration. You also lose fluid when you breathe, but this is of lesser importance. The amount of fluid you consume will vary depending on how hot it is when you are riding and how much you perspire.  The hotter the day and the more you perspire so the more fluids and electrolytes you’ll need to replace. Again, each individual has their own specific hydration needs, so it’s important to experiment while out riding until you find out what works for you.

Hydration can be complicated further because many people rely on the carbohydrate in the sports drinks to provide them with their fuel as well. On cooler days, they may not be drinking enough of the sports drink to meet their 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour requirements. If this is the case then supplementing their sports drink with a snack will help. Drinking too much on a cooler day means you may need to go to the toilet more often to expel the extra water.  Also, on the hottest part of really hot days, you may not be able to consume enough fluid compared to what you lose.  If you know that you are going to be riding through the middle part of a really hot day it’s important to ensure that to keep on top of your hydration earlier on in the ride. By doing this, you’ll be less likely to run deeply into hydration deficit before the mid-day heat. Headaches are a sure sign that you are dehydrated. If this happens, find a source of water, seek some shade a have a rest for a moment while you rehydrate.

Here are some things to remember:

  • Ensure that you eat a low GI carbohydrate meal like porridge, muesli or brown bread before a ride that takes longer than two hours.
  • Some people suffer from gastric distress when taking gels and sports drinks. To avoid this, either stick with a low GI food like energy bars.
  • It is generally accepted that you consume gels with water only.
  • The body can digest around a maximum of 1.25 litres of water per hour. On hotter days and during the heat of the midday sun, you’ll need to consume more water than on cooler days.
  • If you are consuming more sports drink on hot days you’ll need to dilute your sports drink down a little to avoid gastric distress.
  • On hotter days, you will need a sports drink with an electrolyte in it to help replace lost salts.
  • On cold days, you are less likely to require a sports drink with an electrolyte.
  • It’s better to start your ride off consuming low GI foods like energy bars earlier on in your ride and slowly introduce high GI food like gels and sports drinks later on in your ride.
  • Avoid consuming alcohol and fried foods after a ride as they will hinder recovery.
  • After a long ride, ensure that you consume a good quality low GI carbohydrate meal and in the evening, eat a meal that has a good source of protein combined with a good serving of lightly steamed vegetables.

We have assembled the Leaner Cyclist program that will improve your cycling, lift your FTP and your metabolic effectiveness. We offer straightforward and smart dieting advice and formulas, along with time productive cycle training programs.

Some of the side effects of this program are reduced inflammation, faster time on climbs, removal of food cravings and improved well being.

I hope this information helps you understand a little more about your nutritional and hydration requirements on your longer rides.

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