Carbohydrates are your body’s most commonly used fuel. They need to be broken down into sugars before they can be used by the muscles, but as a result the supply is regulated more evenly, and they provide a much longer ‘burn time’ than pure sugars. For this reason, carbohydrates are much more useful than sugars on longer rides. Before riding, bread, pasta or porridge are great sources of carbohydrate. During your ride, the humble sandwich is hard to beat, but other foods like flapjack and malt loaf deliver easy to eat, small doses of carbohydrate that are also easy to measure.
Fat is often villified, but the longer a ride is, the more important it becomes. It takes a while to be converted into useable energy by the body, but provides a steady source of energy over a long period of time. A little bit of fat, such as cheese or peanut butter in a sandwich, or a handful of nuts, can supplement carbohydrate over long rides.
Protein seems to be the foodstuff of the moment, with even Mars bars having a ‘high protein’ offering. Truly, the future is a wonderful place. Your body can burn it as a fuel source, but only in the most extreme conditions – you will want to stop riding a long time before this fuel system kicks in. Where it does come in handy is after riding, when a small amount will aid your body’s recovery to repair and build muscle.
As well as the above, external fuel sources, your body stores glycogen internally, in your muscles and in your liver. The average person has around 1,500 calories worth of glycogen already stored, and it is when those reserves run dry that the ‘bonk’ comes calling.
Water consumption is just as important as food consumption, if not more so. There are a whole host of factors affecting how quickly your gut can absorb food, and one of the biggest is hydration, as water is crucial to the mechanisms that transport calories across the gut barrier. No water means no calories delivered to your muscles. Interestingly, this doesn’t just apply to dry foods. Liquid foods such as gels and powdered drinks deliver a strong sugar solution, which, if too concentrated, delivers carbohydrates to the gut faster than your body can supply the required water. If you’ve ever ridden an event and used a lot of gels to get through it, you might have experienced the upset stomach sometimes called ‘gut rot’ – this is a symptom of consuming foods with a calorie to water ratio that is too high, even though the gels are a liquid!
So how does this fit into the real world?
Before the ride
If your body’s internal glycogen stores are topped up before you ride, you’re maximising the amount of on-board energy you have, and reducing the amount you will need to eat to stay energised. Before a shorter ride, this might be as simple as eating a carbohydrate-rich meal a few hours beforehand (eating too much too close to a ride is likely to lead to stomach issues). The traditional bowl of porridge in the morning is popular for a reason! However, before a challenging, long ride or a race, try to avoid being hungry in the couple of days leading up to it and make sure that your meals are high in carbohydrates. A high-carb diet at this point can raise those internal stores by up to 1,000 extra calories.
If you start a ride dehydrated then it doesn’t matter what you eat, you will still feel sluggish. Little and often is a good rule of thumb when drinking, and plain old water is fine. A glass of wine or beer the night before will do no harm, but don’t overdo it!
Work out how much food your ride will demand. Without going to a lab and working out your body’s efficiency levels, a good rule of thumb is this:
1 gram of carbohydrate per kg body weight per hour
I weigh 65kg, so I aim to eat around 65g of carbohydrates (including sugars) for every hour of exercise. This is fairly easy to work out using the nutrition information on food packaging, and while it isn’t exact, it is surprisingly effective over long rides or races. Roughly planning your food beforehand is likely to lead to a more enjoyable day out, or a more successful race.
During the ride
Sugar is not the only form of energy! It’s always surprising to see how many people rely on gels in particular, when they are expensive and the packets have a tendency to… escape on to the trail. They are effective, but unless it’s a short XC race I steer clear. Aim to eat more complex carbohydrates, whether it’s a simple sandwich, some malt loaf or flapjack. That mixture of carbs and sugar will last longer, and is less likely to give you an upset stomach.
It’s easy enough to work out how much food you should be eating, but harder to actually do it when you’re tired. Our brains run entirely on glucose, and as soon as blood sugar levels drop our cognitive abilities follow suit! You might find that your reactions feel slow, your muscles feel weak and pretty soon you forget to do simple things like put on that extra layer or eat when you know you should… sound familiar? We’ve all been there before. Preparing your food into portions that give you the right amount of carbohydrate per hour makes keeping track of your energy intake really simple.
Eat real food! This has made an enormous difference to my riding. Packing the lightest, most calorie-dense foods usually means eating dry, sweet foods, like granola bars, flapjack and oatcakes. This makes them a lot less appealing when you’re looking at those last twenty miles in the rain, and require you to drink a lot more water. ‘Wet’ foods like sandwiches and the sticky rice cakes mentioned below might be heavier, but they are much easier to digest and tend to be more appealing when you really need them. I rode the majority of this year’s 550-mile Highland Trail race eating egg-mayonnaise sandwiches and macaroons, because they were easy to eat and made a change from plain oatcakes! I felt better than I ever have on such a long ride, without any hint of stomach issues. Experiment with simple, easy to prepare foods until you find out what works for you.