Eating Up The Miles A guide to cycling nutrition

By Huw Oliver

You are what you eat

It sounds obvious, but how many of us are guilty of neglecting to think about the fuel that we use to power our bodies?

What, when and how you eat has a huge impact on the quality of your riding, whether you’re trying to squeeze the last watt from a winter training session, or planning an all-day epic in the hills. If you have ever experienced the dreaded ‘bonk’ then you will likely wish to avoid repeating it! You don’t need to leap down the rabbit-hole of gram-counting, gel-squeezing geekery, but thinking about a few basic nutrition principles will enable you take much greater control of how you feel and how well you can perform.

Ask not what your body can do for you, but what you can do for your body!

There’s a whole world of nutritional advice out there, and any number of products claiming to be the next best thing when it comes to ride food. I’ve tried most forms of off-road racing and riding, whether it’s a 50-minute cyclocross race or multi-day bikepacking adventure races. I’ve had good days and bad days, and when I can I’ve tried to learn the lessons that will help me to avoid mistakes and bad eating habits. In this blog, we’ll cover some essential background information, as well as a guide to eating before, during and after your rides in order to get as much as possible from your body.

What should I eat?

Unlike your car, your body runs on several types of fuel, and relies on each to a different degree, depending on the duration of your ride. Say hello to the substances that your body relies on to produce motion in your muscles:

Sugars, i.e. that bag of emergency Haribo, are quickly absorbed and transported to your muscles, where they provide a quick burst of energy before soon burning out. If you’ve ever tried fixing a mid-ride slump with a handful of sweets then you’ll know that the effects are soon felt, but they just as quickly disappear. Gels might be the most effective form of sugar to eat, but they are expensive and are best saved for short races where performance really matters.

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.

Keep drinking! There’s no point eating calories without taking on water to digest and transport it. Little and often remains key, and if you’re going to be working hard and sweating over a short ride, replacing salts and water becomes more important than replacing calories. Effervescent electrolyte tabs are an easy and cost-effective way to replace those salts, and can easily be taken with you to add to a fresh bottle later in the day. On a short, hard ride in warm conditions you may need as much as 1,000ml per hour, but on longer rides in more ‘British’ conditions, 500ml/hour is likely to be enough

After the ride

After exercise your body’s stores of glycogen will be depleted, and the sooner you replace them the sooner you will be fully recovered. There is a 30-minute window following exercise when the gut is particularly receptive to food, so eating as soon as possible is crucial. A recovery drink is an efficient way to replace both calories and water, but like other sports foods they are expensive. Plenty of water and some carbohydrate-rich food like a sandwich will also be effective; it is timing that makes the difference, so eat something before you do anything else!

Protein is required to repair and rebuild muscles after the stress of exercise, but don’t make it the main event as carbohydrate is more important. The humble peanut butter and jam sandwich, for example, contains sugars, plenty of carbs and a decent amount of protein.

Some Culinary Inspiration

You should be noticing a theme here. Sports nutrition brands are very keen to promote the idea that you need to down handfuls of gels and recovery drinks in order to ride well, but outside of elite competition they really aren’t necessary. In the past year or so I’ve made a concerted effort to move away from pre-packaged, dry foods towards more ‘real’ food that I can make at home and which I actually enjoy eating. Not only has it reduced the amount of processed sugar that I eat, eating itself feels like less of a chore when on the bike, and it has also led to some improved race results on the back of legs that felt full of energy.

The catalyst for that change was a book called 'Feed Zone Portables', which contains an odd combination of nutritional science and DIY recipes that make for interesting reading if you enjoy delving a little deeper into how your body works and how you can help it to perform. There are also plenty of blogs and other books out there to give you some inspiration for simple foods using cheap ingredients. My favourite has been sticky rice cakes: imagine a flapjack made using cooked sticky (sushi-style) rice rather than oats, which can be flavoured with sweet or savoury ingredients, prepared in minutes and easily divided into portions to keep you fuelled for a set amount of time. I used them and a few other simple foods to get me through this year’s Strathpuffer 24hr race in January, and suffered none of the stomach upsets that I used to when using more sport-specific foods.

We’ve only touched the surface here of an area of sports science that I find very interesting, but putting these things into practise can and will make a difference to your riding, whether racing or riding for fun. The next time you find yourself fading and making mistakes towards the end of a ride, have a quick think about how much you’ve eaten and drunk in the previous hour. With knowledge of why your body is doing what it’s doing, you can take steps towards fixing it! Could the curse of the ‘last run of the day’ be related to poor nutrition? Could the perfect ride food be an effective way to prevent crash-related injuries? Don’t be afraid to experiment, keep notes on what works (and what doesn’t) and most importantly remember to make eating enjoyable!

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