The information in this post has been revised and enhanced in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on Amazon.com. The enhancements include increased attention given to how fats are processed during the ride, an easy-to-calculate metric for evaluating whether different foods are likely to make for good on-the-bike eating, and an extended section on keeping hydrated during the ride. For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.
I’m continually amazed at the things I see cyclists eat during and after rides but am never surprised to see the effects ranging from loss of energy, through loss of concentration leading to mistakes and sometimes injury, to a full-fledged bonk. The basic roles played by glycogen storage, blood glucose and the extraction of glucose from ingested carbohydrates are well understood as is what you need to do to avoid nutrition-based problems while you’re riding. That doesn’t stop riders from falling prey to these problems all of the time, however. Sometimes cyclist’s ideas about nutrition are based more on currently popular nutritional fads than sound knowledge. Sometimes riders have an emotional commitment to eating particular foods and don’t want to change. And sometimes you know what to do but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. Whatever the reason, ignoring basic endurance nutrition almost always means trouble.
As detailed in another post, muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply. The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. If you are going to ride more than 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity riding, such as strenuous hill climbing, on a ride of less than 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the ride.
What kind of food should you eat? The answer is well known and well supported by decades of research into endurance athletics. Carbohydrates. Why carbohydrates? Primarily because their chemical structure is such that they can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose. Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs and fats might seem to be an especially good source of energy because fats have roughly twice the number of calories as carbs or proteins. The problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient. You have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs. In fact, fat metabolism (the process of breaking the fat down) requires carbohydrate that could have been more efficiently burned for glucose if wasn’t used to break down the fat. Moreover, and possibly of more importance to you while you’re on the bike, it takes a fairly long time to extract glucose from fat or protein. If you eat fat or protein loaded food during a ride, the ride may well be over by the time the fats and proteins have been processed to the point where you can get energy from them. In the meantime, all the energy used in breaking down the fats hasn’t been available for powering the muscles. Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to keep going on the bike. They are absolutely essential for the long-distance cyclist.
Where do you get the carbs you need during a long ride? Some high-carb foods like pasta and rice are impractical to eat during a ride; you need high carb, low fat foods that you can easily carry with you on the bike. Good on-the-bike foods include dried fruit like raisins or dates, bagels, and low fat bite-sized cookies. Energy bars are a terrific source of carbs. For example, a single Powerbar has 45 grams of carbohydrate and only 2 grams of fat. There are also energy gels made specifically for endurance athletes such as Power Gel or Goo that have very high doses of carbs. If you eat high density carb supplements like energy bars or gel, make sure to drink plenty of water with them or they will sit like sludge in your stomach and you won’t get the quick transfer of carbs into blood glucose you need. Another excellent source of carbs are sports drinks like Gatorade. These drinks are usually loaded with carbohydrates and although they are marketed as important sources of electrolytes, the carbs they supply are probably of much more importance for the endurance cyclist.
When do you eat? A common cycling mantra is “Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty”. This is excellent advice. By the time the body reacts to low levels of fuel or fluid and sends hunger and thirst signals it’s too late. Rather than stopping and eating a large amount of food (such as lunch) mid ride, nibble high carb foods frequently throughout the ride. This not only provides immediate glucose, it can help protect the body’s glycogen stores; if the muscles are burning glucose from the low-fat fig newton you just ate, they’re not burning your stored glycogen. Try to ingest some carbohydrates every 30 minutes or so. Start eating during your first hour on the bike. The sooner you begin drawing needed energy from food intake the longer you can keep a reserve of stored glycogen.
How do you carry the food? Eating on the bike isn’t easy, especially in the first hour when you probably won’t feel hungry. Stopping to eat makes eating even more of a hassle which makes it more likely you’ll skip it. Bad idea. When pros like the rider in the picture at the top of this post ride in a race, they have feed zones where they pick up a musette bag filled with enough food to get them through the next segment of the race. You won’t have this luxury so you’ll have to carry nibble food in a fanny pack or your rear jersey pockets and learn to eat while you ride. Because I don’t like to hassle with getting food out of wrappers or putting uneaten food away while I’m riding, I usually bring bite-sized foods with me on the bike. If I have something larger like a Powerbar, I cut it up into bite-sized pieces before the ride. To get at food easily I put it in a baggie and then roll the baggie up without sealing it. When it’s time for food, I simply unroll the baggie, reach in and pull out something to eat. No fuss, no muss and no garbage like food wrappers to put away when I’m done. It takes a surprising amount of practice to get in the habit of eating regularly on the bike. Practicing eating may sound like a crazy idea but it’s very easy to forget and run into trouble later. Note the time your ride starts and make yourself nibble some food every 30 minutes.
What’s the best kind of food to eat on the bike? Disciplining yourself to eat by the clock on the bike is difficult. It can be a hassle to get out the food, riding with food in your mouth can be unpleasant, and sometimes eating can be the last thing you feel like doing. For all of these reasons one of the most important considerations when deciding what kind of food you should bring with you on the bike is whether or not you’ll actually eat it when the time comes. Having some kind of goo, gel or energy bar with you that is marketed as “scientifically proven” to be the optimal energy source for the endurance athlete and is endorsed by famous cyclists is useless if you won’t eat it because you think the stuff tastes like shit or feels disgusting in your mouth. It’s easy to find an excuse not to eat when you’re on the bike. Bring food that is mainly carbs but bring food you like. It’s better to get a little fat with your carbs by eating a low-fat bite sized cookie than getting no carbs at all because the thought of a mouthful of Goo makes you want to puke. Experiment with different foods to find a combination that is high in carbs and low in fats and proteins that you will eat while you’re on the bike.
Can I have too many carbs? If you’re going to be ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate during the course of a ride, you should be aware that high concentrations of carbohydrate in the stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea. The more you rely on dense carb sources like gels and energy bars, the more you’re likely to run into this problem. If you listen to live broadcasts from multi-day stage races like the Tour de France you will frequently hear reports of professional riders that are having gastrointestional problems during the race. Individuals vary widely in their sensitivity to carbohydrate concentration so you will have to experiment to find your limits. If you’re feeling nauseous, drink water to reduce the concentration of carbohydrate in your stomach and lengthen your feed time until you feel better.
What happens if I don’t eat? Ingesting carbs while you’re cycling isn’t always easy and it it isn’t always fun but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to have the energy you need to finish your ride. Failing to take in the carbs you need can lead to pronounced losses of energy and strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on around you, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task. In other words, you could bonk. Not eating can turn a pleasant ride into an unpleasant one or a challenging ride into a nightmare. Eat before you’re hungry and continue eating throughout the ride.
The ride’s over, now what? If your’re going to ride for two or more days in a row, what you eat iimediately after a ride is as important as what you eat during the ride. Find out about post-ride recovery here.
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Hi there. Thanks for your article – it’s most helpful. I am new to cycling and am writing a weblog about it too. I’ve been struggling with getting enough energy on longer rides, and even tried a bit of eating on the bike on my last ride, but still felt shockinly low on energy. Before taking up cycling I’ve been more used to high impact stuff for an hour of less, and I know how to eat for that, but cycling is the opposite. I certainly haven’t been eating every half hour, it’s a wonder I made it through yesterday’s ride (which was 5hrs) without passing out. I suppose I just didn’t imagine it would have to eat so often. Your article has been really helpful, and I guess I’ll have to get myself a handlebar bag, or sow some back pockets into my t-shirt and stock up on snacks. I’ll also share this article on my page. Thanks again.
Thanks for the kind words. If you don’t want to weight your bike down with handlebar or seat bags, standard cycling jerseys have rear pockets. I use a small fanny pack for inner tubes, a multi-tool and food. I keep the pack at the small of my back while riding and pull it around to the front when I want to get something to eat. It makes it easy to get your food without stopping.
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Your blog has really helped me get a better grasp on the nutrition needed for cycling and you seem very wise. I tried the sludge and hated it, and i have trouble eating (jelly beans, fig newtons,) while riding simply because it dries out your mouth – Is there any reason not to just put Endurox R4 in one of your bottles and “eat” that instead of food? I think that would be much better. Any thoughts?
Kyle, thanks for the kind words.
Drinking carbs while you’re riding is not only a good idea, it’s the easiest and fastest way to get the carbs broken down into glucose and into your bloodstream.
You could drink Endurox on the bike if you wanted. The company that makes Endurox also makes a product called Accelerade which they claim is formulated to drink while you’re riding as opposed to afterwards. I don’t know how valid their claims are or whether there really is an important difference between Endurox and Accelerade as far as what you get out of it on the bike. We drink Accelerade while riding because if we drank Endurox for several hours during a long ride, we wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about chugging down another big hit of it immediately after the ride for post-ride recovery. The change in taste is usually welcome by that point.
Another option is to drink the typical commercial sports drinks like Gatorade which are loaded with carbs as well.
As far as a the problems of eating with a dry mouth, whatever you eat on the bike it’s a good idea to follow it with a good amount of water. This helps speed the breakdown of the food into usable blood glucose in the stomach. It also solves the dry mouth problem and keeps you hydrated. With concentrated carb products like Goo or Powerbars, water is especially important as the energy food will sit in your stomach like sludge without water.
There are a couple of possible problems with drinking your carbs while riding that I know about. First, it’s easy to take in too many carbs when you drink them. People differ in their ability to process carbs without experiencing nausea. If you find yourself feeling quesy, back off the carb drink and drink water.
Second, sweet things tend to taste sweeter after prolonged exercise. Carb drinks can feel cloying in your mouth after awhile. Continuing to take in carbs while breaking up the taste with some solid food can help with this.
Finally, on multi-day cycling events a steady liquid diet on the bike can be hard to take. If you feel like you’d like some solid food, have some. Just make sure it’s the right kind of food to eat on the bike.
You need to LIST the foods to eat!
Everywhere I read it always says High in Carbs, low in fat….. and the talk goes on and on.
OK, so list the foods that would be good to eat BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER a ride.
What are they…
I’m always somewhat baffled by comments like this one that ask for a list of what to eat before, during and after long-distance cycling.
One possible answer is to go back and reread the this post on Eating on the Bike which has several specific suggestions about the kinds of things you can eat on the bike (dried fruit, bagels, low-fat cookies, energy bars, gels etc.) along with some consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of each.
A better answer is to read the nutrition labels on the food you’re thinking about eating on the bike. They not only have all the info you need to decide what’s good to eat and what isn’t once you understand how carbs, fats and proteins work to provide the glucose needed to fuel exercise, they give you this info in a format that’s easy to understand.
Consider what you would like to eat, what you will actually eat on the bike every 30 mins or so, and then read the nutrition labels to figure out what will properly fuel your ride and what won’t.
The point of these nutrition-oriented posts is not to provide lists of what to eat and what not to eat. Everybody’s tastes are different and it’s more important that you choose on-the-bike food that does the job and that you will actually eat than that you carry with you a baggie of food from somebody’s list that you won’t eat because you hate it.
The point of the posts is to give cyclists the info they need to make intelligent decisions about nutrition to fuel their athletic activity. It’s a “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life” kind of thing.
Sorry to mention but you got that wrong, the saying actually goes like this ; “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit in a boat drinking beer all day”. Sounds more like how things really are…
I understand Keith’s complaint though, I was also never interested by what is in the different foods that we eat, I mean before I took up cycling last spring of course. The answer to him is google it and you will find lists of foods that contain what you want or don’t.
Otherwise good and easy advice. Thanks.
I’m generally pretty good with eating on the bike. On the very long rides of the 200 km to 400 km type I consume about 100 calories every 20 km (I understand a time based approach would be better). Every 50-80 km I need a stop to refill the water bottles and at those occations I sometimes buy some extra food or have a bottle of Gatorade. I’d estimate this might add up to another 50% of caloric intake over the ride.
More recently, I ride with a Garmin and it tells me the calories I burn while riding. By and large I find that I consume only about half the calories I burn while riding. It still gets me over the very long distances w/o bonking.
Now, that’s a long story to ask a short question: Is there any scientific advice as to how many calories to consume as a percentage of the calories burned during activity? I’m a little surprised that about 50% seems to do the trick for me…? Surely, you wouldn’t need 100% because ‘some’ energy will come from mobilizing stored fat. Any advice/ logic on the ratio here?
I am 45 and I am going to do 8-days Absa Cape Epic race in March 2012
It is going to be the first multi-stage race for me.
The friendly style of your articles, humor and scientific info makes a great composition.
Thank you SO MUCH!
Dmrity, how did your ride go in March?
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Please can u tell me what it is I should be eating apart from gels and energy bars ?
100g of dates are cheaper and have more carbs than energy bars
You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the best sites on the internet. I am going to recommend this website!
I thought his was brilliant. I’m restarting road-riding and wanted the essentials on nutrition – you gave it all. Thanks
Thank you for this. It has really been the hardest thing for me about cycling. I have been very careful about labels because of my weight issue. I ride a lot and find that I need to eat so much more and drink soooo much more than I would on a normal day. On a day to day basis I really must be very careful of carbohydrates. Next Sunday is my second metric century ride and I will definitely take your advice. Hopefully this will make a difference in my energy level.
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now,i know what food to bring with me when i go long distance biking.before,i used to bring chicken breast, and wheat bread every time i went biking,and water.fortunately i felt good during my ride.i would like to thank you for sharing your knowledge about foods that can be eaten on the bike.cycling serves as my cardiovascular fitness training,and i lift weights on week days.i would go biking every sunday morning.
I have spent my day, hard at work, at work…reading your blogs. love them all. I found them by googling what to eat after riding. I had a bowl of Omega 3 granola cereal with honey, blueberries, a banana, yogurt and some home milk (I’m Canadian, not sure what you guys call Homogenized milk?) anyway, I did the nutritional calculator and found the carbs were bang on but the protein was low so tonight I think I will add some nuts or maybe just a spoonful of peanut butter….
now I need to find a recipe for home made power bar, I am riding about 90 minutes a day, just back into cycling after too long a delay and too much of a spare tire developing around my waist. I am sweating like a pig but have increased my water intake during the day to compensate.
tonight I will bring gatorade instead of water, or get another bottle cage for my bike and have one for water and one for gatorade.
I am hoping this will help me more during the ride when I ready to roll over and let the vultures pick at me!
keep up the excellent blog and I would love to see something about riding in extreme humidity!
Thanks for the kind words. I find that the deeper I get into the ride, the less tolerance I have for the kind of sweetness you get with exercise drinks like Gatorade. I always ride with one bottle of an energy drink ( we use Accelerade that we mix to taste) and a bottle of water and I always end up drinking a lot more water than energy drink. In fact I usually take a mouthful of water of clean the sweet taste out of my mouth after every hit of energy drink.
Your comment got me doing some research on riding in heat and humidity. A post about it went up a few days ago and there are a couple more on the topic in the pipeline.
I definitely run into the nausea issues on anything longer than a two hour ride. A usual intake is two bottles of Cytomax to drink and then a Goo Gel, PowerBar, or Goo Bites to eat every 30 min while riding . Other than just switching to water (which is what happens if am in the saddle more than two hours and stop to refill the bottles), do you have any other suggestions for avoiding this? Does it matter what type of carbs are ingested? I am training for my next century in a few weeks and would love to test out some other options.
Thanks for this info as well as for the info on post-ride eating (especially the 30 min window, since I usually am spending that time drinking more water presently)
Consistent nausea like you have described often caused by a concentration of carbohydrate that is too high for your system to handle. People vary a great deal in the amount of carbohydrate they can tolerate in the digestive system during exercise. Too much produces nausea. Because the variation across individuals is so high, there ar no sensible rules about how much carbohydrate to ingest during a ride. Everyone has to experiment and see what works for them.
You might try eating food that is not as dense in carbs as goos and gels. Also, if you eat goos and gels it’s important to drink a lot of water to dilute them. If you don’t, they tend to sink to the bottom of the stomach and sit there as slow-to-digest sludge. This may be one of the factors causing the nausea you have experienced.
I notice no one has really mentioned bananas as a good source of carbs for rides. Is this not the case? Is the release of glucose not quick enough to the muscles from bananas?
Bananas are a traditional carb source for cyclists. The glycemic index for bananas varies depending on how ripe the banana is. Unripe bananas have a type of starch which humans don’t have an enzyme to digest. This can have some health benefits but it’s useless for producing blood glucose during a ride. Ripe bananas are considered a low glycemic index food and would serve well as a carb source if eaten before the ride or in the early stages of a longer ride.
Very informative response. Thank you for that.
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Hi, just wanted to say thanks for this really great article. I’m new to “more than just commuter” cycling and LOVING my recently-acquired road-bike. Cycling is so different to any other activity I’ve done before and I’ve never had to eat during exercise before. Always thought I was fairly cluey about nutrition but cycling for 4-5 hours (or potentially more) really makes you think differently. This is a really informative and well-explained article, I look forward to exploring more of your blog when I can.
Hi! I just wish to offer you a big thumbs up for your excellent info you have got here on this post. I’ll be coming back to your website for more soon.
Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I’ll send this article to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have a great read. Thanks for sharing!
Sage advice on the gastrointestinal problems. I was having such problems when overdosing on my homemade energy goo for a while–I felt energetic, but just nauseous. Stopping and drinking water fixed it immediately. Great article!
Brilliant Brilliant article. Thanks for this. I am planning my first long’ish ride (60mi) on my first road bike and this was very useful
Thanks for the kind words and have fun with the ride.
Hi, this all was very informative, so thanks!. Question though — I want to burn fat and am planning to go on a long distance ride that should take 3-4 hours. Isn’t it better to minimize the amount of carbs, so energy will come from my fat store? I’m kind of confused on when to eat what
This is a common mistake. If you go on a 3 to 4 hour ride you will burn fat no matter what you eat on the ride. Your fat metabolism (the rate at which you burn fat) is also likely to be elevated the day after you ride as well. However, you don’t want to rely on deriving glucose from the breakdown of stored fat to fuel your exercise during the ride. Breaking down fat is a long and energy intensive process and it just isn’t quick enough to provide you with all of the glucose you will need to fuel your muscles during the ride. The carbs you eat during the ride can be broken down much more quickly and much more efficiently than stored body fat and can power you through the ride without bonking if you consume carbs properly while riding.
You’re not going to lose an appreciable amount of weight on a single 3 to 4 hour bike ride. If you ride regularly, however, you can lose weight and keep it off. As much as the multi-billion dollar fad diet industry would like you to believe otherwise, losing weight is really pretty simple. If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. If you try to do this by simply cutting down on the calories you take in (dieting without exercise) you will find that your metabolism adjusts so that you can fuel the same amount of activity with a lower expenditure of energy. You’ll stop losing weight and will have to cut your intake more and more with little or no effect on weight loss. On the other hand, if you burn calories through regular and intense exercise it’s easy to have your calorie burn be higher than than your calorie intake no matter what you eat when you’re not riding.
Thanks for the feedback
Which was equally fascinating as well as insightful!
Thank you for sharing your views with us.
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You sir, are a good man. Thanks a million for sharing your knowledge. I’m an amateur thus far (just finished an 80km ride—my longest ever 🙂 and am really looking forward to implementing this knowledge.
You’re the best!
Thanks very much for the kind words. Congrats on the 80km ride! If you can do 80, you can do 100 You’re on the way.
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this is an illuminating article and a great blog. i’m an amateur cyclist and an indepenedent programmer about to start writing an iphone/ipod app for cyclists. i would love to share some thoughts with you, letting you know what i’m thinking to include in it and get your opinion about it.
please write me an email if you find this interesting.
Hi. Thanks for the info. Others have asked for details about WHAT to eat, and I understand your answer “Eat what you will eat”. My question is HOW MUCH and AT WHAT RATE How many grams of carbs or calories should I plan to consume per hour, or per 10 mi or per 20 km or same. I just tried to “eat on the bike” and a couple of low fat fig newtons cut in quarters goes down pretty well. But I’m just practicing now and want to know what my goal is. Oh, the “big” goal is to do a century ride this fall. Thanks for the great posts.
Thanks for the kind words. I don’t have a precise answer for you here and this may a case where excessive precision isn’t possible or even desirable. Exactly how much carbohydrate you should ingest every x minutes is going to depend on many variables such as how hard you are riding, what the terrain and weather conditions are like, and whether your rear wheel is slightly rubbing on your brake pad lol. Basically, you need to take in enough carbohydrate to provide the glucose to fuel the amount of energy you are expending.
The way we handle this is to more or less eat on a 30 minute schedule. I usually eat 1 “portion” of whatever I’ve brought with me and feel like eating at the moment. That can be a small handful of something like dried fruit, or a section of power bar or a low-fat cookie. If I think I may not have eaten enough solid food, I supplement with energy drink. What I eat and when we eat depends a lot on road conditions. I don’t want food in my mouth when I’m climbing or riding hard, for example. We eat sometime around 30 min mark when the road lets us dial back the intensity to mess around with the eating process.
I think a good way to approach the when and how much to eat problem is to do what it sounds like you’re already doing: Pay attention to your body, monitor for signs of glucose debt (i.e., early indicators a bonk may be coming), and practice different approaches to eating until you find what works well for you. If you begin to experience glucose debt, the lesson is that you should have eaten something 10 or 15 minutes ago so you need to adjust your schedule accordingly. Eating small amounts more frequently is likely to produce a smoother, more glucose-supported ride than eating large amounts less frequently.
Don’t let the rest stops on an organized century dictate when you eat. Your energy needs are not likely to exactly match the rest stop locations. When we ride organized centuries we often find ourselves stopping at the rest stops more for social than for nutritional reasons.
Thanks. I have kind of fallen into just this approach. And I have to say that I did 40 mi the day before I found your blog and felt terrible (no food, no energy drink). I had all of the symptoms you describe: no energy, no enthusiasm, negative attitude etc. I did 45 a week later (food + energy drink) and still was (relatively) fresh at the end. And it only took me 5 minutes longer on essentially the same course as the week before. Keep up the great work!
By the way, the 100 miler (Shenandoah Century, Staunton VA) went well in terms of riding and endurance. I wouldn’t have been prepared without your sage advice about riding while eating. In fact, if I don’t eat on a ride, I really feel it now, so the food always goes along. Thanks again.
My husband and I rode RAGBRAI last year, and I struggled with bonking almost every day! It was awful … the weather was very hot (high 90’s every day) and I just did NOT want to eat. We’re doing RAGBRAI again in two weeks and I intend to be MUCH better prepared. Your nutrition blogs have been very helpful to me; I’m going to test the eating plan on a century ride tomorrow 🙂 We’ve done many metric century rides (100kms), but never 100miles. I especially like the suggestions, such as cutting bars up and putting them in an ‘open’ baggie for easy access. Thanks for all your help!
Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you found the posts useful. Good luck with the century and have even better luck with RAGBRAI. On RAGBRAI you’ll be riding every day so make sure you get the carbs in your system in the first 30 mins after the ride each day and you should be strong throughout the week. Wish I could ride it with you :-).
I am taking 3 powerbars, 4 gels, 4x22oz energy drink for 3-4hrs ride.
If my plan is to lose weight by burning more calories, do I gain weight by adding these intakes? Or, I should try to take the less intakes?
There is no way to answer this question. For some info on losing weight while cycling please read the recent post on Riding he Bike to Lose Weight. You will lose weight if the calories you ingest are less than the calories you burn. Whether or not the calories in the food you mentioned will be offset by the calories you burn depends on many things such as the combined weight of you, your bike and everything you’re carrying, how fast you ride, whether you have a head wind, a tail wind or no wind at all, whether you’re climbing, descending or riding flats and so forth. If you take the advice given in Riding the Bike to Lose Weight to heart, you should think about food in terms of whether or not it will provide the energy you need to complete your ride at the level of intensity you want to achieve. You should think about weight loss in terms of how you can ride longer, faster, stronger, harder, more often in order to burn more calories. You shouldn’t think about weight loss in terms of the calories you’re eating to support your ride.
Having said that, the food you listed seems like a lot to me to support a 3 to 4 hour ride but whether it is too much, too little or just right depends on how many calories you burn during the ride.
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I have have looking for the same solutions many of you are discussing. Recently I started using Generation Ucan.It is a super starch product with great results. I was tired of carrying bars and gels that were difficult for me to digest and didn’t really help me get a level and sustained energy flow. Been using Ucan for about 3 months and so far it is my one stop product. My rides are usually 2 to 6 hours and I refuel every 2 hours and I am good to go. Just wanted to pass on a new and so far great product. Good luck everyone.
Thanks for the comment and your kind words in comments you’ve made on some other posts.
I would recommend being somewhat careful about what you are willing to believe about Generation Ucan and their “superstarch”. I hope to have a main post about this up by the end of the week.
I’m new to cycling and am just getting to the point of being able to ride for about an hour and a half. I drink lots of water and I also drink a small bottle of orange juice about midway through. It seems to work really well for me. Is there any reason for me to switch to Gatorade or some other product? Seems like OJ would be a quick source of liquid carbs too.
Thanks for your great blog. I’ve marked it as a favorite!
Take a look at the nutrition info for orange juice and various sports drinks. Regular Gatorade gas about 1.75 grams of carbs per fluid ounce and fresh orange juice has about 3 grams of carbs per ounce. Lots more carbs in the OJ so just looking at carbs alone, you’re doing much better with the OJ than with Gatorade.
Have a serious question regarding losing weight – I am 62yrs and at present I can ride a 4 hr training ride with my club and do it simply on a pint of squash when I wake up and a mug of black coffee -in other words no breakfast.I carry a couple of bars with me and only 1 small bottle containing nothing but sqash – we do 80 miles ave speed of 18.5mph.
I do not eat bars on ride (just carry in case I need them) and often drink only half of the bottle.
Although riders in group are younger ave age about 35 – I finish often strongest.Last week they all bonked with 10 miles to go and I was fine – when I get home I am not starving.
I am very fit covering at present 250 miles a week.
I do the ‘no food’ thing in the hope that it will help me to lose weight.Do you subscribe to suggestion that what I am doing is ‘old hat’ or if I eat I would go faster (if I did that I would be in more trouble than present for making speed higher!)
Gerry, thanks for the question. It’s a good one that comes up a lot. First, however, I’m confused about something here. If you’re regularly riding 250 miles a week at an average speed in the neighborhood of 18.5 mph, why are you concerned with losing weight? With these numbers weight shouldn’t be an issue because you have to be burning a lot of calories riding. Your caloric burn should be high enough to offset any concerns about weight unless you are offsetting that burn by eating prodigious amounts of food when you are not on the bike.
I’ve come across a lot of people who think they should eat as little as possible while they are riding because they want to lose weight. Riding the bike is a weight loss activity for them and they don’t want to mitigate the weight-loss benefit by taking in calories. I think this is almost exactly the wrong way to look at the relationship between riding the bike (or any other form of sustained regular exercise) and weight loss. Weight loss is a simple function of caloric intake and caloric burn over the course of the day. You burn more calories than you eat in a day and, over time, you will lose weight. Well then, not eating while you’re on the bike reduces your caloric intake for the day so it’s good, right?
Probably not and almost certainly not for a rider who is riding the distance and intensity you are. Why not? If you don’t eat (and drink water) enough to support your ride at maximum levels your performance measured objectively will decline. Your perceived effort may not decline but the performance level you get out of that effort will. You will be riding slower and shorter per unit time if you do not have enough water and glucose. If your ride is fully nutritionally supported, you will be able to ride harder and faster. (Whether the rider has the will to ride harder and faster is a different question :-). If you ride harder and faster you will burn more calories and this increased burn should more than offset the calories you ingested to fully nutritionally support the ride. The time to adjust the caloric burn/caloric intake ratio by decreasing intake is when you’re off the bike, not on it.
If you have time and interest, take a look at the set of posts on eating after the ride, hydration and on weight loss and cycling for more detail on this.
Thankyou for such a quick reply.
I will take up your advice and read the other topics – I am chuffed that I have come across your site.Well done and much appreciated.
To answer your question and me to put another your way – being 62 ( I weigh just under 12 stone and 5’9″) my climbing is rubbish compared to my strength on the flat -therefore I think if I could be a tad under 11 stone it would make a big difference to my climbing ( and I do have a bit of a gut around the middle -not much but not impressive for a 54min 25 miler)
Also another reason I do it -not all the time by the way – I ride 50,100 and this is the one 12 hour time-trials and am I right in thinking that I am teaching my body to burn fat possibly getting it used to it in a sought of regular pattern hence I can now do these training rides ( I call them Tempo rides and ride on HR ave between 70/80% so never riding flat out and am quite comfortable at that effort)
I do know where you are coming from re eat and more energy hence ride harder/longer/ etc
but I am thinking along these lines of ‘teaching the body to burn fat’ in preparation for the longer time-trials.
Oh another point – you have answered a question why I am so nauseus in the 12 hour TT – to much carbs.I do have a problem that after about 150 miles I really struggle to eat anything or even drink -in the Welsh 12 hr champs I managed a PB of 250 miles BUT hardly eat or drank after that 150 mark – if only I could have managed to keep eating and drinking I know I could cover at least another 10-15 miles.
That is very beneficial information.
Thanks so much! Great information. Don’t ask me why raisins were never part of my cycling nutrition. Thank you so much!
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Some interesting comments on nutrition,but i heard a famous rider once say, bread and jam and away you go . I had never rode over 20miles before,but,for charity did a St helens to Hartlepool ride, 148 mile , took me 15 hrs, although kept getting lost . Kept eating waffles and jam,and drinking water. Got there sore but not hungary and im 59.
I did the pretty flat Amish ride with the goal of doing 100 miles, but I ran into the muscle monster (cramps) at 85. I was drinking constantly during the ride and took in some food at the rest stops; however, I am sure that I did not eat enough during the ride. Will eating like you suggested help prevent cramping–a scourged that frequents me at about 80 miles. I am truly looking for the holy grail for this.
Thanks for your question, it’s a good one. The topic of cramping during exercise is treated with greater detail in Nutrition for Cyclists but the short story is that we don’t really have a very good understanding of what causes cramping during exercise. There’s a common belief that fluid loss through sweating causes cramping but if you survey the scientific literature you find that the evidence that supports the dehydration theories is very weak and the evidence that contradicts these theories is much stronger. There are a variety of neuromuscular theories of cramping that have stronger scientific support but the mechanism(s) the produces cramping are not well understood. Based on our current knowledge, there is no known way, nutritional or otherwise, to prevent cramping.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there is a tried and true method for relieving cramps when they occur. Get of the bike and gently stretch the affected muscles for a few minutes. When you get back on the bike, start easy and you can ramp back up to your normal cadence fairly quickly. Monitor the muscles that crampe while you’re riding and if you feel another cramp coming on, back off the strain on that muscle by doing things like easing back on your cadence, shifting to an easier gear or changing up the muscle groups you’re using to pedal so the muscle that wants to cramp isn’t doing very much work.
Great post. I’m experiencing a few of these issues as well..
Thank you for the great info, it helped me to remember what I have been taking for granted, as far as on bike nutrition. I has helped me to remember the importance of on the bike carbs.
In the last 4 year I have cycled over 40,000 mile with over a million feet of climbing and completed 3 Bicycle Tours of Colorado. I’m 56 and have cycled for 40 years. Yet, on my long Sunday ride last weekend, I BONKED 100%. The worst I have ever had. I only carried my two water bottles (with only water) and ate only one small orange for the entire 65 miles with 4600 feet of climbing.
Three miles from the top of the final climb I bonked and could hardly keep the bike going. The symptoms were exactly as you described and I knew I was in trouble. I had nothing else with me to add carbs into my system and where I cycle in the rural northern Arizona mountains, there are no places to get anything. Usually I carry plenty to eat, but on this day I was lazy and forgot to put the carbs in my jersey pocket. It took me hours to recover, after I finished limping my way home.
I will not forget my carbs again for a long long time. Gels, Bars, Oranges, Cookies, maybe the entire grocery store on my next thousand rides.
Wow… Interesting blog… Some really good question from people and answer from yourself.
I am not regular cyclist, however I have always cycled in the past. This weekend I am cycling the Thames River for a Stroke charity 50 miles or 80km (not a lot to most but a mountain to myself). I have not had a lot time to train. Although the few miles I have done have been really good and felt good.
I would like to know if you have any idea as to what type of food I should eat as i do not like raisins and fruit sweets …. I would just like a bit more advice..
Thanks for the kind words.
The essential part of eating on the bike is that you need food that is high in carbohydrate and low in fat and protein. There are many endurance sport products like gels or energy bars that have these characteristics. There are also many that claim to have these characteristics and don’t. You have to read the nutrition labels. There is a simple formula you can use to help with this along with several examples in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During, and After the Ride that I published as an ebook through Amazon. Here’s a link to the book on the UK Amazon Site.
Some other types of foods you might consider are dried fruit, bagels, or low fat cookies. Again, read the nutrition labels to see if the specific type of fruit, bagel or cookie you are considering has good carb vs fat values. Eat small amounts frequently, prepare the food beforehand so it’s easy to eat on the bike, and make sure you bring something you will eat even though you might not feel like eating. There’s more detailed info about all of this in Nutrition for Cyclists.
Best of luck with the Thames ride. I wish I could do it with you.
I am REALLY thankful to have come across this article.
I am planning to leave for a 5000mile tour (just over 2 months in length) and you probably save my life. I have grown accustomed to having a simple pop-tart (aka: carbs and sugar packets) or two in the back of my jersey on longer rides, but always went 2 hours or so before breaking into one. Now I’ll nibble more often!
This article/advice is very carb heavy, but when would you recommend taking in some good proteins and fats?
>=< Bikes & Bows
Thank you for the kind words. The ride you’re planning sounds wonderful. It also is going to stress your capabilities in ways you may have not experienced yet. Nutrition for the ride you’re planning is an entirely different animal from nutrition for every-day living. When riding day after day like you will be doing, what you consume and the time course over which you consume it is essential if you want to be ready to ride the next day. In general fats and proteins are better consumed between rides. Proteins and especially fats take a much longer time to metabolize into usable glucose than carbs. Depending on how long you are on the bike and how early in the ride you consume the proteins and fats, the glucose you get from them may become available long after the ride is finished. Also, the process of metabolizing fats uses glucose that would be better used fueling your muscles.
If I may, I’d recommend the e-book I published through Amazon called Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During, and After the Ride. It contains a lot of just the kind of information you are going to need to support your ride and as an e-book you can always have access to it if you bring a smartphone or tablet with you. Here’s the link to the book.
Best of luck on your ride. It’s a great thing to do.
Thanks for all the great advice for us cyclists. You have given me the information I was needing for my long cycling trips. I have experienced the cramping and fatigue from not stretching beforehand and eating more frequently throughout my ride. I went onto to complete a 55 mile ride but felt muscle tightness and fatigue the last 20 miles. I did stop and stretch and that alleviated the cramps. I will definitely be more prepared and ready for future rides.
Sports drinks are liquid ergogenic influences that enhance bicycle endurance activities.
It is quite easy to make a gallon of homemade ergogenic electrolyte replacement sports drink that costs 85% less than commercial brands.
Jug, 1 gallon with a lid; Spoon, measuring ¼ teaspoon; Funnel, medium
Two packages of powdered flavor aid mix, unsweetened
Sugar or honey
Table salt or sea salt
Morton’s Lite Salt (potassium)
Epson Salt (magnesium)
Green Tea (optional, ingredients w/caffeine and more potassium, etc…)
Method: dump together:
2 packages of the flavor-mix into jug, rinse the packages out and into the jug
1 cup sugar (plus or minus amount, suit to taste)
¼ tsp table\sea salt
¼ well rounded tsp Lite Salt
¼ tsp Epson Salt
2 cups very warm water
Shake it up!
Add (optional) Green Tea (I use 1 Aldies 16oz bottle)
Then maybe top it off with cold water*
*Note: When you are making the sports drink don’t fill the gallon jug completely to the top with the water if, if, you plan to later add ice cubes to the smaller water bottle when you fill it with the mix. Of course using less water to not completely fill the jug makes the mix stronger. Later when ice is added into the individual water bottles, it will dilute the drink back to normal strength.
The one gallon rando- ade mixed with 1 cup of sugar provides about 145 calories per 24 ounce water bottle.
Hi, thanks for the article, I have had a big turn around with eating sultanas on a big ride, your article confirms what I did was right.
I have tried many other foods and different strategies, sultanas worked, I ate a small packet approximately every 30 minutes, and drank mainly water and some gatorade) I had a large bowl of spaghetti the night before, I rode further and stronger than I possibly thought I could, 160km.
Next ride I’m going to sort out how to carry the sultanas, opening the small box’s and finding somewhere to put the empty box was not practical and silly, thanks again cheers Jeremy.
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