Carbohydrate Loading

This post is adapted from Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During, and After the Ride, a forthcoming ebook which I will be publishing for Kindle on Amazon.com.

Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride can now be purchased on Amazon.com.  For information about the book and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

eating spaghettiWell-organized and popular century rides often offer an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner the night before the ride.  If you go to the dinner, you’re likely to see people putting away enormous plates of pasta and if you ask them why they’re eating so much spaghetti they’ll tell you that they’re carbo loading for the next day’s ride.  What is carbohydrate loading and is eating a lot of spaghetti the night before a big ride the right way to go about it?

The basic idea behind carbohydrate loading is that glycogen stores in the muscles and liver can be increased over the norm by following specific exercise and dietary regimens in the days before a ride.  The increased glycogen stores should then translate into a longer time before fatigue sets in due to glycogen depletion during the ride. There are three recognized carbohydrate loading methods and I will suggest an alternative approach.

The original and most severe method follows a week-long regimen. On the 7th day before the ride, you exercise to exhaustion.  This exercise bout should last a minimum of 90 minutes.  The next 3 days are a carbohydrate depletion phase during which you train lightly while keeping carbohydrate intake at only 10% of your daily caloric intake.  The final 3 days before the big ride are a carbohydrate loading phase.  You continue to train lightly while jacking carbohydrate intake up to 70% of your daily caloric intake.  It’s important not to increase your total caloric intake from the norm over the 6 days of carbohydrate depletion and loading.  During the 3 day depletion phase you replace calories normally consumed in carbohydrates with calories consumed in fats and proteins. During the 3 day loading phase your replace fats and proteins with carbohydrates.

drink-b4-thirsty-mod-4-customThink about this for a minute.  The depletion phase is an extended period of controlled hypoglycemia, essentially a 3 day bonk.  During that time you can be expected to experience all of the negative effects of bonking including weakness and lethargy, anxiety, depression, hostility, feelings of hopelessness and failure, low levels of emotional control, reduced awareness of your surroundings and confused thinking.  In addition, the immune system will be depressed and you will be more susceptible to contracting an illness that may still be present when the ride comes several days later.

A 3 day bonk is hard.  Very hard.  The second method eliminates the bonk by eliminating the depletion phase. On the 7th day before the ride you have a long exercise session but you don’t exercise to exhaustion.  For the next 6 days you engage in progressively lighter exercise sessions each day.  Some people recommend tapering the level of exercise down to a day of rest on the 6th day.  For the first half of this 6 day period you ingest carbohydrates at a normal 55% – 60% of your daily caloric intake.  For the final 3 days you ramp carbohydrate intake up to 70% of your daily caloric intake, again by replacing fats and protein with carbs.

The third method is the easiest of the three. During the week before the big ride you exercise lightly and eat normally.  On the day before the ride you do a very short, 3 minute high intensity workout.  The workout should be made up of a 2.5 minute session at 130% VO2 max which is roughly equivalent to the fastest pace you can maintain over approximately 4 minutes of all-out running or cycling.  Follow this 2.5 minute effort with a 30 second flat-out sprint.  If done properly, this 3 minute workout is going to hurt.  During the following 24 hours ingest 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of lean muscle mass.  Muscle mass can vary greatly depending on age, gender and degree of muscular development.  Based on a very rough average of 35% muscle mass for men and 27% muscle mass for women the carbohydrate intake over the 24 hour period would total approximately 305 grams for a 160 lb. male and 191 grams for a 130 lb. female.

If followed correctly, all three of these methods should produce a markedly enhanced level of glycogen storage on the day of the big ride.  Neither anecdotal reports (which are basically worthless) nor research studies have reached a clear consensus on how much better or worse one method is relative to the others.  The bottom line is that all three methods are effective if followed properly.

baby spaghetti dumpNow, I’ll suggest a fourth method that is usually not discussed in the literature.  Forget about it. Don’t bother with any of this stuff.

Wait . . . what? Consider the kind of riding you do.

If your ride takes less than 90 minutes, carbohydrate loading is a non-issue because proper eating before, during and after your previous ride should have adequately prepared you for the next ride.

If your ride takes longer than 2.5 or 3 hours, you’re going to have to eat during the ride anyway because even perfectly executed carbohydrate loading isn’t going to provide you with sufficient glycogen stores to last for this length of time.  All carbohydrate loading is doing is delaying the time before you have to start eating.

Wiggins eating_croppedIf your ride takes between 1.5 and and 2, maybe 2.5 hours, carbohydrate loading might allow you to get through the ride without ingesting any carbohydrates. But why would you want to do this? If you enjoy rides that last more than 90 minutes you would be much better served by becoming proficient at eating on the bike to fully supply your nutritional needs during the ride. You get better at what you practice and if you find a way to avoid eating on the bike, you’re not going to get better at eating on the bike.

The fundamental goal of cycling nutrition is to provide full nutritional support for your ride.  A competitive race, a long organized or training ride, and a Sunday afternoon toodle around the neighborhood all make different demands on your body but whatever the ride, you will do it better and enjoy it more if you provide the nutritional support the ride needs.  The simplest and most effective way to do this is to develop the habit of ingesting small amounts of carbohydrate regularly during the ride.  The best way to develop the habit is to practice doing it.

If properly carried out, carbohydrate loading can fully support rides lasting 1.5 to 2 hours, maybe a bit more, if you don’t ingest any other carbohydrates during the ride. It’s not much use for rides lasting less than 90 minutes or more than 2, maybe 2.5 hours.  Eating properly during the ride can fully support any kind of ride you want to do. The choice is yours.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating After the Ride

Post ride recovery in Ireland

The information in this post has been revised and substantially enhanced in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on Amazon.com.  The revisions include new information about the relationship between protein and carbohydrates in post-ride recovery based on research published after this post was written. The book also has new sections devoted to rehydration and glycogen, protein, and electrolyte replacement following the first hour after you get off the bike. 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’ve seen this happen time and time again.  Laura and I have had the good fortune to go on several bicycle tours that last one to two weeks.  The tours are advertised for advanced or experienced riders and typically feature hilly or mountainous terrain and daily rides in the 60 to 125 mile range.  You ride from place to place and a van carrys your luggage.  The other riders on the tour are almost always experienced cyclists, at least in the sense that they have been riding for many years and are used to riding long miles.  These tours usually schedule a day or two off when the riders are free to do whatever they want.  This has always puzzled me.  Why would experienced cyclists pay the steep cost of going on one of these tours, go through all the hassle of getting their bike to some exotic location, and then spend a day or two not riding in terrain that provides spectacular cycling?  The people who run these tours obviously know more about it than I do because by the third or fourth day of the tour almost all of the riders are noticeably lacking in energy and enthusiasm, are irritably fretting about why they feel so tired, and are looking forward to the break.  Meanwhile, Laura and I are riding extra miles every day because we’re having so much fun, are fresh and ready to go every morning, and are typically the only ones out on our bikes on the day off.

What’s going on?  Why are we riding more miles with less overall fatigue than almost all of the other riders?  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain the answer lies in post-ride nutrition.  Many of these other riders are active members of their local cycling clubs.  They shine on organized centuries and long weekend rides with members of the club.  After the ride everyone goes out for ice cream or pizza and beer.  They are clueless about post-ride nutrition and have given no thought at all to how what they eat when they get off the bike can affect how they will ride the next day and the day after that.  They finish the first day in glycogen debt and fail to adequately replenish their glycogen stores before the next day’s ride.  Every day the situation gets worse and the riding becomes more unpleasant until by the third or fourth day their blood sugar levels are so low they’re grinding it out with their head down and need a day off to physically and mentally recover.  All of this can be avoided if you pay attention to what’s happening in your body when you get off the bike and take advantage of the opportunity your body gives you to prepare for strenuous activity on the following day.  Most of it comes down to what you eat in the first 30 to 40 minutes after you get off the bike.

When you finish a long ride your glycogen stores are exhausted and you are very likely to have low blood glucose.  Your body responds to the glycogen debt by going into overdrive to replace the missing glycogen.  Excess glucose in the bloodstream is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver.  Under normal circumstances insulin is used in this conversion process.  However, after an extended period of exercise when the muscle glycogen stores are exhausted an abbreviated and accelerated glycogen-storage process kicks into gear that converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles without the need for insulin.  This period of intense glycogen production and storage lasts for 30  to 60 minutes.

In order to take advantage of this brief period of accelerated glycogen storage the system must have blood glucose that can be converted to glycogen.  And there’s the problem.  When you finish a long or intense ride you are almost certainly low on blood glucose.  Your system is ready to rapidly and efficiently replenish your empty glycogen stores but it doesn’t have the glucose it needs to make the glycogen.

The solution is to flood your system with carbohydrates that can be quickly converted to blood glucose which will in turn supply the accelerated glycogen production and storage mechanism with the glucose it needs.  Although the enhanced glycogen production mechanism will operate for roughly 60 minutes after exercise has stopped, keep in mind that it takes time for carbohydrates in the stomach to be broken down into useable blood glucose.  Food you eat during the second half of that 60 minute window may still be in the stomach being digested when the enhanced glycogen-storage process ends.  The first 30 minutes after you get off the bike are critical.  If you are going to fully replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s ride, you must ingest enough carbs during those 30 minutes to flood your system with glucose.  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter what you eat for the rest of the day; you will be building on a weak foundation and you won’t have the glycogen reserves you need to ride with strength day after day.  This cannot be stressed enough; you have to reload your system with carbs during the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

How many carbs do you need to eat during the critical 30 minutes?  Current thinking holds that you should aim to ingest one half gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike.  This is easy to figure out; simply divide your weight in half and eat that many grams of carbs.  For example, I weigh about 160 lbs so I need to eat 80 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike.  There is also some evidence that combining these carbs with protein may facilitate the glycogen production and storage process.  The recommended ratio of carbs to proteins is 4 to 1.  Thus, at 160 lbs I need 80 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein.

Eating enough food to provide this much carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike can be very difficult.  The 30 minute part is much more important than the specific amount of carbs and protein part.  If you can’t manage to choke down the full recommended amount, eat as much as you can, but make absolutely certain you do it in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

You can eat any kind of food you like as long as it’s high in carbs.  Simple carbohydrates that can be more quickly broken down into blood glucose are better than complex carbohydrates that take a longer time because you need to get the glucose in the blood stream within a short window of time.  There are two key factors that will end up driving your 30 minute carbohydrate feast; the food has to be available immediately when you get off the bike, and you have to be willing to eat it.  The carb sources you’ve been eating on the bike will work equally well during this critical 30 minute window but you may be sick and tired of sports drink, energy gel, low-fat fig newtons or whatever you’ve been eating by this time.  Laura and I drink a Endurox - picture from accelsport.comrecovery drink called Endurox that contains carbs and proteins in the recommended 4 to 1 ratio.  We find it’smuch easier to drink a large number of carbs than eat them immediately after a long ride.  It’s also very easy to have the drink ready at the end of the ride.  Endurox comes in a powdered form that you mix with water.  We premeasure the powder, put it in a baggie, and carry it with us on the ride.  Water is almost always available at ride’s end and we simply mix the powder with fresh water in our water bottle and chug it down.  Although the manufacturer would have you believe otherwise, there’s nothing special about Endurox other than that we like the way it tastes.  A number of companies make recovery drinks that provide huge carbohydrate loads for immediate post-exercise glycogen replacement.

After the critical 30 minute window, try to continue to ingest carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the day.  Eat small amounts steadily rather than eating nothing and then pigging out at dinner.  Avoid alcohol because it will interfere with the uptake of glycogen and will also dehydrate you.  Avoiding alcohol is especially important immediately after the ride when the body is in the critical glycogen restocking period.

What you eat during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike is probably the single most important factor affecting how you will fare if you’re riding more than 90 minutes a day for more than 2 days.  If you get the carbs you need during this 30 minute window, you can ride for days and days without problems; if you don’t, you’re most likely going to be tired and out of energy by the third or fourth day.

For more information about what to eat (and what to avoid eating) after a ride, see Eating After the Ride Part 2.

Cycling Nutrition: The Bonk

The information in this post has been moderately revised and combined with information about cramping, dehydration, and electrolyte loss in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on Amazon.com.  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.

So . . . you know that muscles burn glucose for fuel, your body stores enough glucose in the form of glycogen to fuel about 90 minutes of moderate exercise, and you need to ingest carbohydrates to provide more glucose for longer or more strenuous rides.  You know about what to eat and when to eat it to get the carbs you need while you’re on the bike.  But you keep hearing about this “bonk” thing.  You keep hearing you’ll bonk if you don’t get the carbs you need.  What’s this bonk everyone keeps talking about?  Believe me, you don’t want to know.  At least you don’t want to know on the basis of firsthand experience.  Reading about the bonk so you know what it is and how to avoid it is good.  Having a bonk is not good.

Eat before you're hungry

“Bonking” is what cyclists call hypoglycemia which is the medical term for abnormally low levels of blood glucose.  You bonk when you have exhausted your glycogen stores, haven’t ingested enough carbs to produce more blood glucose, and are still riding the bike.  Anyone can bonk if they don’t eat properly on the bike.  Lance Armstrong, who probably knows as much about cycling as anyone on the planet, got wrapped up in the race on a stage in the 2000 Tour de France, forgot to eat, and bonked on the climb up the Col de Joux Plane in the French Alps.  The only reason he didn’t lose the Tour de France that day is because he had an iron will and an inhuman capacity to suffer.  Afterwards he called it the worst day on the bike he’d ever had.

Bonking can be especially deadly for cyclists because your muscles aren’t the only things in your body that burn glucose for fuel.  Your brain burns glucose too.  That means that not having enough glucose in your blood to fuel the system has mental and emotional effects in addition to physical effects.  If blood glucose levels drop too low, the body will act to protect the brain and will begin to shut down the muscles first.  However, the muscles won’t completely shut down before the brain begins to be affected and the mental and emotional consequences of bonking can be more dangerous to the cyclist than the physical consequences.

When you bonk, physical exertion becomes extraordinarily difficult.  Your muscles don’t have the fuel they need to operate effectively and forcing them to work becomes more and more difficult.  You feel extremely weak and lethargic.  You may tremble and shake uncontrollably and sweat profusely.  You feel dizzy and light headed.  Your sense of balance is upset.  You may have heart palpitations.  You will probably feel ravenously hungry.  On the mental and emotional side you will probably feel nervous and anxious.  You may become confused and disoriented.  You will have low emotional control and will become hostile, belligerant and easily irritated.  You may experience overwhelming feelings of being defeated, hopeless and unable to go on.  Your awareness of what’s going on around you will shrink and can arrive at an extreme form of tunnel vision in which the only thing you’re aware of is the spot on the road ahead that you’re staring at.  You may have difficulty speaking.  At the extreme, hypoglycemia can produce seizures and coma.  In a word, it sucks.

What do you do if you bonk?  You need to get your blood glucose levels up and you need to do it quickly.  Ingest simple carbohydrates that can be rapidly processed into blood glucose by the digestive system.  The best source for these kinds of carbs that you’re likely to have with you on the bike is a sports drink like Gatorade.  Other sources of simple carbohydrates include energy gels (make sure you drink plenty of water with these), sugar cubes or sweet candy like gumdrops or jellybeans.  Complex carbohydrates like energy bars will take longer to process into blood glucose and will only provide relief in the longer term.  If you catch the bonk early, you can keep riding while you  refuel.  If you let the bonk go too far, get off the bike until you recover.  You don’t want to be riding when your sense of balance is bad, you’re disoriented and you’re unaware of what’s going on around you.

After you’ve bonked and begun to recover, pay careful attention to what you eat for the rest of the ride and make sure you keep your glucose level up by regularly and frequently taking in fast absorbing carbs.  Sports drinks are very good for this.  Perhaps the hardest part of reacting to a bonk is mental.  You need to try and be aware that you’re not thinking clearly and not being as aware of what’s going on around you as you need to be to ride safely.  Forcibly arouse yourself from your lethargy and pay extra attention to what’s happening around you.  Of course this is easier said than done; it’s not easy to be aware that you’re not thinking clearly when you’re not thinking clearly.

Whether you’ve started to bonk or not, try and get in the habit of monitoring yourself for the early signs of a bonk.  The ride beginning to feel like a chore?  Getting irritable and angry?  Not paying as much attention to what’s happening around you?  If you catch it early and replenish your blood glucose before it gets out of hand, you can usually keep riding safely and effectively.  If you have a regular riding partner whose riding abilities and demeanor on the bike are familiar to you, be aware of their condition as well.  A rider who isn’t thinking clearly is likely to misinterpret or misunderstand what’s happening to them in the early stage of a bonk.  Help them out.  Be aware that you may have to treat them carefully as they may be experiencing increased levels of irritability and hostility combined with decreased emotional control.  If you think you might be bonking, tell your ride partner so they can help you.

Most of the time bonking happens when you’ve ridden for a long time and haven’t been eating properly.  However, a bonk can also happen in unexpected circumstances.  Laura and I once rode in a week-long cycling tour through the Rocky Mountains in the Glacier National Park area in Montana and Canada.  We approached this tour as a cycling vacation rather than a training opportunity and rode at a much slower pace than we usually do.  We also stopped and had lunch mid-ride with other riders on the tour which was something we had never done before.  The lunches were great with good company and good food but we had no experience in how to incorporate eating a meal like this into a long ride.  The first time we had lunch mid-ride I completely screwed it up.  We continued riding after lunch and when we were about 20 miles from finishing I began to experience the early stages of a bonk.  What had happened?  I hadn’t pigged out at lunch but even a small lunch was much more than I would typically eat during a ride.  My stomach was full and the idea of eating either didn’t occur to me or, if it did, it wasn’t attractive.  Although my stomach was full, it was full of mostly protein and fat which could not be broken down fast enough to provide the energy I needed to finish the ride.  I was getting very little glucose from the food I’d eaten and my glycogen stores were exhausted so I started to bonk and didn’t recognize it for what it was.  Those last 20 miles were miserable; the temperature had dropped, we were riding directly into a strong headwind, and I was completely demoralized and shivering uncontrollably by the time we reached the lodge where we were scheduled to stay the night.  Fortunately, the lodge had an enormous fire roaring in the center of the main area with a bench-like hearth running around it on all four sides.  While we waited for the van to arrive with our luggage, I sat huddled by the fire in a private little world of misery slowly recovering and getting warm.  The lesson I learned?  You can bonk on a full stomach if your stomach’s full of the wrong things.

As unpleasant and dangerous as bonking can be, the good news is that it’s easily avoided.  Start your clock as soon as you get on the bike and eat regularly and properly throughout the ride and you’ll never have to experience a bonk.  Eat before you’re hungry, eat before you bonk.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike

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 Juan Antonio Flecha grabbing a musette bag of food during the 2007 Tour de France - piscture from daylife.cominjury, 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 Raisin - good source of carbs and easy to eat on the bike - picture from azarsahand.combike.  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.

 

Cycling Nutrition: The Basics – Glucose, Glycogen and Carbohydrates

More information about the basics of fueling the muscles and hydration can be found in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on Amazon.com.  For information about the book and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

While proper nutrition is one of the most important factors affecting long-distance cycling on a day-in, day-out basis, there is so much misinformation out there that knowing what to eat and when to eat it can be Burning glucosedifficult.  Part of the reason for this is that it’s early days yet for nutrition science; much remains to be learned and nutritional theories are often revised as new information becomes available.  Another reason is that the subject of sports nutrition is confused in the minds of many with the subject of dieting.  Unfortunately, dieting in the US is a multimillion dollar industry that is fat with fads and outright foolishness.  Finally, many cyclists seem to have a deep emotional commitment to their cycling-related eating habits and resist change.  In these Cycling Nutrition posts I’ll try to present nutritional information that is based on research found in peer-reviewed scientific journals on nutrition and cycling and endurance sports in general.  In this post we look at the basics of how muscles are fueled that underlie every discussion of nutrition for cyclists. In other posts we examine eating during a ride, eating after the ride, and bonking.

Muscles burn glucose for energy.  The longer you ride or the faster you ride, the more glucose your muscles need for fuel.  When you get on the bike and start pedaling, the demand for glucose for your leg muscles increases and a signal goes out to the body to start supplying the glucose you need.

Glycogen and glucose

Where does the glucose come from?  The body doesn’t store raw glucose.  Instead, it makes glucose from other substances.  Glucose can be derived from breaking down stored fat and protein.  Subcutaneous fat (the excess fat stored under the skin) is an especially good energy source because fat contains roughly twice the number of calories as either protein or carbohydrate.  This means you get more fuel in the form of blood glucose from breaking down a gram of fat than from a gram of either protein or carbohydrate.  Indeed, breaking down stored fat to increase the level of blood glucose is the reason why exercise leads to weight loss.  The problem with relying on breaking down fat to produce glucose is that the process is relatively slow and energy intensive.  Metabolizing (breaking down) fat can be a useful long term source of energy but it is too slow and inefficient to support immediate and short term demands for glucose to fuel ongoing athletic activity.

In order to have fast access to glucose when needed, excess glucose in the blood is stored in a form known as glycogen.  Glycogen can be quickly broken down to supply glucose as needed.  The main storage locations for glycogen in the body are the muscles and the liver.  Liver glycogen is volatile in the sense that it doesn’t last long.  This is because liver glycogen serves as an energy source for the entire body.  When liver glycogen is metabolized the glucose that is produced enters the blood stream and can be used any place in the body where it’s needed.  If you go to bed with with liver glycogen stored at maximum capacity, a large proportion of it will be gone when when you wake up because it was used to fuel the body’s needs while you slept.

Muscle glycogen is more stable in the sense that once stored it remains in place much longer.  This is because muscle glycogen does not enter the bloodstream.  The glycogen stored in an individual muscle can only provide glucose for that muscle.

So, you’re pedaling along burning glucose derived from glycogen stored in your liver and your cycling muscles and everything’s just peachy.  Until you run out of stored glycogen.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.  What happens when that glycogen is used up?  Where do your muscles get the glucose they need to keep working?  Some of it can come from fat that has been slowly breaking down while you’ve been riding but that won’t be enough to supply your needs.  Once you’ve exhausted your glycogen stores, most of the glucose you need is going to come from what you’ve been eating and drinking during the ride.  This is where carbohydrates enter the picture.

Basic nutrition for any endurance sport such as cycling is primarily about carbohydrates for the simple reason that carbs can be broken down to supply glucose much more quickly and efficiently than either fats or proteans.  While you’re on the bike you need a steady supply of carbs to both fuel ongoing activity and stretch the time before your stored glycogen is completely exhausted.  When you’re off the bike you need carbs to replace the glycogen you burned during the ride you just finished.  For anyone engaged in an athletic activity that lasts for 90 minutes or more, carbs are what basic nutrition is all about.