Poor fuelling is probably the most common cause of a lacklustre performance in cycling. In fact, proper nutrition and fuelling is vital in any endurance sport, but none more so than when you’re spending 3-4 hours in the saddle maintaining a steady 25mph.
To understand how to fuel, we first need to understand how your body uses energy.
We all have two energy stores. One is fat and is stored throughout our body. The other is carbohydrates and is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Carbohydrate can also be stored as triglycerides in fat tissue.
Fat as energy
However much we might hate it, body fat has a huge part to play in our overall health and performance. Body fat is an incredibly efficient way of storing energy for later use. It’s just a shame we can only really access it at low intensity.
Our bodies burn fat most efficiently at 50% effort or less. Increase effort to 75% intensity and fat burning reduces to a mere 10-20%. So, to burn fat stores, you need to find a cruising speed where you’re only putting in around half your effort. Unless you’re a pro rider, that isn’t feasible for a sportive.
According to a recent article in Cyclist magazine, a rider weighing 70kg and having 10% body fat has around 52,000 calories stored within that fat!
Carbohydrate as energy
Carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. Liver glycogen is there to stop sugar levels running too low. Muscle glycogen is where the real stores are. This energy store is only usually accessed once you begin using the muscles.
The downside of using carbohydrate as energy is our store of it is much more limited than that of fat. The average, fit rider will only have enough carbs stored to last 2 hours intensive exercise. That means managing carb intake is vital for sportive riding.
However, we can access carbohydrate faster than we can fat stores, which is why we concentrate on it as fuel for high intensity exercise.
Training your body
You can train your body to utilise your fat stores more readily through endurance training. While it can never replace carb stores, you can train your body to make more fat available for energy. To do this, you simply have to put in the miles.
As you demand more of your body, it adjusts accordingly. Not only do your muscles become more efficient at burning energy and oxygen, they also get to use fat as energy more efficiently. The more you ride, the more your body has to adapt. Make some of your training high miles with reasonable intensity and it will also adjust the rate at which it makes fat available as fuel.
So let’s get back to fuelling for a sportive.
The accepted rule is to take in a gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. So if you’re 75kg, you need 75g of carbs per hour to maintain energy levels. Ideally, that carbohydrate should come from a mixture of food, drink and gels.
With food, little and often is good practice. Don’t eat too much in the saddle as your body will have to divert blood from your muscles to aid digestion. It can also lead to dehydration and cramp. Plus, little and often keeps your metabolism ticking over and delivering a steady supply of energy to your system. Much better over the longer race.
Drink should be predominantly water to replace losses. So if you do use energy drinks to maintain pace, make sure you have another bottle of water and mix your intake so you’re continually hydrating.
Gels are good for the short hit and should be taken alongside food. You will probably find you need to drink water after a gel to wash it down. Factor this into your carrying capacity.
So, with all that said, let’s look at a typical sportive.
The night before
Fuelling for a sportive should begin the day before. Eat several small, healthy meals throughout the day. If you want to carb load and you know it works for you, do that as your main meal. Many pros will eat a pasta dinner before a race the next day to achieve this.
Your mother probably told you that a good breakfast sets you up for the day. She was right. A good breakfast will also set you up for the race. Allow a good 2 hours between breakfast and the start of the sportive to allow the full benefit of the food and to complete digestion.
We suggest starting with a bowl of porridge. It contains lots of goodness and slow release energy, which is nice. If you can’t handle porridge, consider granola cereal with fruit and yoghurt or jam on toast if you have to. Eat well, but don’t overdo it. A coffee or two won’t hurt either.
If your sportive has an early start, don’t load up the breakfast. The closer you eat to the race, the smaller your portion needs to be. So, the smaller your breakfast, the more you’ll have to eat in the saddle.
During the sportive
The amount you need to eat during the ride depends on your fitness, the intensity and the distance involved. Unfortunately, only training and practice will tell you the answer to that.
However, use the one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour calculation to give you a rough figure. Factor in climbs and sprints into that too while you’re doing your route research. You will also need to factor in the location of feed stations too so you carry enough to get you safely between them.
Using our 75kg rider example from above, you might need:
- 500ml of energy drink and a large banana
- Large flapjack and a gel
- A couple of cereal bars and a large banana
- An energy bar and a peanut butter sandwich
You get the idea.
Try before you race
One of the most importance pieces of advice we have for new sportive riders is to never use food, energy drinks or gels that you have tried before. Our bodies are fussy machines and sometimes they will simply not like what we give them.
Add a stressful situation such as a race into the equation and you have a lot of potential for rejection. If you know you’re going to enter a sportive or two, begin trying energy gels, different energy drinks and food during your training rides.
We all have gels we simply can’t work with and others that hit the spot. That’s something you need to learn well in advance of the sportive, not during it!
While fuelling depends on carbohydrates, your body needs water to digest and process them. It also needs water to replace sweat and to maintain bodily functions while you’re putting it under stress.
Lose a mere 2% of body mass as water and your body begins suffering as a result. That means a direct loss of performance when you need it least.
Climate, temperature, exercise intensity and personal physiology will all influence the rate at which you lose water. Learn how your body works as soon as you can. As a general rule, aim to drink at least 500-750ml of water per hour during a sportive.
Make this a mixture of water and electrolyte drinks to replenish those lost through sweat. Drink a mixture of both between feed stations and calculate how much you’re going to need to carry during your route planning.
Fuelling for a sportive is a combination of knowing your capabilities and carrying enough food and drink to sustain yourself. It’s also about not carrying more than you need to while having enough there in case of emergencies.
Nobody said it was easy, but practice and training will give you all the answers you need to devise your own strategy.