Eating during a ride is essential for anything over 90 minutes at moderate intensity. Your body can store enough glycogen to cope with anything up to that time, once over that, it needs more to maintain activity levels. Increase that intensity and that time reduces accordingly.
Eating during a ride is something most of us will need to get into the habit of doing. Knowing what our body is going to need and when is something that comes with experience but can also be taught. That’s what this page is all about.
So, we know that muscles burn glycogen right? If you have read “Fuelling for a sportive,” you will already know that we have an easy-access store of energy stored in our liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. We also store energy as fat, but this takes longer to access.
To keep our bodies running at a high level of efficiency and intensity, we need to optimise our glycogen levels and keep the tank topped up. That’s where eating in the saddle comes in.
Most pro team nutritionists recommends 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise. This is because we can metabolise a gram of carbohydrate a minute, so to keep a steady rhythm going, that 60 gram limit is regarded as ideal.
What happens if I don’t eat during a ride?
If you don’t eat during a ride, your body will eventually run out of energy more quickly. Once your 90 minute “carb tank” has run dry, your body has to begin metabolising fat to provide that energy. That takes longer and requires a much lower intensity of movement to achieve.
The result will be significant loss of energy, possible loss of concentration, awareness and impaired judgement. You may also become annoyed, irritable and feel low. If your energy store gets really low, you may even bonk.
Bonk: The cycling term for hypoglycaemia. When blood sugar levels are so low your body doesn’t have the energy to maintain all body function and the rate at which you’re exercising. It can result in dizziness, a faint head, impaired eyesight and a desire to eat everything you see.
What should I eat?
The short answer is foods that contain plenty of carbohydrate. Carbohydrate can be broken down quickly and efficiently into glucose which the body uses as energy. Your body can extract energy from protein and fats too, but that takes time, energy and most importantly for a cyclist, water.
We have a hard enough time as it is maintaining good levels of hydration. We don’t want to be eating foods that drain energy and water even more. That’s why carbohydrate is so important. It needs very little water to digest and the process is relatively efficient.
Essentially, carbohydrate is for riding and fat and protein is for afterwards.
Choosing your food
In an ideal world, you would eat pasta or rice while riding as they contain lots and lots of carbs. However that’s not practical so you have to be selective about what you take with you.
Whatever you choose to take has to fit into your jersey pocket, has to be able to resist heat and moisture, be easy to open and be practical to eat. It isn’t easy to balance all those requirements, but it is possible.
Your first option is to buy energy bars. Cycling-friendly bars such as Powerbar or High5 Energy bar have been designed to pack in as much carbohydrate as possible while keeping fat and protein low. For example, a High5 bar contains 40g of carbohydrate and only 3g of protein and 2g of fat.
The downside to buying energy bars is the expense. While proportionate to other sports nutrition products, they aren’t cheap.
Your second option is to make your own food to take with you or to take natural foods. For example bananas are great cycling food. Despite being high Gi, they are practical, travel well and contain carbs. Other options are jam sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, apples, homemade flapjack or cookies or other high carb treat.
The third option is liquid carbs. They come in the form of gels and energy drinks. For longer periods of exercise these are useful as quick delivery mechanisms for carbohydrate.
Be careful when using either of these and practice taking each before a big event or competition. Energy gels and drinks are very rich and our bodies won’t like or cope well with all of them. Try them and find one that works for you.
Variety is good
As with any aspect of your diet, variety is key. If you ate nothing but energy gels on a three hour ride, your body would soon be swimming in liquid carbohydrate and so would your stomach. This could easily lead to being sick, feeling nauseous and you quickly getting fed up with gels.
To avoid this, take a combination of solid food, energy drink and gels depending on how far you’re going, for how long, at what intensity.
Get into the habit of eating while riding even if you’re not competing. Forcing your body to adjust to digesting while exercising is an essential tool in your armoury whether you compete or not.
Equally, training your brain to accept eating and drinking as part of a ride is just as important. Some people just cannot make themselves eat while out on the bike. This needs to be overcome. The same for drinking.
You need to use timing or experience to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty. The theory that when you’re thirsty is already too late has been debunked by science, but you do need to pre-empt your body’s requirement for hydration.
Getting into the habit of sipping water with food and/or during a ride is something your body really will thank you for!
Water is as important as carbohydrate
To digest anything, your body needs water. So if you’re eating a gel or an energy bar, sip water along with it. Don’t overdo the carbs by sipping your energy drink at the same time, save that for later.
If you eat a gel without flushing it down with water, it just sits in your stomach. Adding water helps break down the carbohydrate immediately, so it enters your system faster. So get into the habit of only drinking water while taking on carbs and saving energy drinks for sipping in-between. That way, your body will receive what it needs, when it needs it.
Eating during a ride takes practice and experimentation. You will find that certain foods, gels or bars that taste fine when you’re relaxed taste completely different while riding. Try as many varieties as you need to and then settle on the brands you’re most comfortable with to get the most out of them.
Key points for eating during your ride
- A variety of foods is key
- Drink water with your energy bar or gel
- Little and often is essential
- Don’t try new gels, drinks or bars on the day of an event
- Eat before you’re hungry
- Drink before you’re thirsty
- Sip energy drinks between eating to maintain levels